One afternoon this fall, best-selling author Sara Shandler, a college sophomore, took off from school at Wesleyan University for a whirlwind day in New York City. Her morning appointment took her for a glamour photo shoot at Cosmo Girl—complete with stylists, rock music and fake fur stoles—one of the many star moments she’s had since her book by and about teenage girls, Ophelia Speaks, shot onto The New York Times paperback bestseller list. Her book (Harper Perennial, $12.95), culled from first-person accounts of teenage girls around the country, gives human voice to the troubles outlined in Mary Pipher’s landmark book Reviving Ophelia and traces the troubled life of American girls. A dramatic portrait of anxiety, low self-esteem and super-human efforts toward self-perfection emerges as these girls write to Shandler about sex, drugs, eating disorders, academic stress, parental pressures and more.
Following her Cosmo glam-session, Shandler, a former president of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization chapter for the Connecticut Valley Region, stopped in at the LILITH office for a chat about these issues, before dinner with her sister and a return to campus life. The conversation, excerpted below, took place between Shandler, LILITH intern Susannah Jaffe, herself a sophomore at Barnard College, and our associate editor Sarah Blustain.
Blustain: Was there a personal crisis that got you reading Reviving Ophelia?
Shandler: When I was about 15 and 16, I was terribly, terribly unhappy. I was really depressed, looking back on it. I wouldn’t have said it then, but I was. And then I was sort of able to come out the other side and have a little wisdom because of it, with a lot of time and effort. I actually didn’t read Reviving Ophelia until I was about to turn 17, but it was still good to read and say, “Hey—that was me. That is me. That’s everybody that I know, in different ways.”
Blustain: What does your book say that Reviving Ophelia didn’t?
Shandler: I think it really shows a strength that Reviving Ophelia didn’t. The strength of character of girls, their ability to articulate their experiences, and a real hope for their futures, and a real intelligence that didn’t come across [in Reviving Ophelia].
Blustain: When I was reading the book, it seemed like these girls were forever striving to improve themselves in every way—to become thinner, more popular, more loved by their boyfriends, academically successful. I was amazed at the whole attitude—to be more, better, faster.
Shandler: I think you really put your finger on it. I think, more than anything else, that’s the real over-arching theme. Basically, I think the root of that is that [we feel] we’re just not good enough.
Jaffe: I definitely see it a lot. Everyone has their own ways which they want to be, and they strive to be that weight, or level of happiness, or academic standing. Girls try to be the “perfect package.” Even though you’re striving with all of these things, and have 8,000 issues going on inside you, you still look and act perfect, and nobody ever knows.
Shandler: For the Ophelia Speaks proposal, I just asked my friends to give me writing. It was amazing to me how little I knew about my friends. But at the same time, when I was depressed, no one knew. I was doing better in school, I was working out every day, eating well, had a boyfriend, had my friends. I seemed like a very normal, happy teenager. But inside, every day lasted forever, and all I wanted to do was sleep. So, I had seen my friends as they had seen me. It was really unbelievable to me, because I just saw them as these pretty, popular, good-at-sports girls who were about to go to Harvard, Yale and Brown.
Blustain: And girls don’t do ‘girl talk’?
Shandler: No, [we do] but we know the right answers. ‘Do you like your body?’ ‘Of course, everybody is beautiful.’ Who believes it? We all say it, because we know what we’re supposed to say.
Jaffe: You’re also not mature enough to handle it. At that age, you’re not able to pinpoint what’s going on with you, much less discuss it with a group of friends. Even if you sort of realize that you have eating issues, or you’re depressed, you never want to label it as such, because then you wouldn’t be ‘normal.’
Blustain: How do you think boys deal with these things?
Jaffe: I never, ever wanted to deal with girls after sixth grade, and I didn’t. I hung out with my brother and his friends, and had guy best friends. I think that they have different expectations in terms of fitting into little boxes. Girls are always categorized in certain ways, and you have to fit into your box and be the best in your box.
Shandler: There still are a lot of boys who fall through the cracks, and it may be even worse for them. At least for girls who are having all these issues, we’re all having all these issues. If a girl comes out and says she’s depressed, it’s okay—it’s sort of a girly thing to do.
Blustain: If there was something you could have asked of somebody at that period, what would you have asked?
Shandler: I don’t know. I knew that I was terribly, terribly unhappy, but I had no idea how to get better. Anything anyone would have told me, I just would have said ‘great,’ been sarcastic, and walked away.
Jaffe: Everyone has their two- or three-year period of high school or middle school when they’re like this. In mine, just knowing that there were other people like me [would have helped]. It’s enough to be able to read and hear about girls your age, and to know that they were going through the same thing.
Shandler: Just to know that you’re not a total freak.
Jaffe: Because you think you are. No one talks about it.
Shandler: That’s one of the things I hoped to do with Ophelia Speaks, to break through that isolation. I think almost everyone is [depressed in high school]. It’s like an adolescent rite of passage. You don’t have to be, but that’s what it’s become .
Blustain: What’s the role of smartness in all of this?
Shandler: Pretty big. There is a lot of pressure, and I think that there’s something to being the best you can be. There’s also something to just accepting that the best isn’t the only way. If you had told that to me my junior year in high school, when I had anxiety about what college I was going to go to, I would have stepped on your toes and punched you in the head. It’s not what I wanted to hear then. In my experience, Jewish girls tend to be really smart. Once you start doing well, at a certain point, you’re expected to keep doing well.
Jaffe: Especially with Jewish girls, there’s not only the pressure to strive and be the best, and to be smarter and go to the best school, but you also have to find a nice Jewish boy. You have to be the best and do this and do that, but by the way, are you dating anyone? I had this conversation with my grandmother over the summer, and I was all excited, telling her about my successful first year at college, and I was telling her about the magazine, and my articles, and she literally stopped me in the middle and said, “So have you met any boys?” My Jewish friends totally have that same experience.
Blustain: The thing that really struck me reading your book is that these girls are really alone.
Shandler: I think that it’s absolutely true. If adults try to get involved and intervene, the answer they’re most likely to get back is, ‘No, Mommy and Daddy, I’m fine—I promise. I’m under a lot of pressure, but I’m fine.’
Jaffe: I think parents should have some sort of a decoder ring. When you say, ‘I’m totally fine,’ you really want them to know that you’re not, but you don’t want to say it. My parents always asked me if I was okay, and I’d say ‘yeah,’ and they’d say ‘great’ and walk away, because it was what they wanted to hear. Even when there were huge neon signs above my bed, nothing happened.
When I was 16, my mom found my diet pills something like three times in the span of four months. Every time:
‘Susannah, are these yours?
There should be a dictionary. What does ‘fine’ really mean? You can look it up and see that ‘fine’ means that she wants to go to a therapist.
Shandler: Most girls that age aren’t willing to say ‘I have a problem.’ Just saying ‘I need help’ is a huge step. [Among the responses for Ophelia Speaks], a lot of them came with cover letters saying, ‘this was really therapeutic for me,’ and I think for a lot of them it was just sort of that.
Jaffe: And I’m sure that half of your cover letters said, like, “This is the first time I’ve ever told anyone this.”
Shandler: Yeah, exactly. There were times when I thought, I am not a psychologist and I am not equipped to know these things about these people who I don’t know.
Blustain: Do you feel exposed, having written so much about yourself?
Shandler: Sure. It was really a decision I made. It was, like, I’m really not going to hold anything back for this because it’s important for it to come from me, because I look normal and happy and it’s important for me to really ‘fess up to all of this. So that was definitely a real deliberate decision, but there were many, many times when I was sitting at a computer and just said, okay, deep breath, I’m just going to do it. And just write. Admitting how old I was the first time I had sex and knowing my grandparents were going to read it was, like, Oh, God.
Blustain: How many of these issues did you see during your years in B’nai B’rith Girls?
Shandler: What I saw over my time at BBYO was that a lot of girls were really catty, really hurt each other, there were a significant number of eating disorders. Girls just really didn’t feel satisfied with themselves, they were really only interested in seeing themselves the way that boys saw them. [As a leader] I was really interested in trying to find some other way for these girls, and giving them information, and wanting to be a different kind of role model for them.
Blustain: A lot of what you write about is girls and pathologies—abusing alcohol and drugs, cutting themselves, having eating disorders, staying in abusive relationships. Is that level of dysfunction “normal”?
Shandler: I think that in some ways that’s normal adolescence, which is what is really sad. I don’t think the “normal teenager,” with teenage angst—you know, “I hate my parents, and they won’t let me go out and play”—is what’s happening for most girls. For most girls, I think there’s something more serious. It may not be an eating disorder that is even close to being hospitalized, but a 13-year-old girl who is eating diet pills all the time, that’s a problem, and that’s not normal. I remember being in sixth grade and deciding with my friend that we were going to eat salads every day, and we had to be on the diet. Eleven years old. That is normal, but it shouldn’t be normal.
Jaffe: I remember when I was 14, I had the exact same thing for lunch every day. I had a fat-free yogurt, four fat-free Fig Newtons, and a banana. It was perfectly balanced, because I was, like, ‘Whatever’s in Glamour.’
Shandler: Magazines just don’t want to take responsibility that they are putting these ideas out there for girls. If they admitted that, they’d have to seriously look at what they were publishing.