Beautiful Butterfly

Dear Reader:

If it takes a village to raise a child, what happens when there is no village anymore?

In a mass-market culture that views children and teens as a “consumer group” rather than as young people who need guidance regarding societal norms, ethical behavior, and self-discovery, parents are left with the awesome responsibility of accomplishing this task alone. Not only do parents lack societal support, but also they very often have to fight against societal trends which run counter to family cohesiveness, ethical behavior, values based on religious or philosophical beliefs, and even plain common sense.

While I acknowledge that parents should be responsible, ultimately, for the values, education, and social skills their children need to become healthy, functioning adults, I also believe that raising children would be much easier if we had strong, local communities. For instance, it would be reassuring to know that when your child went over to visit a friend over-town, the values you have instilled in your child would be reinforced by the other child’s parents. And when your daughter decides to practice her independence by arguing in favor of a too-revealing outfit, it would be great if other adults in the community gave her the old hairy-eyeball. This kind of dress is inappropriate for our village; now go home and change.

While there is a downside to small, insular communities (they can stifle individuality, persecute those who are deemed “different,” and can be generally hostile to outsiders and outside ideas), the upside is a safer, more protected environment in which to raise our children. Now, with a “flat” world made at once vast and intimate by the internet, social media, and cable television, things like town lines and village boundaries have little, if any, relevance.

Hollywood is in the family room. A morally-bankrupt music industry is plugged directly into the ear canal. Your son’s “community” resides on an internet gaming site, while your daughter’s clique spends more time typing messages on Facebook or texting on their cell phones than they do actually talking. (I have the urge to italicize “talking” as if it is some weird variant of “texting” instead of the other way around.)

These issues are forefront in my mind these days because I am now the mother of an adolescent. Desperate to find some answers regarding the weird, wacky, infuriating, annoying behavior of my almost-teen, I checked a book out of the local library.

Reviving Ophelia

REVIVING OPHELIA was written in 1994 by Dr. Mary Pipher. I’d heard of the book previously, when my daughter was just entering elementary school, and I tucked the title into the back of my mind years ago so I could pull it out when we reached this inevitable stage. One night I made myself a cup of tea and cracked open the cover. As with a horror story you can’t bear to put down until you get to that last, final blood-soaked page, I read it straight through over the next couple of days, whenever I had a spare moment.

In the first chapter, Saplings In A Storm, Pipher writes, “In early adolescence, studies show that girls’ IQ scores drop and their math and science scores plummet. They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. They lose their assertive, energetic and ‘tomboyish’ personalities and become more deferential, self-critical and depressed. The report great unhappiness with their own bodies.” (pg. 19)

Pipher then goes on to explain three big factors that make adolescent girls vulnerable to the societal pressures to conform to our American culture’s feminine ideal– an ideal based on size, beauty, and sex-appeal. First, a girl in early adolescence is at a developmental level where everything is changing at once: hormones, skin, body, cognitive skills, etc. Second, American culture tends to emphasize the importance of appearance. Third, the girls’ culture tells them they need to distance themselves from their parents . . . just when they need the most support as they struggle with personal changes, new experiences and social pressures. (pgs. 22-23).

A large section of REVIVING OPHELIA discusses various clients, case-studies if you will, who are all struggling successfully or unsuccessfully through their adolescent turmoil. The book ends on a somewhat helpful note with tips and ideas to aid the weary and, let’s face it, shell-shocked parent.

What was the scariest aspect of all this for me? It was written sixteen years ago–three years before my daughter was even born! If our culture was bad sixteen years ago, how much worse is it now?

Christina Aguilera

Well, we all know it is much worse. That fact was brought home to me in a very graphic way when I happened upon a website devoted to looking at symbolism in our mass media. The website is called The Vigilant Citizen and is perhaps a bit paranoid when it comes to searching out signs of some vast underground conspiracy bent on controlling our lives via mass media.

However, the author (who refers to himself as Vigilant) gives us an analysis of Christina Aguilera’s latest video which seemed very coherent. . . and disturbingly spot-on.

If you dare, watch the YouTube video. It is disturbing on so many levels. It is an eyelash short of pornography, for one thing. It glorifies the sexual subjugation of women (men, too, actually), for another. It glamorizes S & M with a bejeweled mouth gag–in an image that is at once beautiful and horrifying, at least to this mom. And that’s the worst aspect, I think. Making the horrific beautiful. Maybe I’m a prude, but I watched this video with my mouth hanging open, literally, staring at the computer screen and thinking, “Thank god I don’t have cable; thank god I don’t have cable.”

Until I realized that my daughter’s friends probably have cable.

Until I realized that the BOYS in my daughter’s school probably have cable.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to let her out of the house. THIS is the ideal of feminine beauty in our culture? THIS is what my daughter needs to be in order to fit in to her time and place on the historical continuum? Not only is she told in countless ways every day that “beautiful” is synonymous with “thin” and “tall” and “clearly complected” (and, yes, “blond” still, I’m afraid), now she is told “beautiful” is “gagged” and “voiceless,” nothing more than a sexual toy. How is she to know any better . . . unless I tell her?

Suddenly, it occurs to me that I’ve given my daughter too much leeway in her choice of clothing. In an effort to give her autonomy and expression, I’ve allowed her to conform to a soul-degrading, appearance-driven social norm. She won’t like it, but I’m about to put my parental foot down.

Yes, things have changed in sixteen years, and not for the better. You can hear Dr. Pipher speak on this topic in a documentary-style video put out by ChallengingMedia. Like the book, the video is called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.

If nothing else, it gives you reason to think.

How will knowing all this help me SURVIVE my daughter’s adolescence? From now on, when she is displaying some typical teenage behavior, I’m going to try to remember that no matter how unhappy I may be feeling at the moment, she’s feeling one-hundred times worse. No matter how stressful my life might seem, hers is on a scale I can scarcely imagine. Will I fight to keep her safe? Yes. Will I try to help her become her own, independent person? Yes. Will it be easy?

Heck, no. I think that hot baths, yoga, and glasses of Merlot will be de rigueur for this mom over the next few years. Eventually, though, she and I will emerge from the storm, stronger for the struggle. At least, that is what I hope.


In the meantime, I’m going to look for ways that I can support societal change that supports, rather than destroys, women. As for mass media, I don’t believe in governmental censorship. I do believe in educating the public about the dangers of allowing certain types of mass media into the home. I do believe in talking to kids about the messages mass media is sending out. I do believe in saying, “This does not represent MY values. Here’s what I think. What about you?”

What about you? What do you think about issues of mass media, adolescent culture, censorship, etc.? Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.

4 responses to “SURVIVING Ophelia.

  1. That video is very disturbing, as are half the pop-music videos that are produced today. Your focus on having a conversation with your daughter is the key. I firmly believe that children and adolescents more often adopt their parents values than not, even when they continually try to rebel, as long as you keep communicating. And I think when you see children (or teenagers) who appear to be from stable, middle-of-the-road homes acting out, something else is amiss.

    Parents who want to be their child’s “friend” and who fail to take on the very questions you’ve posed here, are the ones who find themselves wondering “what is wrong with this child?” And it doesn’t begin with adolescence – it begins with the two-year-old who is allowed to slam their spoon on the table in a restaurant (isn’t he cute, says mom, while the others in the establishment wish they’d go home). It begins with the five-year-old who hits her parents and is allowed to get away with it. It begins with the seven-year-old girl who is allowed to buy a thong. It begins with the fifteen-year-old who is allowed to date because Mom just can’t say no to this child who is now a full-grown brat. And all along the way the authority of the parent is diminished by allowing the child to influence their decisions – a child who doesn’t have the ability to discern or to understand consequences, not because there is something wrong with him/her, but because their brain hasn’t finished putting those parts into place.

    Children need their parents to be in charge. You go girl!

    But I suspect you’ve had your hand firmly on the controls all along, and the fact that you read that book is an indication of your interest and concern with keeping your own child on the right path and of being there for her.

    Does it take a village – maybe – but first, it takes someone willing to actually be a parent. (Let the tomatoes fly!)

  2. This is one heck of an article. Apt and relevent to the times, it gently points out the dichotomy that we as a “modern” society blindly accept. Women have fought against explotation throughout history, some even losing their lives in pursuit of equality. The irony is that the cost of equality, the warring against prim regimes and the expectation (without choice) to stay in the home, also included sexual equality–the pursuit of all things tawdry and banal with an aggression usually attributed to men. Poor us. It has twisted itself into a two-headed dragon, this “equality”–while indeed more accepted as sexually assertive–women still maintain the role of sexual subject. In our Sex and the City culture, it’s okay to pursue sexual gratification with the same fervor as a ridiculously expensive and ugly pair of shoes. The joke is on women, though. We’re still as objectified as the shoes.
    You and I both know what it’s like to endure forced, mutant modesty, where the length of your skirt is measured in accord with the length of your moral code. Neither you nor I, nor anyone with a modicum of brainpower, would suggest we should start wearing below-the-knee pinafores, shun eyeliner and burn copies of “Catcher in the Rye” at sunset.
    There instead has simply got to be a happy medium. And that’s where common sense enters the scene(although I rail at the use of the word “common”, certainly were it more common we wouldn’t be writing down our thoughts thusly).
    Thanks for a great article, for an even better book suggestion, and for making me really think about this issue again. Your daughter is a lucky girl, and it’s obvious you cherish both her and her future, albeit in our murky society. I wish more parents would read this and think.

  3. Oh, yeah. Parents are ultimately responsible for the welfare and upbringing of their kids. I’m just hoping to point out yet another benefit to strengthening community–our kids’ safety.

  4. Jen–Thank you and EXACTLY! (I love your shoe analogy. Brilliant! Want to write a guest blog?)

    There is now no such thing as a “wife and mother” in our mass media culture. There are only “Yummy Mummies.” There are few “career woman” icons. There are mostly “Cougars” and “Carrie Bradshaws.” (Although, I have to admit, I enjoyed Sex and the City when I finally got around to renting it on Netflix. It was one summer’s guilty pleasure.)

    What if I don’t want to be a Yummy Mummy? I say, bring on some modern-day Donna Reed’s and Mary Tyler Moore’s!

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