The book Reviving Ophelia, written by Mary Pipher several years ago, argues how our little girls are like saplings in a storm. Our children but especially our daughters live in a media-drenched culture flooded with junk values. Not getting what they need from their parents, our kids, especially our girls, turn to the world for self-esteem. The world fragments them into powerless sex objects. Sex is not just sacred; it’s a way to sell suntan lotion, clothes, and popularity and young girls get lost in all this.
Writes Pipher: “The story of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet shows the destructive forces that affect young women. As a girl, Ophelia is happy and free, but with adolescence she loses herself. When she falls in love with Hamlet, she lives only for his approval. She has no inner direction; rather she struggles to meet the demands of Hamlet and her father. Her value is determined utterly by their approval. Ophelia is torn apart by her efforts to please. Despondent over the death of his own father, Hamlet spurns her because she is an obedient daughter and sides with her father, she goes mad with grief. Dressed in elegant clothes that weigh her down, she drowns in a stream filled with flowers (p. 4).
Pipher maintains that girls are losing themselves like Ophelia – a symbolic figure for troubled, voiceless adolescent girls. It’s great to honor your father. But dads and moms must build a healthy self-esteem into their girls, otherwise, they will fall into the people-pleasing trap. And if you betray yourself in order to be pleasing to someone else, you lose self-worth. Society tells you many lies. You have to be a certain weight, have a particular look. Girls get mixed messages all of the time: Be sexy, but not sexual. Be honest, but don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Be smart, but not so smart that you threaten boys. The world preaches a doctrine of image management.
What are society’s values?
Beauty: The most highly valued personal attribute in many cultures is physical attractiveness. When we as adults respond to what we perceive to be “a beautiful child” versus “an unattractive child” this has a profound impact on a developing personality. Attractive kids fair better in their grades, for example, and get more attention from adults. Beauty is retained as a value among women their entire lives. It’s not wrong to be beautiful; it is wrong to ascribe worth simply on the basis of looks or the perfection of a bodily form.
A song writer wrote: “I want to be beautiful and make you stand in awe. Look inside my heart and be amazed. I want to hear you say who I am is quite enough. I just want to be worthy of love and beautiful (Bethany Dillon “Beautiful”). This ageless longing takes on a competitive edge.
Wendy Bantam puts it this way: “Every day in the life of a woman is a walking Miss America Contest.” Sadly, girls lose if they are either too plain or too pretty. Girls who are too pretty are seen as sex objects; their appearance is their identity. Boys gravitate toward these girls, so they are popular for their looks. On the other hand, if you are too plain, you’re left out and scorned.
Intelligence: This ranks at the top of our value system. Our society says you have to be smart and you must have smart kids in order to protect the reputation of the parent. For the slow child, an educational plan that is shaped for fast-learners can disassemble the esteem of a child.
Wealth: A pimply faced kid on a bicycle is different from a pimply faced kid in a BMW. If you’ve got money, and clothes, and prestige, then you’re valuable.
Athleticism: If you’re really good athletically, you have value and notoriety. Our culture worships the sports hero.
Tony Campolo tells about a married couple that had bought into these cultural values. They were sitting in his office at Eastern College painfully confronting the reality that their nineteen-year-old daughter had not only been sexually promiscuous, but she was pregnant and had no idea who the father was. With tears running down her cheeks, the mother turned to her daughter and said “How could you do this to us after all we’ve done for you?” Campolo said if I had asked the mom just what it was she had done for her, the mother would have probably gone through a long list of all the things she and her husband had bought for their daughter. Society had conditioned them to believe that it was things their daughter needed. They had failed to provide their daughter what she really needed: available, loving parents to pay attention to her.
A few years back, I found a response to Piphers book. Sara Shandler wrote a book in response called Ophelia Speaks. She invited girls to write to her and share what was actually going on in their lives. These adolescent girls said that they felt like disappointments when compared to the media models. “They hurl us into self-loathing.”
Sara Shandler heard from young ladies who took off their masks and what she learned was an avalanche of discovery. They tell of sexual abuse, broken families, missing fathers, lost friends, pregnancy, eating disorders and dysfunctional siblings. The common wish they all had was for simple stability, a safe place where they could sort life out.
One of the themes prevalent in these Shandler essays was intoxication (46). It seems to be the medication of choice for most people. One gal writes: “Drunken couples maul each other on beer-soaked furniture. Others dance wildly. They jump and slam into each other while swearing and puking. I step over their bodies sprawled across the floor, drowning in their own vomit. As I walk toward the bedroom, the sweet mixture of incense and pot smoke drags me into the cloudy room. I join the circle. Hours later, I wake in a large, strange bed with only half my clothes… I shove the stranger off me… My eyes are bloodshot… Beer and puke stain the white carpet. The stench of the room almost causes me to fall over… I walk down litter-covered streets… It feels like forever since I last had a bath… I walk toward by friend’s house.
‘Can I crash here today?’
I nod and… walk to the bathroom. My face is still dingy from the night before… It seems so old. I’m only fourteen.”
She tells of abuse that landed her step-father in jail. She talks about boyfriends and pregnancy and her baby boy.
This is how she concludes her article: “I’m eighteen now… Matthew (her son) is two and a half years old… Despite all that has happened to me, I have hope for my future. I don’t blame my problems on what happened. I take responsibility for my actions. I look forward to having my own place. I look forward to the beginning of my adult life. I know it’s hard for most girls to deal with a situation like this, but, for sanity, for a chance at life, it has to be dealt with (53).”
Even though this young girl began to take responsibility for her own life and decisions, many young ladies never do. Like saplings in a storm, drunk with the junk values of culture, they sheer off at the ground, and never find the safe, nurturing environment of stability that they crave.
Don’t allow this to happen in your family. Be the safe place, a place of nurture, values clarification, and identity and self-esteem development. Base it all on God (and don’t even think about being an atheist – it only complicates things).