Their Bodies, Their Selves : A revealing portrait of teen-age girls in America : GIRL POWER, <i> By Hillary Carlip (Warner Books: $11.99, paper; 288 pp.)</i>

<i> Diana Nyad holds the world record for the longest swim in history, for both men and women: 102.5 miles. She has been a television reporter for 15 years and is a columnist on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."</i>

Most of what we assume to be true about ourselves as a society is based on studies of white males. Author Hillary Carlip does a great service by breaking this stale tradition. To assemble “Girl Power,” her mural of teen life in America, she turned to the female population.

“Girl Power” is a collection of essays and poems by girls 13 to 19 who come from a wide swath of cultural and economic lines. Because the writings are unedited, we are privy to the raw voices of runaways on the streets of Los Angeles, Deep South sorority sisters, girls working 16-hour days on a Montana ranch and a national group called “Riot Grrrls,” who network through their own magazines (“ ‘zines”), spreading their “you can do anything” gospel.

We hear the anger of a girl from rural Kentucky who is now pregnant, she says, because her mother didn’t set the most basic rules. An African American raised in a drug-infested, gang war zone of San Francisco speaks tenderly of her white seventh-grade teacher who adopted her and put the word trust back in her vocabulary. And there is the gut-wrenching remorse of a girl who contracted AIDS after a one-night stand.


No sociological perspectives will guide you through “Girl Power.” There isn’t much tethering of all these wonderfully textured voices; no reasons are given for the general adolescent malaise nor are there many statistics to educate us about these disparate communities. Carlip acknowledges from the outset that she is neither a psychologist nor a sociologist; she is a writer who has given a speaking opportunity to a group that, for the most part, has been oppressed into silence, a group formerly not considered worthy of a forum. The sad fact is that adolescent girls are attempting and committing suicide, facing unwanted pregnancies, taking drugs, battling anorexia and bulimia, smoking cigarettes and shoplifting. And they are performing these self-destructive acts in record numbers.

Adolescence is an awkward and confusing stage in life. But in conducting creative writing workshops over four years for thousands of teen-age girls, Carlip found that some of today’s anxieties are unique to this generation. Crime, caused by drugs, has escalated exponentially and has encroached on the once safe suburban cul-de-sacs. Technology has created teen computer freaks who are removed from human interaction. The latch-key syndrome has meant that kids are left to fend for themselves. Gathering around the family dinner table is a ritual of the past. Our teen-agers feel lonely and alone.

And, for girls, the sexual revolution has created a myriad other pressures. The push to become sexually active at an early age screams from television sitcoms, advertising billboards, music videos and fashion magazines. The boys are pushed too but responsibility still rests with the girls. A recent study by UC Irvine found that among California mothers ages 11 to 15, 9% of their partners were junior high school boys, and 51% of the fathers were adults. Young teens are not experimenting with each other as much as young girls are being preyed upon by older men.

One 16-year-old in “Girl Power” echoes the litany of problems that drain the daily lives of teen-agers: “I have convinced one of my friends not to commit suicide. . . . There are so many things to worry about. One of my friends was raped just walking home from a neighbor’s house. Some of my friends have made a career out of shoplifting. My ex-boyfriend sold drugs. . . . I have seen people go from straight-A students to dropping out of school. I have a friend who at 16 had to get an abortion. I want to do more with my life.”

Rising here and there across the ashen landscape of this book are voices that sing joy amid the gloom of the other pieces. These are the girls linked by the common thread of self-confidence. It is heartening, after too many tales of 13-year-olds having babies, to hear from girls who embrace the culture of sports, or who grow up working on ranches or farms. Leading athletic lives gives these girls confidence. Margaret LeGates, the first girl wrestler on a boys’ high school team in Illinois, writes: “I have gained self-respect and respect for others’ opinions. I have gained strength and willpower which will stay with me for life.”

How many parents, teachers and preachers hope in vain that our teen-agers will latch onto these notions of self-respect and willpower? After reading “Girl Power,” you can surmise that we know the cure. Girls who “hang out” are lost while the girls who lead cattle drives are happy. Girls obsessed with beauty and weight are depressed while girls who extend themselves in a competitive arena think highly of themselves.


The Institute for Athletics and Education has found that girls who participate in sports are 92% less likely than their peers to get involved with drugs, 80% less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy and three times more likely to graduate from high school.

You might wish for a few more of these statistics for perspective while reading the book. But in the end, it seems important enough that the author spent four years inspiring this great variety of kids to open their hearts and their minds on paper. As a young Apache named Yvonne says, “I don’t always want to be right. I just want to be heard.” Bravo to “Girl Power” for letting us hear the voices of Yvonne and Margaret LeGates and the other teen-age girls of America.