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Review of "Girl in the Mirror"

By Nancy L. Snyderman, M.D. and Peg Streep
Hyperion, 2002
Review by Marion Torchia on Jun 6th 2003
Girl in the Mirror

Girl in the Mirror is addressed to mothers about to embark on the challenge of raising adolescent daughters.  It is not, strictly speaking, a professional book.  Although one of the authors is a physician -- actually, a surgeon specializing in otolaryngology -- she does not draw on her own professional experience.  Instead, she and her colleague combine summaries of current literature on adolescent development with reflections on their experiences, and those of friends and colleagues, as daughters and as mothers.  The result is an optimistic, "you can do it" guide to "hands-on" mothering.

The book maintains a very valuable dual focus.  Middle class mothers are typically going through their own mid-life "changes" just as their daughters go through adolescence.  As their daughters step into the prime of life, they face all the losses that go with age.  Inevitably, tensions arise that must be faced honestly.  Any mother will react to her daughter's emerging sexuality, and to her striking out for autonomy, at least partly in terms of what these events say to her about her own past life and future prospects.

On the other hand, the mother, as the adult in the relationship, must be the responsible party, keeping her emotional reactions in perspective in order to work for her daughter's well-being.  Self-reflection is in order.

The authors try to debunk or re-frame what they see as distorted cultural myths.  A "Good Mother," in their view, does not need to be a cross between Mother Teresa and Martha Stewart; she is doing well if she enters into an honest, flexible relationship with her daughter.  Not all adolescents are prickly, rebellious, or in turmoil, victimized by "raging hormones"--though it is certainly true that adolescence is a time of radical change and a degree of struggle.  Peer influence is not uniformly dangerous; mothers need to appreciate the value of their daughters' friendships.

The book takes positions in opposition to several prevalent trends: an "age compression" that forces children into adolescence earlier and earlier; an increased sexualization of popular culture, and a feminine ideal that emphasizes bodily beauty at the expense of other personal values.  It takes a stand straightforwardly in favor of close parental supervision and the setting of limits.  "Hands-on" parenting includes knowing an adolescent's whereabouts; monitoring TV watching, Internet use, and musical tastes; and establishing family rituals such as mealtimes.

On the other hand, the authors' attitude is not entirely authoritarian.  They see the chief task of motherhood as engaging with one's daughter in an extended dialogue, a real two-way exchange.  In this conversation, the mother's values and behavior will be open to observation and criticism.  However, both parties will respect certain boundaries of privacy. 

The book touches on an enormous range of difficult topics, including divorce, step-parenting, adoption, sex education and sexual orientation, and drug and alcohol use.  Its extensive bibliography makes it a useful starting point for an investigation of these issues.

The chapter on "Troubled Waters" summarizes the standard scientific and public health literature on such serious emotional problems as depression, anxiety disorder, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.  It offers concrete advice, hope in the efficacy of treatment, and compassion for the mother's suffering.

Girl in the Mirror is an appealing book.  Its authors are strong in their opinions but not nasty, blaming, or backward looking.  They have succeeded in conveying a unified vision of the crucial task of mothering an adolescent daughter in today's world. 


© 2003 Marion Torchia


Marion Torchia is a Washington DC-based writer and health care analyst. She is particularly interested in the moral dimensions of our attitudes towards health and behavioral health.

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