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'90S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Hey, Mom, Your Girl's Troubles Aren't Your Fault

May 11, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Mary Pipher phenomenon continues, just in time for another Mother's Day.

Three years after publication, "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" (Ballantine, 1994) is still selling 1,500 copies a day and last week ranked No. 3 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. The author, a down-home Lincoln, Neb., clinical psychologist, still tours the country, preaching to a choir of parents and professionals who still applaud her message: The junk culture diminishes teenage girls.

One of the most appealing aspects of her message is the unsaid part--it's not moms. It's not working mothers who aren't spending enough time with their children. Not welfare mothers who aren't providing good female role models. Not single mothers who aren't providing male role models. It's not even wimpy mothers who don't stand up to their husbands.

Instead, "Reviving Ophelia" provided plenty of ammunition to blame commercially driven television, movies, teen zines and music for twisting the values of girls and young women, making them feel overly self-conscious and worthless unless they are thin, beautiful and sexual.

The message is "pretty healing stuff for mothers and daughters," said Pipher, sounding herself like a faith healer last week in Los Angeles before speaking to a group of media professionals gathered by Children Now and the Kaiser Foundation, which had just released a survey on the persisting stereotypical images of girls and women in the media.

In her Southern California tour, as elsewhere, Pipher said, women take the open mike after her speeches to testify to the power of the message.

"This one woman got up and said, 'Last year my family found out my sister was using heroin. If my mother hadn't had your book, she would have killed herself because she thought she was to blame. Your booked helped her accept it might not be all her fault and deal with it.'

"Another woman stood up with her arm around her daughter. She said, 'When we read your book we weren't speaking. Now look at us.' Everybody was applauding wildly."

Pipher said she deliberately wanted to write a book that cut mothers some slack. One reason was a heightened appreciation for the mother-daughter bond created by her own mother's recent death. Another was that in her practice she had noticed that although daughters always complained about their mothers, it was the mothers who understood them best and were "desperately trying to save them and hold onto their authenticity."

Despite the persistence of conventional media images about women and girls, Pipher said she was heartened by the Children Now study, which also detailed some progress in presenting female characters who are intelligent and independent.

Still, she believes the most troubled children are those whose parents "just let the culture happen to them."

Subscribing to the fish-get-wet theory, Pipher said if people have lousy mental health, it's often because they're surrounded by lousy communities that don't offer protection from the culture.

"To survive in the '90s, you have to protect yourself against what's ugly and noxious in this culture and connect to what's good and beautiful," she said. Each family needs to clarify its own values to make its own distinctions.

But taking on the entire culture is too daunting for a single family alone. Parents can start circling the wagons against the junk culture by first exposing themselves to their children's world of movies, TV and music to understand what they are facing. Then they can form parent support groups, such as the book club described by Shireen Dodson in her book, "The Mother-Daughter Book Club: How 10 Busy Mothers and Daughters Came Together to Talk, Laugh and Learn Through Their Love of Reading" ((HarperCollins, 1997).

If it is possible to change the junk culture, Pipher said, it will happen by "millions of people doing the right thing. It happens neighborhood by neighborhood."

Not just mother by mother.

*

Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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