Mirror, Mirror - by Lauren Greenfield

Mirror, Mirror - by Lauren Greenfield

From Girl Culture (Chronicle Books, 2002)

Girl Culture has been my journey as a photographer, as an observer of culture, as part of the media, as a media critic, as a woman, as a girl.

The photographs in this book and exhibition are both very personal and very public. They are about what is private and what is public and where the line that divides the two lies, when that line exists at all anymore. They are about the popular culture that we share and the way the culture leaves its imprint on individuals in their most public and private moments. They are about the girls I photographed. They are also about me.

Showgirl Anne-Margaret in her dressing room at the Stardust Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. For inspiration, she tapes pictures of models she admires to her mirror, along with a note that says “I approve of myself.”

I cannot say exactly when I began this project. I was enmeshed in girl culture before I was a photographer, and I was photographing girl culture before I realized I was working on Girl Culture. The first part of this process was making sense of what I had been drawn to for years in my photography, the themes and subject matter I visited again and again. Unlike other projects I’ve worked on, this one was less like building with blocks and more like deciphering code. The elements were all there, almost from the beginning. I simply needed to identify them, understand their importance, find the connections, and look for the big picture.

Though my nature is cerebral and controlling, the process of making these photographs was intuitive and associative. It was less narrative and intellectual than my usual journalistic approach – which somehow made it feel truer, as though it was coming froma place deeper than the mind. Of course, its truth is a subjective one, as true as one’s perception of oneself in the mirror.

When I was six, shortly after my parents’ separation, I remember looking hard at my reflection in the mirror, realizing that I was unimaginably ugly, and crying hysterically. It is my first memory of painful self-consciousness, although it would not be my last. Like Eve eating the apple and realizing she was naked and had something to hide, I understood the pain and shame of not measuring up as a girl. I don’t know how I recognized the value of beauty at that age: the notion must have been so ingrained that I can’t even remember its source.

At about the same time, I made my first best girlfriends. They were cute, popular twins who had the best Barbie collection and already knew all about menstruation. They were outgoing, and I was painfully shy. As attractive twins, they got lots of attention, and my proximity to them and pride in our friendship was almost as satisfying as getting the attention myself. Our relationship was my first experience of female bonding. It was life affirming and confidence building. I was accepted and was part of a group, my first clique.

Left: Lilly, 12, Chicago, Illinois.
Right: Lillian, 18, shops at Kirna Zabête, New York, New York.
The summer I turned twelve, I graduated from kids’ camp to teen camp. I was still terribly innocent and very much a child. I don’t remember paying attention to my appearance until my counselor’s boyfriend singled me out in front of the other girls and told me I had beautiful eyes. I was stunned, embarrassed, and excited. It must have been my first compliment from a man, because I remember it vividly. It reinforced the lesson that attention, on which there is such a premium for girls, is bestowed because of beauty. It also made me see myself through someone else’s eyes, another step in the awakening of my self-consciousness. It was a sea change from my camp experience the previous year, when I had won the title of “dirtiest camper” and wore the superlative with pride, as the public acknowledgment of my ability to play hard.

Sleep-away camp is supposed to be about getting back to nature and roughing it, but for me it served as an introduction to the world of the girly girl. My fellow campers brought trunks full of clothes, makeup, blow-dryers, hair gels. They straightened their hair, shaved their legs, and generally spent huge amounts of time and energy on their appearance. Clearly, the “dirtiest camper” designation was no longer cool. On the contrary, cleansing was an important ritual, and daily group showers were revelatory and embarrassing. The older girls provided a glimpse of the physical changes that were imminent. I faced the wall as much as possible to hide the fact that I was slow to develop. Camp is the first time I remember physically comparing myself to others.

Although I was not interested in boys at that point, teen camp provided ample sex education. I heard a rumor that Marnie gave Richie head, and although I knew that that was very exciting gossip, I actually had no idea what it meant. We raided the boys’ cabin at night, but for me it was less about boys and more about bonding with the other girls, a feat of daring and an opportunity to defy authority. At the end of camp, our counselor brought us to a tree house to have a tête à tête and told us a terrifying account of the night she had been raped outside a bar.

I was not consciously thinking about these early memories of girlhood when I began photographing Girl Culture. I was, however, thinking about my chronic teenage dieting, my gravitation toward good-looking and thin friends for as long as I can remember, and the importance of clothes and status symbols in the highly materialistic, image-oriented Los Angeles milieu in which I grew up. I remember standing in front of the closet on Saturdays, as a preteenager, paralyzed by having to decide what to wear to Hebrew school. The fact that one of the other girls had seventeen pairs of Chemin de Fers (the pricey, de rigueur designer jeans of the time) made getting dressed that much more difficult.

Body obsessions followed me into young adulthood. I remember the summer in college when I went on a crash diet and lost twenty-six pounds, in the process gaining so much confidence that I threw myself into my first serious relationship, with the man I later married.

And I am a normal American girl. My introduction to the body culture and the paramount importance of image for women was typical, and relatively benign by today’s standards. A teenager in the 1980s, I grew up in the pre–Britney Spears world, where I wore a long, white, frilly dress to my prom, rather than a skimpy minidress or two-piece, stomach-revealing gown as is the style nowadays. While it was important to be thin, the fashions were not as demanding as today’s midriff-baring T-shirts, navel piercings, and low-riding jeans. Although I was a compulsive dieter at times, I never had a full-blown eating disorder.

In this work, I have been interested in documenting the pathological in the everyday. I am interested in the tyranny of the popular and thin girls over the ones who don’t fit that mold. I am interested in the competition suffered by the popular girls, and their sense that popularity is not as satisfying as it appears. I am interested in the time-consuming grooming and beauty rituals that are an integral part of daily life. I am interested in the fact that to fall outside the ideal body type is to be a modern-day pariah. I am interested in how girls’ feelings of frustration, anger, and sadness are expressed in physical and self-destructive ways: controlling their food intake, cutting their bodies, being sexually promiscuous. I am interested in the way that the female body has become a palimpsest on which many of our culture’s conflicting messages about femininity are written and rewritten. Most of all, I am interested in the element of performance and exhibitionism that seems to define the contemporary experience of being a girl.

These interests, my own memories, and a genuine love for girls, gossip, female bonding, and the idiosyncratic rituals of girl culture, have fueled this photographic journey over the last five years.

There are girls and women in my photographs whom readers may view as marginal or whose lives may be perceived as extreme. In effect, the popular culture has caused the ordinary to become inextricably intertwined with what to many seems extraordinary. Most girls are familiar with “marginal” experiences from television, magazines, and music. A suburban teenager says she would like to become an exotic dancer. A prepubescent girl mimics the sexualized moves and revealing clothing that she sees on MTV. Understanding the dialectic between the extreme and the mainstream—the anorectic and the dieter, the stripper and the teenager who bares her midriff or wears a thong—is essential to understanding contemporary feminine identity.

Top: May Day at Girls Preparatory School, Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Bottom: The image of Aki, the star showgirl of the Stardust Hotel, on the tail of an airplane, Las Vegas, Nevada.

The body has become the primary canvas on which girls express their identities, insecurities, ambitions, and struggles. I have documented this phenomenon and at the same time explored how this canvas is marked by the values and semiotics of the surrounding culture.

Several years ago, I read Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s influential book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, which lent a historical and theoretical context to my visual observations. Brumberg notes that since the 1920s, when dieting and more revealing fashions came into vogue, girls have understood that their bodies are in some ways a public project. Modern femininity requires a degree of exhibitionism, or at least a willingness to display oneself as a decorative object. Brumberg recounts that in her class at Cornell University, female students often express relief that they do not live in the Victorian era, when women were expected to wear constrictive garments, such as corsets. Brumberg then asks her students what kind of physical maintenance their contemporary fashions require. Reporting their replies—a litany of shaving, waxing, tanning, dieting, and working out—Brumberg questions the nature of the “progress” and whether the restrictions of the nineteenth century have merely been replaced with new ones, imposed on women from without and within.

The central importance of these “body projects” and the elaborate and costly decoration of the female body have made girls easy targets for the advertising industry. The rise in teen consumerism and direct marketing to teenagers has allowed corporate America to fully exploit girls’ desire to change themselves. Girls’ emotional and physical development has become inextricably linked to the commercial world, which has redefined many rites of passage in its own terms. Consumer rituals have become coming-of-age milestones: a first manicure, shopping with peers rather than parents, defining a personal style with a designer brand. In her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used against Women, Naomi Wolf paraphrases Betty Friedan: “Why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body? Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring beauties.”

Many of the pictures that make up Girl Culture were made on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, Time, Harper’s Bazaar, and W. I realize that, as a photographer exploring the media’s influence, I walk a fine line. The fact that I have had so many rich assignments on girls and popular culture from major magazines is due, in part, to the sexiness of the subject, in literal and figurative terms. Much of my access to the popular culture is that of a privileged insider, as a member of the press; and, as such, I am complicit in the creation of imagery of women in the mainstream media. During a time that has been difficult for many photojournalists, with shrinking budgets for documentary stories and foreign news coverage, my work has benefited from the media’s interest in popular culture, commercial culture, American youth, and itself.

While I often can’t control the picture editing, writing, and design in my work for magazines, the selection and presentation of photographs in this book are my own. As the photographs are my voice, the interviews give voice to the girls. Although photography’s loyalty to surface truth is its greatest strength, it is nonetheless at a disadvantage when it comes to getting to know individuals. It is my hope that the interviews will give readers a glimpse into the hearts and minds of the girls. Some interviews were recorded at the same time as the photography. Others were conducted months or (in the case of Alison) years after the photograph was taken. The interviews are often with a girl pictured in the photo, but not always.

Girl Culture is my photographic examination of an aspect of our culture that leaves few women untouched. It does not attempt to represent the experience of all girls in America, or even the full and rich experience of any girl I photographed. My journey has been spontaneous and unpredictable, subject to the people I happened to meet, the twists and turns of my travels, my assignments, the access I gained, my interest at any particular moment. Infinite choices were made in the subject matter, in the point of view, in the moment I depressed the shutter, in the editing. Ultimately, Girl Culture looks at a wide spectrum of girls through a very narrow prism.

Photography is an ideal medium with which to explore the role of image in our culture. The camera renders an illusion of objective representation, just like a mirror. But as every woman knows, a mirror provides data that, filtered through a mind and moods, are subject to wildly differing interpretations. This project has been my mirror and my attempt to deconstruct the illusions that make up our reality.