Reviving Girlhood with Mary Pipher & Sara Pipher Gilliam
When Mary Pipher first published Reviving Ophelia in 1994, she changed the way America thinks about teenage girls and their needs. Now she’s back with a new 25th anniversary edition of her landmark book—this time, published with her own daughter, Sara Pipher Gilliam.
From student debt to school shootings to climate change to digital culture, a lot has changed for teen girls in the past 25 years. But many things remain the same: body image issues, anxiety, sexual harassment and abuse. We sat down with Pipher (who you may remember from the spring, when she came on to discuss women, friendship, and aging and Gilliam to talk about what teen girls experience today, what it was like to write a book together, and why it matters so much for all of us that we change our “girl-poisoning culture.”
There’s a strange way in which girls today are never together and never alone. And so the primary building blocks of self—which is to be interacting face-to-face with other people and to be alone reflecting and developing one’s own inner strength—those aren’t occurring right now.—Mary Pipher, co-author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, 25th Anniversary Edition
We chat about:
- How the culture we remember as teen girls in the ‘90s is so very different for teens today
- Why depression among teen girls has gone up and down over the years, where it stands now, and what social media has to do with it
- How Sara Gilliam went from reading her mom’s book for teen authenticity 25 years ago to co-authoring the update with her as an adult
- The ways today’s teen girls helped update Reviving Ophelia for modern times
- How it’s too late for parents and teachers to simply tell teens to stop using smartphones, so it’s important to encourage intentionality around social media and device usage instead
- Why we simply had to get our driver’s licenses immediately
- Exploring the love/hate relationship we had with our early jobs
- Why you need to wear at least two hemp necklaces for school pictures
- Fuck yeah to naps and Netflix breaks during the day
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher We’re back with a new season, thanks to Harvest! They make my favorite business software—yeah, the one I use to get paid. From invoicing to project planning to time tracking, Harvest is the tool for freelancers, agencies, consultants, and anyone who wants to keep their projects and payments running smoothly. Try it free at getharvest.com/strongfeelings and that URL is going to get you 50% off your first paid month. That’s getharvest.com/stronfeelings. [theme music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey everyone, I’m Sara.
Katel LeDû And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Okay, so today for the very first time, we are welcoming a guest back to Strong Feelings! Mary Pipher first joined us in the spring to talk about women and aging, and ended up making us think differently about ourselves and our friendships. Today she is joining us again, this time with her daughter—educator and writer, Sara Pipher Gilliam—and together they cowrote a 25th-anniversary edition of Mary’s bestselling 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. It just came out last month and it got us thinking a lot about our adolescent selves.
SWB [laughing] I wish we had known each other as teens! Do you think we would have been friends? [KL laughs]
KL I absolutely think we would have been friends. I was just thinking about that photo you posted a while back on Instagram. It was definitely from the mid-90s, which is when I was albeit graduating high school, but I feel like I would have wanted to have been friends with that girl in the photo!
SWB Umm… do you mean the school picture I posted that I found at my mom’s house? Like a framed 8×10?
KL [laughing] Yes!
SWB Oh my gosh. Uh… I was wearing a flower print babydoll dress and… how many necklaces?
KL Ughh, I think there’s at least two.
SWB Two necklaces?
KL So good. [laughs]
SWB That was the 8th grade, 1996. So, I think you definitely would not have been friends with me because I would have been in middle school. [KL laughs] But! I would have made you a dope hemp necklace.
KL [laughing] I mean, it would have gone really well with my baja hoodie I wore all the time.
SWB Oh my gosh. The real question is, how many of your pants came from goodwill?
KL Oh, all. All of them. [laughs]
SWB Only from like the old man corduroy section. [laughs]
KL Absolutely. [both laugh]
SWB Okay! So, one of the things that Sara and Mary talk about in this interview is the differences between adolescence in the US today versus in the 1990s when Mary first wrote her book. And one of the shifts that comes up is that teens today apparently don’t go out with their friends as much, and don’t go do things alone as much, and way fewer of them are doing things like getting part-time jobs and getting driver’s licenses. And that’s something that I found [laughs] really hard to relate to. I was so eager for those kinds of markers of adulthood. Sara Gilliam in the interview, she talks about this. She talks about how she was camped out at the DMV on her 16th birthday. [laughs]
KL Oh, I was absolutely at the DMV on my birthday. [laughs] I barely passed the test but I did it and I was just elated, I remember that feeling. And the first car I drove was an old, used Nissan Sentra we got for like $400, and it was a manual that only went to fourth gear—
SWB That’s how many gears I thought was normal at the time. [KL laughs]
KL No, there were definitely five gears. I mean, at least that was the first time I’d seen one [KL laughs] that only went up to four.
SWB Oh, no no no no no. That was pretty typical for old shitty cars.
KL I guess so, I guess so. [SWB laughs] And it didn’t go very fast, which was smart on mom’s part [laughs] because she was sort of like, “hey, you know, you can only go this fast.” But it was really great because all of a sudden I had this very real freedom.
SWB Yeah. I remember I definitely got my learner’s permit the day I was eligible, but that for some reason I remember when I turned 16, I couldn’t get my driver’s license for like two weeks after my birthday. And I can’t remember why. I couldn’t get an appointment at the DMV or because of the timing I couldn’t get anybody to take me or whatever it was. But it was two weeks afterwards and I remember it being this excruciating, long period of time where I was like, “I can’t belieeeeeeve it’s two weeks after my birthday and I still don’t have a license, [KL laughs] how embarrassing!”
KL You’re like, “ugh!” [SWB laughs]
SWB I was so frustrated I had to wait that long! And I think I felt like that about a lot of things as a teen. I was like, “when do I get to move out, when am I going to have my own cellphone, when am I going to have a job, when am I going to go to college parties?” I would go to shows by myself starting at age 16 pretty regularly. I was very much like how can I be capital “I” independent in as many ways as possible? And I guess that was just such a core part of what my teen experience was like, it’s hard for me to imagine something else!
KL Yeah, I mean I feel like I remember being that age and I feel like I just couldn’t get out of high school fast enough, I couldn’t move towards quote unquote “adult things” fast enough. I think a big part of that was having a bunch of older friends. When I was a sophomore in high school, my friends were all seniors, or graduating and starting jobs, or going to state college. I saw them doing all these “grown-up” things like going to college parties and concerts or dance clubs and getting in, but I also saw them getting apartments or buying their first car. And I had a lot of freedom as a teenager, so I think the “adult” stuff just felt more like doing it on my own and maybe not coming home to a room I slept in in my mom’s house. [laughs]
SWB Yeah, so interestingly speaking of a room you slept in in your mom’s house, you didn’t move out though, right?
KL No, not until I was like 25. I mean, mostly that was because I didn’t go to a university, so I didn’t move off to college. And I could have or should have probably gotten my own place, but I didn’t have a lot of money and a lot of my friends, like I said, had apartments, so I just spent a lot of time there.
SWB Ugh, I don’t think I would have been able to handle it! [both laugh] I moved out I think the week of my high school graduation.
SWB My brother was gone for the summer that year, so I was subletting his place. So, I moved in with this truly massive University of Oregon track team hammer thrower.
KL Oh, sure!
SWB Adam was a sweetheart. [KL laughs] He wasn’t a great roommate, [KL laughs] but he was a sweetheart. I mean, to be fair, I also probably wasn’t a great roommate. But I think my rent that summer was only like $285.
SWB I can’t remember exactly. The cost of living was pretty low in Eugene back then. [both laugh] I remember I did have to pay $450 a month when I had my own apartment and—
KL That’s a lot!
SWB —it was a stretch.
SWB It was really hard. I was also on food stamps and I was working as many hours as I could while I was in school. And I had scholarships, which was a big part of it. But for me, I remember that $450 month payment being like *mimes choking.* [KL laughs] Like wow, how are we going to do that? And so I can understand the money saving of staying at home, but I guess I was always so committed to independence that it was like whatever it takes, including however many hours I got to work, I will work that many hours.
KL Yeah, totally. So, what was your first proper job? Like one you had to fill out a W4 before the first day?
SWB Yeah, so that was in high school; I worked at a gym. I actually started out doing childcare and cleaning for the gym and then I got promoted to front desk, which was pretty exciting! Before that, I had done things like babysitting and I had done some work for my dad’s small business, but the gym job was my first real real job. I think that that was right at the end of my junior year of high school. What was yours? What was your first real one?
KL First real job where I got a paycheck was at a plant nursery. It was the year before I started driving because I was kind of like, “alright, I’m going to need gas money or I’m going to start driving and doing things.” It was at a plant nursery. I think I definitely got paid mostly in cash, which was kind of shady. [laughs]
SWB Oof! I’m not sure that was a real job! [both laugh]
KL It was…who knows. But then I got a job at the medical park near the local hospital as a receptionist in the physical therapy office and that an official job. I had to wear khakis and a polo shirt and a nametag. [laughs]
SWB Ah yes. I had that exact same uniform at the gym! [KL laughs] Khakis, polo, name tag. Sooooo professional…ugh!
KL Yeah, totally!
SWB Gosh, it’s funny. I think part of the reason it was hard to get a job earlier where I lived was you absolutely needed to have a car or you had to have parents who would drop you off at work.
SWB Which was definitely not a family that I had. You just couldn’t get anywhere if you didn’t drive.
SWB It depends so much on where you live in this country. But for me, a big part of it was as soon as I was able to drive myself around, I was like, “okay, now I can handle this.”
KL Yeah! And I actually loved going somewhere and doing something that was sort of a routine. It was a different kind of accountability than reporting to teachers and having to do homework. And like you, I liked having some money that was my own to do with what I wanted.
SWB Yeah, it’s interesting you mention that you liked going and having a routine because I hated my shitty jobs on one level—nobody likes those jobs.
KL Yeah, for sure.
SWB I definitely cleaned some really gross things out of locker rooms.
SWB Didn’t love it! But there was something about being responsible and having a shift that was mine. Unlike school, which was a thing you had to go to which you had never really chosen, this was something that I had tried to get this job, I had then been offered the job, so this was mine. And it made me feel kind of like, “oh, you’re a real person in the world.” You know?
SWB And I think looking back, even in all of those crappy jobs I had because I had a series of them, I was always really eager to take on new responsibility, I was always taking on more hours. And some of it was definitely financial. We did not have money and I was a teenager who wanted things. I wanted to be able to buy clothes or CDs or whatever.
KL Ugh, yeah.
SWB And I also wanted the status of having things, right?
SWB Because you fit in when you have CDs or clothes or whatever. And I had to buy things like clove cigarettes—a very important expense.
SWB Ugh, it was so gross. Please don’t smoke clove cigarettes.
KL [laughing] So gross.
SWB And then I also had really important expenses. To be honest, I was using my paychecks to pay for things like the SATs and college application fees. Did I tell you I scored outrageously high on the SATs?
KL Oh my god, I’m not surprised.
SWB Like very, very, very high. And I had a perfect GPA that I protected so carefully.
KL Yeah, you’ve got to!
SWB I only applied to one school because it was like $75 per school to apply and I was like, “that’s 15 hours of work, I can’t afford to do this over and over again!”
KL Yeah, oh my god! I feel that so much! [laughs] I did not do great on the SATs…
SWB That’s okay! They don’t actually mean anything, let me be clear. I just happened to be very good at them! [both laugh]
KL I mean, that’s good that I know that now, but I’m very actually proud of you in retrospect, [both laugh] I think that is a big accomplishment! But I did take AP tests and I placed out of a couple 101 classes for college. But I wasn’t even as proud of the placement as I was that I wouldn’t have to pay for those courses when I got to college. And I also only applied to one school for that same reason!
SWB Recently I’ve been thinking a little bit more about this period of my life, and I was actually talking about some of this with my therapist. Something I realise now is that I also had this very deep sense of there not really being space for me at home to need things. And that sort of transcended financial reasons.
SWB My parents were splitting up in this very dramatic way when I was in high school, we had very little money, and I think I decided that the best thing that I could do was need as little as possible. Don’t need things, assume that Sara is taken care of because she’ll figure it out, don’t worry about me.
SWB And I think even further than that, if I go all the way back to middle school, I had this really really traumatic thing happened in middle school where I was bullied incessantly for years [KL groans] because of a truth or dare game gone awry at a Christian camp.
SWB You can fill in the blanks. It wasn’t good! So, I remember finally telling my parents about it and my dad going down to the school to demand that they do something about it… [KL sighs] and that just made it worse!
KL Yeah, of course.
SWB And then he came home and I got screamed at and grounded because I had quote unquote “lied to him” because I hadn’t told him about it originally. And he was like, “you’re grounded for lying.”
KL Ughh god.
SWB And, of course, it’s so sad to me now to think about that because it’s like yeah, I wasn’t honest about what was going on because I felt so ashamed of everything and because it was so hard to talk about.
SWB And the fact that he couldn’t see that and he made it all about himself—anyway! For many, many reasons, I feel like I had learned by this point just to not express needs. Pay your own way, figure it out for yourself, just always be fine at all costs because help isn’t coming and if it comes, it’s not help anyway.
KL Right. [sighs] God, Sara, that is a lot to carry. I definitely see how that shaped things for you. [SWB laughs]
SWB [laughing] I do tend to be somewhat independent—
SWB —and maybe sometimes not to my own benefit! Part of me sees these studies about how teens today are different than that and are less likely to want to push for independence and I think, “well, gosh, independence is really good, going and getting jobs is good! You need to figure out how to handle things like having your own responsibilities and bills and finances, you need to learn how to make decisions on your own, etc.” And I think that that’s true, but then it’s also like being at the extreme end of that is not great. [laughs]
SWB And there were some really big costs to my feelings about needing independence. Obviously, there’s the piece where I just felt really alone about a lot of things, but there’s also all of these ways tht I was playing adult that were not totally safe. I would go with my kind of bad girl friends to some very sketchy parties, I started quote unquote “dating”—
SWB —this way older guy and that was a really bad scene that was not healthy. And I was definitely not going to tell anybody about it who could have told me otherwise. [laughs]
KL Yeah! I mean, half of me doesn’t know how I’d handle that if I had kids—
KL —figuring out how to try to protect them or spare them from risky stuff. But then I also think hell, I did a lot of risky ass shit like trying drugs, and always breaking curfew, and having sex pretty early, and I’m…okay? Question mark? [laughs] But I did get into some trouble, surely I did. Could I have made really stupid decisions and gotten into even more trouble? Yeah, probably. But I do also think a lot of kids and young people are not treated with enough trust and respect.
SWB Yeah. So, I think it’s hard; there’s never really going to be a perfect balance because every kid is different. And also, the world doesn’t always work out like you think. Sometimes bad shit just happens, sometimes you do risky stuff but you turn out fine—
SWB —sometimes that stuff can be really traumatic and stick with you. There’s just so many different ways things can go. But I do think for me, it would have helped me a lot to have more trust and respect. And I think that particularly with my dad because what I ended up having was a fair bit of fear because I felt like I couldn’t talk about things that were actually happening because then I might get in trouble and so I had definitely learned to be secretive. And not only was I secretive, I also was pretty against listening to adult advice by this point!
SWB And I think a lot of teens [laughs] are against listening to adult advice—
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB —I get that that’s pretty normal. But I think part of it was I didn’t really feel anyone was listening to me or understood me… so why listen to them? So, that again was just leading me down this path of just figuring it all out alone and that was not always a good path.
KL Ugh, yeah. None of this is totally clear or easy. This interview with Mary and Sara really helped me think about how it all continues to play out in adulthood—we’re sitting here talking about all of this. And there are so many things that change, but also stay the same with each new generation that comes along.
SWB I think it really gave me some good insight into what teens today are dealing with because I had kind of assumed it was pretty much the sort of thing that I was dealing with. I hadn’t really thought enough about how they might be different, so that was so valuable to me and I feel like I learned a ton. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Mary Pipher & Sara Gilliam
SWB Today we’re talking with Mary Pipher, who you might remember from episode 56 back in April when we talked about women and aging. We loved talking with Mary so much, we knew we needed to have her back and this time to talk about a very different age group—adolescent girls. And we’re also joined by someone extra special, which is Mary’s daughter! Sara Pipher Gilliam is an educator and a writer, and together they co-wrote a brand new 25th-anniversary edition of Mary’s landmark book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. So, Sara, welcome to Strong Feelings and, Mary, welcome back. We’re so excited to talk with you both today.
Mary Pipher Thank you very much.
SWB So, first up, for those listeners who aren’t familiar with Reviving Ophelia, Mary can you tell us a little bit about the original project? What led you to write the book and what went into it?
MP Well, I published Reviving Ophelia in 1994 and I was a therapist in private practice in Lincoln, Nebraska. My office was filled with teenage girls in trouble. They were in trouble because of conflicts with parents, trouble at school with grades and teachers, refusing to go to school. And then many at-risk behaviors—girls were drinking, staying out late at night, involved with early sexual behavior, a lot of pregnancy, a lot of STDs. So, parents were bringing in girls who were angry in conflict with them. Lots of times had been in trouble of some kind with the law or had a car wreck or were pregnant. And nobody really knew what was going on or how to deal with those girls. The current theory at that time was the dysfunctional model—family model—which was basically if a girl was in trouble, it’s because something was wrong in the family, especially with their mother and her parents. But girls were particularly angry at their mothers because mothers were supposed to be the people that kept them safe and emotionally grounded. And when they didn’t feel that way, somehow it ended up being their mom’s fault. So, what I felt when I was doing therapy with these girls is, first of all, a lot of these girls that I was seeing were the brightest and the best. They were smart, they were mature, but they were in trouble not at home, but they started having trouble when they hit the big middle schools here in town and encountered sexual harassment and bullying. And at that time too, the electronic culture—the tv, mtv—was really, really a part of teenager’s lives in a way it had never been before. And neither girls nor their parents quite understood the implication of that. So, when I wrote Reviving Ophelia, what I really wanted to say is the girls I’m seeing in therapy are not in trouble because of dysfunctional families. In fact, their parents are really trying hard to save them, but they don’t quite know how. They’re in trouble because of the really misanthropic, girl-poisoning culture they’re being raised in. And if we want to make girls happier, if we want to make them better adjusted and help them deal with their at-risk behaviors, we need to change the culture. So, that book was a paradigm shift and after it was written, things got better. Now, I’m not saying, “oh because I wrote a book, the culture got better,” but it was part of an education project for the country on the fact that the cultural streets for girls in ‘94 were very mean streets. And that my generation of parents had not had much experience dealing with that kind of situation and we weren’t ready for it. We didn’t realize that girls were getting two kinds of education—one in the home and from their teachers, and churches, and families, and grandparents, and so on, and a very different one from the movies, and television, and music they were listening to. And neither girls nor their parents understood how to reconcile that gap.
SWB At the time, Sara, you were a teen girl when the book came out, right? So, how was that for you to have your mom being so engaged in a project like this and talking about all of these issues that were actually the things that you and your friends were facing?
Sara Gilliam Yeah. So, by and large, it was a positive experience. Several of my friends were interviewed for the book and I got to go through and edit it for teen language—is this something a teenager would say, that kind of thing. I was seeing in my peers and my friends the things that my mom was writing about in the book. So, in that sense, it very much rang true to me. Now maybe I would have said, “oh, come on, mom, I love Madonna, I don’t mind her provocative outfits,” or something like that. But in terms of the larger, cultural messages and the challenges that girls were facing in the early nineties, my mom and I were very simpatico in terms of what we felt the issues were. And I will also say that the book came out right before I graduated from high school, so it really became this force. It spent several years on the New York Times bestseller list and my mom was doing a lot of speaking and a lot of television. That all kind of happened while I was finding my footing in college, and so I missed a lot of the kind of cultural fallout I guess that came from _Reviving Ophelia_a. But it was really exciting, and I was really proud of my mom, and I was proud of the book. And then I’d get to college and we’d be reading it in the women’s studies class.
SWB Gosh, that must have been kind of amazing. Now, back then, could you ever have imagined working with your mom?
SG No. [S & MP laugh] We had a very typical mother-daughter relationship. And I actually always did want to be a writer. I was sort of tracking myself education-wise and all of that to be a writer, but it didn’t occur to me at that time how much our culture could change across 25 years, to be honest. It never occurred to me that there would need to be a fairly epic re-envisioning and rewrite of Reviving to make it relevant for a new generation. So, I would say that our careers kind of moved along parallel to each other. I’ve always been really inspired by her as a writer. She and I are each other’s first editors for everything that we write; we love reading each other’s work. But the actual idea to work together was really kind of a sudden surprise.
KL So, Mary, let’s fast forward to the new version. What led you to want to revise that book and why now?
MP The idea to republish Reviving Ophelia 25th Year Edition was Sara’s. She had the idea in the shower and then emailed me. I thought it would be just a sort of a commemoration edition, but as Sara and I both read the book, we realized the world has changed enormously. Just for example, just a few things: since ‘94, we had Columbine, we had 9/11, and Al Qaeda, and ISIS. We’ve had much more global climate change, we’ve had much more awareness of the ecological crisis, and we’ve had very different financial situations—people, in general, are struggling much more with money, especially college-age students right now. And the polarization of the country that’s grown much worse since ‘94. And then, of course, on top of that, digital media. So, as we looked at all the changes, we realized we couldn’t just republish Reviving Ophelia, we had to rewrite it. So, we took out 30,000 words and we put back in 30,000 words and did a whole research project and rewrite of the entire book. It was a much bigger project than we’d signed on for, but ultimately, both Sara and I wanted to make this new book relevant and as useful to 2019 girls as Reviving was to 1994 girls.
KL Yeah. I’m curious about the process a little bit. You mentioned you did a lot of new research—how did that change the sort of data and stories you heard from the first edition?
MP The first edition was primarily written around therapy clients. And I did some interviews with high school age girls and some focus groups. I interviewed, as Sara said, some of her friends, and some of the daughters of my friends, and talked to a lot of mothers because I had many friends who had teenage girls at that time. But this book was not therapy clients. I talked to therapists, Sara talked to educators—she’s been a middle school teacher. And then we both talked to girls. But primarily, the way we researched this book involved ordinary girls who were not in therapy.
SG So, the first thing we did that was really fun is we sent actual copies of the original paperback book to girls around the country. I sort of cast a net to people I knew around the country and said, “hey, do you know a really sharp, adolescent girl that would like a project?” So, we asked the girls to mark up the book—x out sections, say this doesn’t feel relevant, this doesn’t ring true to me anymore, and then likewise write in margin notes and tell us what’s missing and what’s you’d like to see in the new edition. And that really informed where we went right of the bat in terms of what themes and topics emerged right away. And then we had focus groups with middle school girls and high school girls; we separated them by age groups because, of course, you’re going to talk about really different things with girls in those two different age groups. And then we did a lot of individual interviews. So, it was challenging, as Mary said. If she was following a girl through the therapeutic relationship across two years, she could tell a very rich and deep story of that girl’s progress and transformation. Whereas, we were doing interviews with individual girls for this book that lasted an hour or two. So, what was important to us was to take, for example, a theme in the book like the mother-daughter relationship and find a girl and a story that was the 2019 version of that—a very contemporary version of that for one reason or another. And then we also wanted to bring forth girls who wouldn’t have been in the original book because the challenges that they’re dealing with or the life experiences that they’re having were really not on the cultural radar. A very straightforward example of that is that we have a transgender girl as kind of a strong girl profiled in the new edition of the book. Speaking for myself as a teenager in 1994, I had never heard the word transgender. And gender fluidity and this entire new discourse that we’re having around gender just wasn’t on the radar 25 years ago.
KL So yeah. You mentioned that the first edition was mostly therapy clients, which means you had really rich stories, but it also means that the research was sort of limited to the girls you had met in practice. Girls from mostly one place and with parents who had access to and knowledge of therapy. Did the new research allow you to reach a wider range of girls—racially, ethnically, geographically, even economically—than the first edition?
SG Yes. And that was absolutely our goal. It’s not a discredit for the book, but like you said, my mom, for the most part, was working with kind of a self-selected group of girls because, for the most part, it meant their parents could pay for therapy. So, most of the girls were middle-class and the book was written in the nineties in Lincoln Nebraska, which was a fairly white, middle-class town. So, without a doubt, we wanted to broaden the lens of this book and look at the experience of girls of color, of immigrant and refugee girls, of girls who identify more broadly across the gender or sexuality spectrum, urban and rural girls—so we would do Skype interviews with girls in large cities who, of course, bring a different perspective to what adolescents look like in 2019 than a girl in a small town in Nebraska. So, without a doubt, we really wanted to be reflective of who adolescent girls are in 2019 and, of course, literally the face of our country has changed quite a bit in the last 25 years.
KL How did these interviews with, like you mentioned, trans girls or racially diverse girls shift things?
MP The transgender girl is a whole new topic, so it didn’t shift things as much as it sort of staked new territory in terms of this is what adolescence looks like today. And there’s much more financial pressure now. So, that was a topic that really—the nineties were the prosperous Clinton era, and money didn’t come up as much. Money came up much more as a topic. And money, for example, was very related to the academic stress girls felt because so many girls we talked to with this book were saying they really needed to make good grades and get into college on some kind of scholarship if they were going to be able to go to college. So, there were some ways like that that it was very different, but for the most part, the thing we really figured out writing this book was that the culture has changed a lot. Primarily, what has changed the culture the most is social media. Girls were getting happier and more well adjusted after ‘94. ‘93 was a low point for depression and mental health. And then ‘94, the year Reviving Ophelia was published, was a year in which girls started to be happier and continued to be happier up until 2007. In 2007, all of the graphs that suggested happier, better-adjusted girls reversed themselves and started to plummet. And 2007 was the year the iPhone was invented and started to be popular. So, the big story that we ended up writing about in terms of the changes in girls is the social media story. That is by far the biggest factor in what has affected the health of girls in 2019.
SWB That’s something that we wanted to ask a little bit about. It’s obviously been a big shift in society at large, and one of the things that we noticed in this edition was that you talked a lot about how a lot of the stories in the first edition were about other kinds of problems—like you said—drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, girls who were in unsafe relationships having risky sexual encounters. And the problems you talked about in the newer interviews were much more related to—some directly related to social media—but a lot of other types of issues around anxiety, higher prevalence of suicide. And I’m really curious if you could talk a little bit more about how that shift has happened, and I guess, you talk about how one of the problems is girls losing their true selves and having these false selves. It seems like you’re saying that it’s the same kind of problems manifesting differently. So, instead of manifesting as—I don’t know—fourteen-year-olds going out and drinking, it might be manifesting as these highly anxious and depressed girls who are having all these problems on social media. And I wonder if we can just dig into a little bit more about what that means?
SG Yeah. I mean, if you think about it, there are some kind of core jobs that the era of adolescence is supposed to do for girls and young women. Emotional maturation and perspective building. It should help them become less narcissistic and more focused on the broader world. And social media, and devices, and screen time—whatever language you want to use around that—really works against those core tasks. And it really has effects on every aspect of girls’ development. Emotional, physical, social, sexual, maturational—all of these things are affected by this little smartphone that an adolescent girl is holding in her hand, typically for nine hours a day. And so if we view the time that she is spending as building herself online, whether that’s the personality that comes through in her texts with friends, to her profiles on social media sites, to the selfies that she posts, or the photos and stories she shares about her life, what we find is that that doesn’t particularly mirror the life that girls are actually leading. And the girls in focus groups that we talked to all talked about really simple stuff. And frankly, I think this may ring true for the two of you hosting this podcast, it rings true for me. “I put a photo up and if I don’t get the reaction I’m hoping for, I take it down. I’m very dialed into how people respond to photos of myself that I put up. I get jealous if I see someone’s life seems more exciting than the life that I am leading.” And so, all of this effort is spent creating this online self. But, unfortunately, from our perspective, that’s happening at the diminishment of the creation of an authentic self. Because if I think back—and we’re about the same age—to my adolescence. I was out with friends. I was laying in the park with friends late at night talking about where we wanted to go to school, what we wanted to do with our lives, our frustrations with our family or our peers. We were having those deep, rich, angst-filled adolescent conversations that are part of forming who we were. We were working part-time jobs, so we were meeting the whole gamut of personalities and types of people that existed in our community, and learning how to deal with people different than ourselves. And when we take away those human interactions and girls instead are surfing Instagram and watching Netflix at home alone on Saturday nights, we’re really doing them a huge disservice because we’re not creating the space in which they’re going to be forming their authentic self. And then when they head out into the real world, they aren’t sure who they are. And even though they may have—a South By Southwest panel this last year had a great topic that was “10,000 Followers and No Friends.” We have this generation of girls that may have a very vibrant online self, but not a particularly well-formed, effective, or whole real-life self.
MP Yes! There are two ways to build a sense of identity and a true self. One of them is by interacting with the world and seeing oneself in the reflected appraisals of others, and processing one’s experience with other people and getting feedback, and so on. The other way to develop a true self is solitude and having time to be reflective. Well, if you’re on a device nine hours a day, the experience of solitude is almost non-existent. So, there’s a strange way in which girls today are never together and never alone. And so the primary building blocks of self, which is to be interacting face to face with other people and to be alone reflecting and developing one’s own inner strength—those aren’t occurring right now. The other thing is by going out and interacting in the real world with real problems—historically, girls have developed skills, confidence, and competencies. Now what tends to be happening is girls are sitting at home or sitting in a restaurant with their parents or riding around town with their mom or dad driving looking at their cell phones. And they’re living life online, but they’re actually not out navigating the real world, meeting challenges, and mastering things on their own. In fact, if they have a challenge in the world, their most likely response to it is to text their mom or dad and ask them how to handle it. Or text their friends and say, “what do you think I should do?” Now, what that does is keeps girls from learning that they can actually solve problems, develop skills, and so on their own, and it keeps them from developing skills. So, when they go to college, for example, they’re utterly unprepared to face life on their own. And that’s why, for example, when girls go to college now they have historic levels of anxiety. 62% of young women at this point are reporting overwhelming anxiety and panic when they’re freshmen year of college. So, one of the things we recommend in this book is if you want to help girls develop to be strong and competent and confident, you actually need to nudge them towards experiences that induce stress and calibrate that stress so that they have a reasonably good chance of succeeding most of the time. So, for example, a good way to start a process like this is to really encourage a girl to get a driver’s license—that’s a basic right of passage. Another really good way to help a girl go out and deal with the real world is to say, “we want you to have either a volunteer or a real job where you’re actually out just dealing with all kinds of people in a situation where you can’t text or call home where you actually have to solve everything that comes up as a problem on your own.” Or “we want you to be responsible for planning a dinner party for your friends—inviting eight people over and planning the meal and cooking it.” Or “we want you to be responsible for planning our family vacation. Here’s how much time we have, here’s how much money we have, here’s where we want to go, and we want you to figure out all the stuff and plan it.” So, those kind of things put girls in a position where they’re outside their comfort zone, they’re doing things that they’re not used to doing, but yet, as they do them, they feel more confident.”
SWB Gosh, it kind of makes me sad to think that this isn’t happening that much now. I think back to all of the shitty jobs I had, [KL laughs] and dinner cooking responsibilities I had, and amount of unstructured time I had running around with friends, and I think about…bad things happened sometimes, but so much of that was really positive for me, even the really crappy jobs. [laughs & KL laughs] It’s a little sad to think of that not happening for girls right now.
SG That was a big surprise to me when we started diving back into this rewrite. I had no idea that if you’re looking at a graph of teenage girls acquiring their driver’s licenses, it’s a plummeting line. And I don’t know where you grew up—if you grew up in a city where you relied on public transportation—but I think I was at the DMV at 6am on my 16th birthday, and so were all my friends. And we also couldn’t wait to get jobs, not just because we wanted money, but because we wanted every opportunity to be out of the house asserting our independence and being young adults. And likewise, it was a fate worse than death to be home on a Friday night [laughs] or a Saturday night [laughs] instead of out with your friends, and that’s why grounding was such an effective consequence. Well, now an effective consequence is taking away screens and screentime or taking away a phone because that’s how girls are connecting with quote-unquote “the real world.”
SWB Gosh, that’s so interesting. And yes, like you, I grew up in a place that was driving-oriented, which meant that I was very, very, very, very, very focused on my 16th birthday. [all laugh]
KL Me too.
SWB It was extremely important! So, something I want to come back around to though is this conversation about social media. Because I feel like this is one thing that is really hard to contend with. Because I think you can tell girls to put their phones away, but that’s a hard task in the culture that we’re in; it’s hard to deal with on an individual level. The same for older women as well. Many, if not most, of the professional women I know are also tied into social media. Sara, you mentioned that you post stuff, and delete it, and get concerned. And all of us can be susceptible to those quick dopamine hits that come from external validation. [laughs] But we do live in a world where so much of modern life is built around technology; it’s very much baked into educational and professional systems. So, if you’re offline, it can be hard to do things like build a network that will get you an internship, or build a reputation, or promote the work that you’re doing. And I guess one thing I’m trying to figure out is if logging off doesn’t feel like an option, how do we handle this personally, and then what do we do about it at more of a cultural level? What needs to change culturally in our relationship to technology that would enable more people to have that kind of healthy balance?
SG First of all, I completely agree with you. The train has left the station; nowhere in this book are we telling girls, “get rid of your smartphones.” That’s not a realistic conversation to try to have at this point. The best things that we can encourage are intentionality and thoughtfulness around social media and device usage at large. And what we found talking to these girls and focus groups, what’s been most effective for them—well, first of all, let me say that they can recognize their problems with social media, they aren’t just singing its praises. They almost seem wistful for the days before this constant connectedness, but they will say in the same breath that they can’t live without their phone or their tablet or whatever. But the things that they had found organically on their own that were most effective were actually agreements among friends. Interestingly, taking parents out of the equation for the moment, and friends sitting down and saying, “okay, I’m not going to look at my phone after 7pm. That’s homework time or that’s family time.” Or “let’s all agree that on Sundays, we’re not going to use our phones.” Or during the school week, we’re going to take certain apps off our phones because they’re a distraction.” And the girls empowering themselves, which is a real recurring theme in this new edition of Reviving Ophelia across a lot of fears of adolescent life was actually the most effective path to balancing use of social media. So, while we don’t give any hard and fast recommendations because this conversation looks different for every girl, every adult professional woman, every family, but the idea is, “don’t be afraid to have that conversation.” And set some basic boundaries— “all devices are going to charge in the kitchen overnight” or “we’re going to have meals and we’re not going to check our phones.” I mean, the problem is too, from my perspective, we’re always expected to be connected. So, if you’re thinking of your audience and professional women—if they feel that they always have to be accessible to colleagues or bosses, and they’ve always got to be online, and they’ve always got to be posting so that they have a vibrant online presence, then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That feeds itself. I think any ways in which we can turn the dial back a little bit and put these little pieces of intentionality into our thinking and our conversations about this, that’s progress.
MP Yeah. What we’re writing about is not “we know how to solve this problem.” We’re saying, much as I said in Reviving Ophelia, “here’s a way to understand this problem.” For example, one of the things we tried to do was look at the research on, for example, the way all the graphs toward improvement plummeted after 2007, and look at where girls are today in terms of all-time highs and depression and anxiety, and then compare that with social media use and say, “here is the reason why this is happening. We can unpack for you why so much social media use causes these problems.” And then what our hope is—it’s very similar to my hope when I wrote _Reviving Ophelia_—this is a good, important conversation that the adults in this country should be having. If you don’t develop as an adolescent, you don’t become an adult. Adolescence is the core, developmental stage toward being able to function as an adult in a culture. So, it’s too big of a situation to ignore. Now, those skills only come when we have a reasonably good process for helping teenagers grow into adults. Right now we don’t have that process and we aren’t going to have that process without some fairly serious rejiggering of how we do things in this culture. I could not write a book or I could not work as a therapist or, for that matter, survive as a human being if I didn’t have hope—if I didn’t believe that my own actions could make a difference. In fact, one thing I feel great about is I think Reviving Ophelia did make a difference. I think a lot of things are going to happen in the next few years, including I think there’s going to be some government regulations of social media platforms, and we’re seeing teenagers want to control their media use, and figuring out ways on their own to do that.
SWB Yeah. So, you mentioned something as you were talking about social media that I’d love to come back around too, which is some of the challenges that come out of not building that healthy sense of self as an adolescent and what that looks like in adults. And in the book, you talked about how you saw lots of adult women in your therapy practice who would come to you wanting to be more pleasing to others—saying they wanted to lose weight, or they wanted to be less depressed, or they wanted to rescue their marriage—and that when you tried to ask them about their own needs, they would just be confused. And I think that’s something a lot of our listeners will still relate to. So, you connected that back to them struggling alone with the trauma of adolescence and not processing those adolescent experiences, not examining them. And I’m curious if we could talk a little bit more about that. How does this loss of self in adolescence keep coming back to haunt us as we grow older?
MP When I was writing in ‘94, I was talking about the loss of self in two ways with women. One is we were socialized at that time—we grew up with mothers, and aunts, and grandparents, whose belief was that as women, their duty was to serve, and their responsibility was to make sure the emotional welfare of everyone in their life was happy and well cared for and safe. They were not taught to take care of themselves. I remember this very well as a little girl; I was very much praised for being a good little girl, a good little helper, a good big sister. I was very much aware—as almost all girls were at the time—that the best thing I could be was a really good girl who took care of other people and always put my needs last. Well, that’s very good advice in the sense I think it’s good to raise children to be kind and to be good people. But nobody said, “you have a right to include yourself” when you’re talking about being good to people. You get to be good to you too. And that it’s very important when you’re deciding a calculation about how to be good to people to add yourself to that calculation and give yourself permission to also have a life that you’re enjoying and to make choices that meet your needs and so on. So, my generation of women had to learn that on their own. And that explains certain lostness when we were adults and we were tasked with keeping our families happy. And not only were they not happy, but if a therapist like myself asked a woman in the early nineties, “well, what do you need to be happy?” a lot of times they had no idea because that was a new question to them. The other way that girls lost a sense of self was the way Simone de Beauvoir wrote about that lost sense of self—that up until they were 8 or 9, they could be who they wanted to be, and they could be people who were engaged in all of the wealth of life experiences available to nine-year-olds, ten-year-olds. But then when they hit puberty, all of a sudden they crashed into this world where they were sexualized, objectified, there started to be all these expectations about how they behaved, and they were defined in ways by the culture that made it very difficult for them to be their true selves. So, that’s really what I was writing about in the nineties. Now, modern girls I think are much more comfortable taking care of themselves. Their mothers haven’t raised them to be endlessly self-sacrificing, and I think that’s great. I don’t think anyone should be raised to be endlessly self-sacrificing. On the other hand, where they’re crashing into the culture in the same way girls were in ‘94 is they’re crashing into that culture that tells them they should be beautiful, they should be sexy, they should be desirable, and they should mold their eyes to satisfy the male gaze. And that still is going on and, in fact, has probably been heightened by social media use.
SWB So, many of our listeners are parents, but most of them probably have younger children than adolescents right now. I know we have a lot of listeners who have, say, four-year-olds, five-year-olds, that kind of thing. And I’m really curious, what would you tell a parent of a child that age who is trying to figure out how to help their kid, particularly if their kid is a girl, enter adolescence and thrive through adolescence.
SG Well, I would love to take this one because I’m a mother of a nine-year-old and a five-year-old, so this [laughs] is my reality every day right now. And I think there are a lot of things and, frankly, very simple things that parents can be doing right now. First of all, to speak to the pre-adolescent age children, this is a very good time to start conversations about technology and the online world, and what is and isn’t appropriate, what does and does not align with your family’s values, with your family’s story. The biggest, most concrete recommendation that I want to make to parents is sit down and look at what your children are doing online. And in my case, what this means is that I have to sit next to my son and watch Minecraft tutorial videos. And they are soul-sucking. And there are a million other ways I would like to spend my time, but here is why I think this is important. The Minecraft tutorial video may be totally innocuous; however, what video loads next automatically on YouTube? Or what are the videos that show up along the side? Or what advertisements pop up? If kids are spending the kind of time online that research tells us they are—six to nine hours a day depending on their age—if we really aren’t dialed into how they’re spending that time, we just can’t support them. And we know that boys tend to do more video gaming and listening to music and watching videos, whereas girls tend to gravitate more towards social media sites, so if you have a daughter, say “show me your Instagram feed. Show me who do you follow and why? What’s an influencer? [laughs] And what influencers do you like? And how does TikTok work? Can you show me an example of something that you would send your friends on TikTok?” Really get in there. It’s going to be an awkward conversation initially, your child may not be really excited about this, but it just has to happen or we’re really, really disconnected from how our children are spending their time online. But I think one of the things that we’ve really been saying is anything that we can do as families or parents that reflects what families have done across the span of time are things that are going to help children develop into healthy, young adults. So, spend time outdoors. Go for family dog walks. Invite neighbors over. Read books aloud together. I always like the Obama’s roses and thorns report at the end of the day—at the meal, everyone shares their best moment and worst moment of the day. All of these things—again, it sounds very basic, but the ways that humans have interacted across millennia have been effective for a reason in raising competent, skilled, socially adept young adults.
SWB Well, we are just about out of time, but before we let you go, we wanted to say thank you so much both of you for being on the show. And we’re wondering, where can our listeners learn more about this new edition of Reviving Ophelia?
SG Both Mary Pipher and I, Sara Gilliam, have Facebook pages where we are sharing resources about the book and also articles and the research that we think is really helpful around this topic of adolescent girls. And then we both have websites as well—marypipher.com and saragilliamwrites.com.
SWB Well, awesome. So, Mary, Sara, thank you so much for being on, and everybody go and pick up the new edition of Reviving Ophelia. [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay, Katel, it is time for my favourite part of the show—the fuck yeah of the week! Can you tell me what’s making you say fuck yeah today?
KL [sighs] I am going to say fuck yeah to the nap I took last week.
SWB Tell me more… [KL laughs]
KL So, it was a weekend day, I didn’t have a lot going on, I was between some tasks like cleaning the house and going on an errand, and I was just sitting on the couch making a plan for my next move, and I was so tired. So, I thought, “let me just lie down, close my eyes…” a nap seems inevitable [laughs] in that situation but personally just because that’s not usually me, I didn’t know what was going to happen! [laughs]
SWB Mhmm… Naps are very good, and I know that exact feeling where you’re like, “I just have to close my eyes for a sec.” And I support it. I took one on the weekend too! I was actually watching Netflix… during the day.
SWB Which I never do!
KL That’s nice!
SWB For me, that is very strange. [KL laughs] I don’t tend to turn on the television unless it is after dinner time. So, even just sitting down and watching TV on a weekend is kind of a weird treat. But I have been feeling like I needed to give myself more permission to just rest. So, not only was I on the coach watching TV, I then got the snoozy feeling and I was like, “you know what? I’m just going to let this happen, I will rewind this later!” [both laugh]
KL [laughing] I love that, that is so great! I feel like I say “I can’t nap,” or “I’m not good at napping,” and what I’m realising is mostly that’s based in feelings of guilt and anxiety over not being productive every minute. Which is not…real. So clearly I can nap, and I did, and I’m going to try to do it way more often.
SWB Yes! I think you deserve to do it more often, especially because you say you’re not good at it, well there’s only one way to get better! [KL laughs] I prescribe naps.
KL Ugh, love it! Fuck yeah to naps! [laughs]
SWB Fuck yeah. That’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Philly’s own Blowdryer. Check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com! Thanks to Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam for being our guests today, and thank you for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever it is you listen to your favorite podcasts. And make sure you get strong feelings in your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]