Reviving Ophelia: Time to Get Even

Why is it that Austin Powers can look so squirrrrly but Elizabeth Hurley has to be gorgeous? How is it that a walnut like Walter Matthau gets paired with a goddess like Sophia Loren? Robert DeNiro and Sharon Stone? Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman? Woody Allen and anybody? Why do ugly or average-looking men in the movies almost never have a female counterpart as ugly or average as they? You're nodding. You already know. It's the Hollywood double-standard, acknowledged and accepted with a sigh. No matter how far we think we've come, our eyes feast on a steady diet of men who are confident and strong and women who are beautiful and admiring. But does it really matter? You could be just as dismissive of one little bug, until you realize it's a termite and hides a network of problems that will bring the whole house down. That may sound melodramatic until you read Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist and translator of our inarticulated confusion as teen-age girls.CASH WITHDRAWALOther cultures have clear, defined rites of passage. America does too, but it's unstated. Teenagers are expected to reject their parents, the only people who love everything they do, and put themselves into the hands of a culture that exists purely to take their money. Teen-age girls are particularly vulnerable. Just when their bodies are becoming bigger, rounder, women's bodies, they're shown photos of emaciated models dressed in androgynous clothes by designers who likely prefer young boys, and are told this is their main goal. According to Pipher, who illustrates her points with case study after case study, the personalities of females splinter somewhere between the ages of 12 and 15. Little girls who are enthusiastic, expressive and self-possessed, who revel in hobbies, school and altruism, turn into sullen, troubled underachievers, self-saboteurs and much worse in what seems like minutes to their bewildered parents. I don't think any American woman can read Reviving Ophelia without stopping to wonder, when did it happen to her? When did she make the conscious choice not to raise her hand in class, because she realized girls weren't popular if they were too smart? When did she choose to give less than her best to a tennis or basketball game to humor the ego of a male opponent? What was the first stupid, offhand remark about her appearance that affected her, perhaps to this day? If you recall Great Moments in Sexism from your own past, know that teens of the '90s live in a faster, more severe world. But there's also this: "In 1951 Miss Sweden was 5-feet-7-inches tall and weighed 151 pounds. In 1983 Miss Sweden was 5-feet-9-inches tall and weighed 103 pounds." There are 8 million eating disorders in America. And as a way of relieving some of those pressures, "most kids have been offered drugs by the time they're in seventh grade."RATINGS GAMEOut of all the depressing stories, one line seems key to the larger problem. In the chapter on sexual violence, Pipher writes, "[W]e need a preventive program. We need to work together to build a sexual culture that is sensible, decent and joyful." When was the last time you heard those adjectives associated with sex? Hot, dirty, sinful, lethal -- all these are familiar descriptions because sexuality is such a Frankenstein in our painfully immature society. Sexual imagery is usually leering, sloppy and inept, or else cast as evil by religious conservatives. We need to take a mature look and talk about sexuality in terms that don't center around movie ratings. Maybe then Americans can communicate more fully with their daughters, who could avoid the distaste of Pipher's profiles to experience their bodies with sense, decency and joy. But let's not forget that the looks women face often come from the most dubious of sources anyway, as we witnessed one Saturday night. Two guys were cackling at a girl they knew, maybe at her appearance, maybe her drunkenness, maybe just her presence. Here was Dumpy McDrawers, late 20s, shaped like an avocado, hair thinning like a bored crowd, zipper halfway down on faded shorts worn with workboots -- in short, no prize pig himself -- sneering at a woman for being as drunk as he was in the same third-rate bar he was in. Guys like these have to drink to make themselves bearable; imagine the women made to endure them. I'd like to Xerox that zero's picture and mail it to teen-age girls everywhere with the caption, "He doesn't think she's cute enough." A little perspective goes a long, long way.


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