South Bend Tribune

South Bend Tribune

"All dolled up- 'Bare truth' disturbing: Girls fixated on body image,"
Julie York Coppens - January 26, 2003

Girls care deeply -- way too deeply -- about how they look.
Tell it to the wicked queen from "Snow White," who was neither the first nor the last female to find both her life's obsession and the key to her own ruin simply by looking in the mirror. A girl's driving need to be the fairest (prettiest, thinnest, youngest, blondest, best-dressed) is one of the oldest stories in the book, and we all know that for a few, the need can have deadly consequences.

But while photographer Lauren Greenfield hasn't uncovered some new phenomenon in her "Girl Culture" project -- a book, an educational Web site and an exhibit now on display at the Snite Museum of Art -- the images are startling nonetheless. Standing face to face with strippers, topless spring break revelers, fat camp inmates, anorexics, debutantes, cheerleaders, models, junior high clique queens and pint-size Britney Spears wannabes, one gets the sinking suspicion that a once relatively harmless fixation has become a full-blown, national psychosis whose victims just keep getting younger and more numerous.

"I really want to be a teenager. Now. Really fast," says Lily, 6, in one of the revealing interviews that accompany the photographs. "(Teenagers) dress up cool so boys like them. I saw it in a movie. They get dressed so fashionable, like a doll and stuff. They usually do this cool makeup, like lipstick. And a really blushy face. It's cool."

"In college," says Erin, 24, "I would go into the bathroom to purge, and someone would come out who just did, and (we would) look at each other and just know." Photographed by Greenfield at an eating-disorder clinic in Florida, Erin stands on the scale backward, not wanting to see how much she's gained -- but even the "blind weights" are a kind of torture: "I'm getting to where I can hear the clicks, and I'm afraid to hear that second click at a hundred. My total fear every morning is to hear it slide all the way over."

Greenfield's glossy, saturated color prints at first seem to emphasize the surface lives of these girls and women -- their various failures or successes at attaining the all-but-impossible feminine ideal -- but the interviews uncover worlds of hurt and anxiety (and in a few cases, hope) hiding just under the skin. And once the viewer gets there, even the photographs unaccompanied by text begin to speak volumes.

"Teens are not surprised at all by what's in the book," Greenfield, talking by phone from her studio in Venice, Calif., said. The artist said she's received hundreds of e-mails in response to "Girl Culture," many from girls and young women thanking Greenfield for shedding light on so many wrenching, formerly hidden rites of passage.

"Mothers, women of another generation, are often more surprised and disappointed by the photographs, and kind of shocked," Greenfield added. "They ask, 'Where are the smart girls?' It looks more one-sided to them. Of course, it's not meant to be the full picture of girls growing up today."
True, we see more cheerleaders here than valedictorians, but anyone who thinks the mostly maladjusted girls of "Girl Culture" represent some fringe minority is in denial.

"She makes the point that the extreme is becoming the norm -- that these patterns of behavior are becoming more and more common, and it starts at an earlier age than we think," commented Steve Moriarty, photography curator of the Snite. He pointed to a pair of images hanging side by side: On the left, a willowy lingerie model stands on a beach in mesh bikini panties and a matching bra she's just unhooked at the chest. On the right, three little girls in sequins and ballet outfits primp around a table littered with makeup. Calli, 5, stares probingly into a silver hand mirror held by her friend. It looks like the beginning of a lifelong, love-hate relationship.

Mirrors are everywhere in this series, from the basic bathroom vanity to the reflective sunroof of the Ford Explorer limo whisking the "damas" (maids of honor) to a lavish "quinceañera" ("sweet 15" party). And there are figurative mirrors as well: between a mother and her pre-adolescent daughter -- both doing everything they can to look 19 years old -- at an upscale beach resort; in the eyes of three admiring workmen, scoping out a model named Sara on a New York City sidewalk; and in every image where the female viewer might see traces of herself.

Boys, too, might be uncomfortable with the reflections they see.
"One guy said, 'I felt really nauseous going through the show. I was thinking about all the terrible things I did to girls in high school,'" said Greenfield, recalling the first showing of "Girl Culture" at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona last fall.

The men and boys we do see here -- bare-chested hardbodies on spring break hoisting an agile woman into an inverted fellatio pose; tattooed bikers ogling a woman's exposed breast, and only her breast, in another beach crowd -- make a sorry display, but again, Greenfield doesn't intend to reflect maleness in all its complexity. Rather, the images challenge us to consider how "girl culture," as Greenfield defines it, couldn't possibly exist without the willing participation of everyone involved.

"One of the things I looked at is how girls are complicit in this process," the photographer explained, adding that back in her own student days at a progressive school, she was taught to blame the male-dominated media, the exploitative fashion industry and so on. Now, she believes there are more complicated forces at work.

Greenfield also captures ironic intersections of what Trudy Wilner Stack, the traveling show's curator, calls "the girlish (ribbons and bows) and the girlie (g-strings and pasties)" realms: a condom blown up into a toy balloon; a "fetus bingo" game at a high school for teen mothers (we see one player's chipped blue nail polish); the shot of Lily, just 5 at the time, browsing with pursed lips through a rack of belly tops at the same Los Angeles boutique that outfits Spears. Lily's outfit -- a fuzzy white bra top and matching shorts, with fuchsia silk flowers at the chest, tucked into her big hair and onto the vamps of her chic slides -- is more shocking than even the skimpiest showgirl getups Greenfield documents in Las Vegas. One can't help wondering, Where is this child's mother?

While parents and other supposedly influential figures are mostly absent from these images, their permissiveness and even complicity in the beauty industry's reign of terror over their daughters -- after all, someone's got to be paying for all these clothes, cosmetics and summers at fat camp -- lurk just outside the frame. Ultimately, "Girl Culture" serves as one big mirror in which we as an American culture must confront this perverse sequel to decades of supposed progress in gender equality.

Early on, though, Greenfield had no idea the photographs she was making -- often in very intimate, private settings -- would end up telling such a big, public story.

"This really grew out of the last book I did, 'Fast Forward,' which was about kids growing up in L.A., how they grow up so quickly, and specifically looking at the culture of materialism," she said. "I just started to get interested in girls and how they acted within the material culture."

She continued the investigation while on assignment for other, short-term projects, chiefly for The New York Times Magazine. Gradually, over about five years, the big picture became clear.

"She has a good antenna, and good instincts for what's going on in a culture at a particular time," Moriarty observed. "We may take a little flack" from conservative voices on campus, the curator added, for the sheer flesh factor of this show and its exposure of social problems some might like to believe have no home at Notre Dame. "I hope people see themselves in these."