In October, I started working at a community mental health clinic. For the first time in my six years studying and working in clinical psychology, I was charting new territory, treating a patient population I had yet to encounter: adolescent girls. I had a handful of patients, with a range of issues, some of which were unique to them, but many of which were universal to adolescence, particularly for young women; body image concerns, popularity hierarchies, deep-seeded insecurity, identity crises. Despite having never worked with this population, at the onset, I wasn’t particularly concerned. After all, I was an adolescent girl in the not too distant past. I figured I was still young enough that these kids might see me as more like them than their parents, but removed enough from that time in my life to be able to provide a helpful dose of perspective, a model of what it looks like to make it out of adolescence (relatively) unscathed. I had just come off a year of internship working with the severely mentally ill on an inpatient unit in a city hospital. This, I thought, would be a breeze.
It wasn’t long before I realized that translating my therapeutic skills to this group would not be as simple as I thought. Rather than enjoying the work and feeling effective in my ability to help these girls, I found myself utterly stuck. I could deeply relate to the issues they were going through, having gone through many of them myself; feeling inadequate, not knowing where you fit in, frustration with your changing body, preoccupation with how your peers perceive you, constantly feeling like you are performing for someone, even when you’re not sure who. Yet I struggled to figure out how to help them, and being able to identify with them but not translate this into effective therapeutic interventions made me feel even more confused and frustrated. I shared with my supervisor that I had an overwhelming urge to reassure these girls it will get better, I promise, I’ve been through it, just hang in, trust me. You can imagine that this would not be a particularly helpful sentiment, akin to telling someone who is depressed that everything will be fine, or someone struggling with anxiety that they have nothing to worry about. I could feel their pain, but I was not quite sure how to help them through it.
In talking to a colleague about my perplexing difficulty, she suggested I read Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a New York Times bestseller by psychologist Mary Pipher, a book that was considered groundbreaking when it was released in 1994. Pipher lays out the common issues faced by adolescent girls, describing ways that a patriarchal culture, combined with the natural developmental changes that all adolescents face, assaults girls with mixed messages about what they can and should be, creating a psychic dilemma which calls into question their worth, their value, and what their future will look like as they grow into womanhood:
With puberty, girls face enormous pressure to split into false selves. The pressure comes from schools, magazines, music, televisions, 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. Most girls choose to be socially accepted and split into two selves, one that is authentic and one that is culturally scripted. In public they become who they are supposed to be…. Authenticity is an “owning” of all experience, including emotions and thoughts that are not socially acceptable. Because self-esteem is based on the acceptance of all thoughts and feelings as one’s own, girls lose confidence as they “disown” themselves. They suffer enormous losses when they stop expressing certain thoughts and feelings.” (p.38)
While the rules for proper female behavior aren’t clearly stated, the punishment for breaking them is harsh. Girls who speak frankly are labeled as bitches. Girls who are not attractive are scorned. The rules are reinforced by the visual images in soft-and hard-core pornography, by song lyrics, by casual remarks, by criticisms, by teasing and by jokes. The rules are enforced by the labeling of a woman like Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “bitch” simply because she’s a competent, healthy adult.” (p.39)
What struck me most was Pipher’s suggestion that these crises of identity that girls face often bleed into womanhood. “Women…struggle with adolescent questions still unresolved: how important are looks and popularity? How do I care for myself and not be selfish? How can I be honest and still be loved? How can I achieve and not threaten others? How can I be sexual and not a sex object? How can I be responsive but not responsible for everyone?”(p.27). I found myself floored by this realization, swept away in memories of my own adolescence, and the way in which the issues I struggled with then remained so central in my life at present as I navigate becoming a professional and finding satisfaction in my personal life. I carried this book around like a bible for weeks, reading this passage and others to friends as if certain it had cracked some secret code of womanhood. I found myself feeling angry, that the insecurities that plagued me at age 12 were not quite the distant memory I thought they were. I felt angry for my clients, and for all women, who 20 years later still live in a world where Hillary Clinton is a “bitch” and one in which a man who brags of sexual assault can rule the free world.
In my anger, however, I found some clarity. I was able to recognize that part of my stuckness was not being in touch with how working with girls of this age was bringing up unresolved feelings from my own adolescence. That perhaps my desire to tell them it would all get better was really my own fantasy that as women we break free of the chains of sexism and inequality that bind us and shrink us starting when we’re mere children, when in fact, they continue to impact us quite deeply as adults. I realized that my job as therapist to these girls was not to bestow on them wisdom of an adult woman all-empowered, a survivor of female adolescence who would reassure them that the frustration and confusion of feeling as though you have to be a hundred contradictory things — sexy but not too sexy, confident but not conceited, smart but not a know-it-all — that it all melts away when you leave middle school. Rather, my job is to hear them. My job is to see them. My job is to help them not just figure out who they will become but to understand and know who they are. Many of the girls I've seen struggle with depression in part because they have lost connection with themselves, and in this time of fluctuating identity and toxic mixed messages about what a girl should be, lose touch with who they are for the sake of who they are supposed to seem like. Maybe they've learned that whoever that girl is, she isn’t pretty enough, or gracious enough, or humble enough, or desirable enough. My job is to remind them that whoever you are, whoever you choose to be, you are enough. And that perhaps, all of us as women, in a show of solidarity, as proof that it can be done, that we can work toward acceptance of ourselves, toward resolution of those lingering adolescent questions, toward knowing that we too are enough.
Pipher, Mary (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Random House, Inc.