THURSDAY, SEP 16, 1999 4:00 PM UTC

Sells like Teen Spirit

Savvy about the media, steeped in pop psychology, today’s kids have problems the experts still don’t understand.

BY ALISSA QUART (excerpt)
Carmichael’s essay is scathing and outward-looking as well as inward-looking.
“Ophelia Speaks,” a bestselling collection of writing by teenage girls, doesn’t gloss over adolescent angst. Many of the book’s agonized authors write freely about their eating disorders (the book’s teen editor writes that each meal she eats is a decision not to be anorexic). As one girl puts it: “All of a sudden I’m insecurity-laden, nervous and dedicated to becoming Miss Skin ‘n’ Bones Teen USA.” Others write of depression and addiction and pregnancy: “After the suicide attempt, I grew stronger. The reality of the situation became clear to me. I found a purpose to live for — my baby.” Meanwhile, coddled girls rage at their mothers.
There are a number of quite moving essays in this collection. The best is by 15-year-old Emily Carmichael. In her sophisticated, painful and amusing meditation on girl power, she writes, “‘Girl power’ is a product, like for instance peanut butter, not a movement, like for instance suffrage … why do we buy this shit? … It’s something about being beautiful, that’s what it is. We want to be happy, to be surrounded by boys who lend us sweaters and girls who share their Slurpees.” Her rant against girl power’s beauty myth takes on a personal note as well: “Did you know that when I was anorexic and looked like a beanpole, I felt more powerful than I do now?”
Carmichael’s essay is scathing and outward-looking as well as inward-looking. Many of the other writings in “Ophelia Speaks” are more strictly self-involved. “Ophelia Speaks” is understandably intoxicated by its own youth, and the writing in it is often raw and true. But the book’s problem-oriented chapters reflect a less appealing aspect of adolescence: generational myopia. Shandler and her writers are appalled by high school drinking and teen pregnancy, and seem to believe that these dilemmas are not only difficult personal struggles, but radically new social problems. I was surprised by some aspects of “Ophelia Speaks,” but not these. What startled me was how readily most of the contributors have adopted a confessional, “problem memoir” mode. I was surprised to find that they take both pop psychology lingo and adolescent anorexia for granted. The chapters march to the rhythm of a self-help manual, with titles like “Self-Inflicted Wounds” and “Depression and Therapy.” Shandler doesn’t seem to consider these elements of her anthology surprising. Like brand-mania, they’ve become part of the adolescent landscape.