Text by Becky. Photos by the Eleven O’Clock Dad.
Shakespeare didn’t think too much of Ophelia. The way he tells the story, she’s merely a lovely waif with a too-fragile mind–a casualty of her father’s crazy plotting and Hamlet’s crazy . . . craziness. If you’ll remember, she lies down in a nearby stream and dies, just like that.
Or maybe not just like that. Sidelined by the father who should have been her ally and the young man who should have viewed her as the main subject of his life, she loses her mind and ends her own life. It’s a tragic conclusion to a story that never really got to be told.
And that’s precisely the point: Ophelia never got the chance to be the author of her own life.
When I got home from Spain, I started rereading Mary Pipher’s 1994 landmark book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves Of Adolescent Girls, and the premise seemed proportionately more important to me now that I have one daughter preparing to exit adolescence and one daughter parked smack in the middle of it. How do we teach our daughters to know, to embrace, and to own themselves? How do we set them up to successfully author their own lives? These are the questions Pipher takes up, and her extensive research underscores the need for parents–especially moms–to shepherd their daughters through the rocky years during which girls too often lose their sense of self. Reviving Ophelia is a must-read for moms invested in their girls’ journeys toward a vibrant sense of self-identity.
So what are the answers? One is giving a daughter an opportunity to go deep into the machinery of a particular talent or aptitude, not just so she can develop it but also so she can benefit from the surge of confidence and empowerment that comes from having a distinct strength she can legitimately own. Sports, music, leadership endeavors, the arts . . . whatever a girl desires to lay claim to as “her thing” can help offset the pain of those blistering middle school years, especially, when the game changes and girls begin to buy into the messed-up message that how they look, or seem, is infinitely more important than who they are.
A story. Knowing that Miss Zinnia was about to enroll at a new high school a short month ago, I worried and wondered. Would she feel comfortable socially? Would she find her Clan? Would she have opportunities to blossom? Having collided once again with Pipher’s book and its crucial message, I decided to start a conversation with Miss Z. about its themes. We were in the car one day, heading through Provo Canyon, in Utah. “So what do you like about yourself?” I asked, to start things off. Right away she told me she liked the color of her eyes. But that was the “outside of her,” I pointed out, and I told her I wanted to know what she liked about the inside of her, at which point she confessed that she liked her singing voice.
And there it was. Her voice. Something she herself resonates to everyday. What a boon, that not only does she like to sing, but she likes the sounds she makes. And I found myself silently rejoicing that a few years ago, we committed to taking her and her voice and connecting her with some unique choral music opportunities and some extraordinary voice instruction.
But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy road, either for Miss Z. or for any young woman eager to feel known and valued. The trick?–not giving in to the abundant temptations to efface yourself as a means to acquiring value in the eyes of peers. Pipher describes young women who, as girls, were bright, energetic, adventurous, self-assured, their journey into adolescence suddenly becoming treacherous as they quickly gain a sense of how the currency has changed. In other words, while they might once have felt valued for who they were, they now begin to absorb messages from a society that values women for how they look, among other things. As Pipher points out, girls too often go from being the subjects of their own lives to the objects of other people’s lives–like Ophelia.
Sure, Miss Z. sings, but that doesn’t mean her walk through her middle school years wasn’t fraught. A group of (not-nice) boys used to tease her, calling her “Peggy Sue.” Back story. When she was a sixth grader at a new middle school a few years ago, Miss Z. had a friend who told this cluster of bothersome boys that her name was Peggy. The reason: Miss Z. didn’t want them to know her real name. In the moment, she felt that she and her friend had put one over on them. What she didn’t bank on was the way the name would stick. To that particular group of boys, she became Peggy Sue: the girl who stuck out because of her old fashioned–read “outdated”–manners. Sure, teachers loved her. And her likeminded peers followed along when she started her own service club, for example, an effort that included making tray favors for kids in the hospital over Thanksgiving break, and selling mustaches during a “mustache madness” drive to raise money for cancer research.
But if you ask her today whether she enjoyed middle school, she’ll shrink a little, and her expression will go sour, and that’ll be your answer. Striving to be her own person during those years positively wore her out.
We encourage pre-adolescent girls to think, run, climb, jump, explore, discover, and conquer, while in a few short years they’ll be bombarded with another message: that the shape of their faces and bodies matters more than the shape of their thoughts. And too many of them, like Ophelia, will become confused by the very wrong but nevertheless predominant idea that as you grow up, being an object of desire trumps just being.
Back when Miss Z. and I had that conversation a month or so ago? Well, I reviewed what I felt were the basic rules for social “efficiency,” but I framed it as a question of learning a new “language,” the successful mastery of which would help her move around gracefully among peers . . . then free her to be whoever she wanted to be in the meantime. Sort of like learning the rules to a complex game and then figuring out how to selectively abandon them in favor of self-invented tricks that fast-track you to a decisive win. “You don’t ever have to apologize for yourself,” I told her, hoping she wouldn’t be confused by my attempts to affirm her even as I was arming her with tricks for navigating the tricky social terrain of high school.
Perhaps one of our most important jobs as Moms of teenage girls: guarding the door to the gym, so to speak, so that our daughters can have some uninterrupted time to bulk up their identities in healthy, defined ways, without anyone storming the place and spreading crazy ideas about how all that matters is how they look in their workout gear.
Ophelia’s mom? She’s curiously absent from the story of Hamlet. Maybe if she’d been around, her daughter might have had a fighting chance.
That conversation with Miss Zinnia in the canyon ended with her simple declaration that she liked herself.
May that never change! And may the reason for her straightforward self-acceptance always be something close to what it was that day: a realization that what she valued about herself was, in her eyes, worth valuing, whether anyone else ever put a premium on it or not.
Moms: your thoughts about Pipher’s book (if you’ve read it)? About raising strong girls? What are your traditions? How do you set your daughters up to own their lives with confidence?
(Photo: the Petals, in Avila, Spain, sporting their own handmade flower chains. Distinctly Ophelia-like, but only because of the headware . . .)