Courier Press

"Miss-perception: 'Girl Culture' captures images girls see reflected by the mirror of society," Libby Keeling - September 17, 2006

From birth, girls are relentlessly bombarded by unrealistic images and expectations: To be good enough, you have to be thin enough, pretty enough, sexy enough, fashionable enough and accepted enough. Body and beauty define the feminine ideal.

It's a ubiquitous message.

Girls themselves perpetuate the "perfection perception," many with the endorsement of the older women in their lives.

But perhaps most disturbing is that awareness does not bring immunity.
"Most girls you talk to don't think these are the right things to worry about," said Lauren Greenfield, an award-winning photographer.

But they do.

The "Girl Culture" project, Greenfield's startling documentary
of girls in the 21st century, explores public and private moments reflecting the American definition of what it means to be female.

Greenfield's "Girl Culture" exhibit of photographs and transcribed interviews opens at the Evansville Museum Sept. 24.

"For me, it was an important issue and an important aspect, because I think almost no woman has been untouched by these things," Greenfield said in a telephone interview from her studio in Los Angeles.

The exhibit and eponymous book (Chronicle, 2002) were the result of five years of work and thousands of rolls of film. Greenfield photographed and interviewed girls and women across the nation from 1995 to 2000.

The project's images feature girls and women at home, at school, at auditions, at fat camp, on the street, in cliques, at the beach, in bathrooms, at eating disorder clinics, in dressing rooms and in competitions. Naked moments of insecurity and self-criticism contrast with uninhibited displays of breasts, as well as bravado.

Each photograph, Greenfield's experience capturing the image and the qualities that make it meaningful to the project prevent her from singling out one as the most powerful. "That's like asking somebody who their favorite child is," she said.

However, a few of the photographs do stand out as particularly expressive of the project's theme, Greenfield said. In one of those, a Las Vegas showgirl holds a picture of a model in front of her lighted makeup mirror. She has taped photographs of several models she admires to the base of the mirror. A handwritten note - "I approve of myself" - adorns one corner.

"It really brought up the self-esteem issues that were really at the heart of the 'Girl Culture' project," Greenfield said.

The picture also serves as a metaphor for the ways girls use the images of others to construct images for themselves. Greenfield said she took the photograph before conceptualizing the project.

"Girl Culture" evolved as she reviewed pictures she had taken over the years, began pulling them together in different ways and started thinking about the elements that had attracted her to certain subjects.
Greenfield said she had been drawn to situations with girls and was interested in their exhibitionism and awareness of external self. Little girls, she said, begin performing for others at an early age.

"I guess the strongest thing that emerged for me was this idea," she said. "The Body Project."

Joan Jacobs Brumberg's "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls" was an inspiration, Greenfield said. The book characterizes the cultural environment as "toxic" to adolescent girls willing to sacrifice mental and physical health in the compulsive pursuit of beauty.

"The Body Project" is both a brain drain and a financial drain, Greenfield said, with its focus on grooming and fashion. Eating disorders and promiscuity are among its most self-destructive manifestations.

Although the literary and academic worlds already had explored the impact of society's emphasis on body and image, Greenfield said, she wanted to tell the story in a visual and documentary way.

"There is something about the photographs that seems to allow a very personal discussion to take place.

"It almost seems like there is a release in recognizing yourself in the pictures or in someone else's story that seems to be a good launching point for discussion."

Greenfield initially thought "Girl Culture" was appropriate for youths in high school and college, as well as adults. Due to the hard issues it examines and the frank images it includes, she believed younger children might find it disturbing.

Then middle school students viewed the traveling exhibit, and parents told her the content was not new to their children.

"A lot of kids, whether with their parents knowledge or without, are watching 'Girls Gone Wild' on cable or MTV, and there's nothing in the 'Girl Culture' show that's beyond what kids are seeing on TV," Greenfield said.

"Their parents might be shocked by some of the things in the show, but kids never are."