Luckily, I stumbled upon “Reviving Ophelia” by Dr. Mary Pipher, a fascinating and highly disturbing book about the terrifying things that happen with girls between ages 12-15. Although we are still in preschool phase, the teenage years have me so worried I am already researching strategies. Pipher compares girls entering teenage years with the toddler phase. They have wild mood swings, refuse to communicate, and are out of control with the downpour of new emotions and pressures. Excellent, a 12 year toddler who is alone most of the day, can hide, lie and have unsupervised playdates. Freaking terrifying.
Pipher saw the same patterns among young girls in her therapy practice and wrote a book to sound the alarm. These patterns include a variety of themes for parents of young toddlers to start fretting about: severe depression, drug use, loss of self esteem, eating disorders, self abuse, and turning away from parents and most activities they previously enjoyed. Reluctantly, I must admit I passed through a variation of this phase myself and behaved in ways that make me cringe with embarrassment and fear of karmic retribution from my kids.
Pipher connects the images we see in every day media and the pressure girls feel to look and behave in a way that takes away their power and makes their interests not cool or desirable for girls. Girls who loved sports and science suddenly feel they can choose to fit in by shifting their interests their appearance or stay outside of the popular groups, which at a vulnerable age takes enormous confidence. Pipher describes how preadolescent girls are mostly joyful, confident beings full of interest in practically everything- nature, sports, art, history. When these girls enter junior high, everything changes.
With puberty, girls face enormous cultural press to split into false selves. The pressure comes from schools, magazines, music, television, advertisements and movies. It comes from peers. Girls can be true to themselves and risk abandonment by their peers, or they can reject their true selves and be socially acceptable.”
Pipher describes 3 factors contributing to the issues among girls entering teenage years. The first issue is developmental changes.
Girls become fragmented, their selves split into mysterious contradictions. They are sensitive and tenderhearted, mean and competitive, superficial and idealistic. They are confident in the morning and overwhelmed with anxiety by nightfall. They rush through their days with wild energy and then collapse into lethargy. They try on new roles every week – this week the good student, next week the delinquent and the next, the artist.
The second issue is the problem of evaluating a person on their appearance. Our culture is overwhelmingly focused on a conventional standard of beauty. In France there is a term for women are are not conventionally pretty. Jolie Laide is literally translated to ugly pretty. A girl who is Jolie Laide is not conventional, but pretty, mysterious and special in a unique way. While girls and women in the US often struggle to conform to a common image of beauty, French women and men understand it is often more interesting to be different and that difference makes someone sexy and beautiful. This one powerful cultural difference can relieve so much pain, suffering and angst if our girls can understand the power of their unique beauty and femininity. Also a good moment to say Lena Dunham, I thank you and I adore you for being so freaking Jolie Laide and baring all your neurosis and imperfect body to the world.
While girls in the US struggle to be “popular”, in France being liked by everyone is considered the opposite of sexy. Debra Olliver’s book, “What French Women Know”, goes into detail on the cultural difference between the US and France, with attention to views on female beauty, body image, cultural rules, and how a cultural difference makes an enormous impact in women’s lives.
The third issue, our culture pressures young girls to distance themselves from their parents and a moment when they most need their support. While girls are struggling with pressure to change, conform and leave their childhood, is it uncool to confide or maintain close relationships with their parents so they turn to peers who are often just as lonely and confused. Like a predictable formula, girls begin to separate from “embarrassing parents”, assert their independence and find themselves by rebelling. If they have additional stress in their lives such as divorce, or parents who are incapable of providing support, they are even more likely to get in serious trouble at this age.
How to handle a 12 year old toddler? Pipher cites several research studies and her own experience to explain how parents that are too permissive have a higher chance of girls in serious trouble during this stage. Provide tons of love, and set firm boundaries. The possibility of watching my daughter lose her confidence and let boys or girls make her feel less because of what she wears or the size of her breasts or behind is terrifying. How should parents avoid the storm of pressure to behave like a “cool or popular” girl? How do we make a plan for making our daughters feel they can be strong and competent without being bitchy, or top students without feeling like class nerds? How do we shelter and encourage them to keep striving for excellence and not abandoning their interests?
How will I prepare for this battle? Surrounding her with strong role models, nurturing interests, love for outdoors, getting her excited, curious about life, and telling her every day her worth is not on her physical appearance but on the contents of her mind and soul. I will make Jolie Laide a constant topic of conversation. Of course I know all my attempts can be shattered by events completely out of my control, but it won’t stop me from trying. I want my daughter and her friends to feel confident in creating their own definitions of beauty.
There are hundreds of example of strong and intelligent women who are successful and beautiful at the same time. Women who are not conventionally pretty, but their beauty is undeniable and magnetic to men. I plan to plaster her walls with these role models, and she will know each one by name, and she will know her power.