Reviving Ophelia: A Review

“Adolescence is a border between childhood and adulthood. Like life on all borders, it’s teeming with energy and fraight with danger. Growth requires courage and hard work on the part of the individual, and it requires the protection and nurturing of the environment.” — Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia


I’ve often written about women and women in the media on this blog. It’s a research interest of mine, and a personal labor of love. As a woman, I often find myself wondering “why” and questioning what makes femininity and “whole” womanhood so hard to obtain. Additionally, being a Christian woman in the media business carries its own challenges as well.

I heard about Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia many times before, but recently got the chance to read it. And wow. What a great journey.

This book recounts those tender years of adolescence. The “crashing and burning in a ‘developmental Bermuda Triangle'” as Pipher calls it, or as I like to call it….purgatory. From my own experience, you feel stuck in a body you don’t get–but are starting to like, peers are ruthless and balancing it all gets heavier and heavier each day. Pipher noticed in her psychology practice that pre-teen girls were “coming of age in a media-staruated culture preoccupied with unrealistic ideals of beauty and images of dehumanized sex.”

The book weaves a pragmatic, yet emotional tale of different girls Pipher encountered through counseling. Some good. Some not so good. And some bad. She examines different themes of sexual promiscuity, loneliness, mother/father relationships and friendships that delicately shape a pre-teen’s world. The upside-down nature of adolescence is carefully explained by Pipher and she is able to skillfully decode how a girl feels, thinks, acts and behaves.

What struck me is she doesn’t focus on the scientific changes, but the experiential, or meaning-focused, changes that make girls feel so alien. “Early adolescence is a time of physical and psychological change, self-absorption, preoccupation with peer approval and identity formation. It’s a time when girls focus inward on their own fascinating changes.”

So what this means is, I wasn’t crazy. And neither were you, and neither is your daughter, niece, sister, neighbor, etc.

When after the summer of 7th grade, and I showed up to school with new contacts (no more goggle glasses), no braces and boobs, I wasn’t crazy to realize something had changed. And when I cried sobbed uncontrollably when I was picked on about making the cheerleading squad, I wasn’t alone in the fact that being accepted by “the popular girls” was of utmost importance. And I am considered normal because I got quieter, disconnected from family and favored my own issues above anyone else. What’s lucky for me is I had a solid foundation and a loving, supportive family to carry me through.

The book does go into deeper detail about specific stories and more serious issues than my own obsession with *NSYNC, and how I can now consider that normal because it was part of my “identity formation…” right? Pipher expands on experiences with sexual assault, depression, divorce and all the waves of emotion that can befall a daughter if she has no stronghold to surround her.

I strongly recommend this book to any woman (or interested man). If not only for catharsis (or a reminder that you’re not crazy for obsessing over that one look that one cute guy gave you in 2nd period), but to better understand the daughters around you. I was lucky to have a family and a group of friends that let me breathe and provided discipline when necessary to make sure I understood they were there when I needed them. But not all girls are so lucky. And I think it is critical we are aware and able to fight for these girls. Fight for their right to grow up in a safe environment. To have space, but also security blankets.

As Pipher eloquently puts it “Utopia for teenage girls would be a place in which they are safe and free, able to grow and develop in an atmosphere of tolerance and diversity and protected by adults who have their best interest at heart.”