San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle

“Girlhood, interrupted," Joshunda Sanders - February 2, 2003

Photographer's book, exhibition document young women's tortured relationships to their bodies

Strutting through the San Francisco Shopping Centre in spike heels and tight jeans, Shari and Emily seem to be shopping more for an ideal than an outfit.

They stroll past a display of stick-thin mannequins. Shari clutches the white strap of her bag, slung across her brown corduroy jacket and pink plaid shirt. She turns away from the window and looks down at her plump hands.

"It always seems like losing weight is the only thing girls are supposed to be thinking about," she says.

With most of her curly blond hair pulled into a ponytail, her face is healthy-looking and full. When she looks at herself, though, all she sees is fat. "I've been doing Weight Watchers since I was 6," Shari, 19, says. "I mean,

there are these constant ups and downs. Even when I was thinner, I felt overweight."

She doesn't remember when the pressure to be thin, to be perfect, began. It comes from everywhere: movies, friends, family. But the woman Shari strives to be - tall, skinny, with long straight hair - is a body of contradictions. This woman's stomach is flat, but her hips are curvy; her lips supple but not "too big." She looks vulnerable, but her beauty is supposed to mean power and desire.

This same angst of adolescence, this primping and posing inside the prism of body ideals, is on display in a provocative book and photographic exhibition of young girls aspiring for unattainable perfection in ther 21st century. Lauren Greenfield's "Girl Culture" (Chronicle Books, $28) shows, in penetrating and honest fashion, 50 young women much like Shari and Emily.

From toddlers and twentysomethings at weight-loss camps and eating-disorder clinics, to the world's most downloaded woman (Cindy Margolis) and anonymous spring-break revelers, Greenfield took five years to document a cross-section of womanhood. What she found is a jarring account of female stress concerning weight, sports and sexuality.

Beauty, it turns out, is a fragile kind of power. Strength is relative. Sex still sells, but how much does it cost?

"If you have a flaw," writes Hannah, 13, "you'll be criticized whether you like it or not."

Instead of waiting for outside criticism, 24-year-old Erin writes, ''I obsess over every inch of my body. I can't find one spot I like."

And on it goes. Young women's struggles with self-acceptance and body image mark each photograph throughout the book and accompanying exhibition, at the Robert Koch gallery in San Francisco through March 3. It's not surprising to anyone, Greenfield says, that girls today view themselves through the filter of other people's thoughts - it's what they've been conditioned to do. Even the most powerful among them - say, Jennifer Lopez or Venus Williams - peer into pop culture's mirror, and even the oldest among them are dissatisfied with what stares back at them.

About a dozen of Greenfield's photos appear in the exhibition. At the recent opening, Greenfield called the body a "canvas on which girls express and evaluate themselves. It's such an important part of our culture."

The woman behind the lens

In a nearly empty restaurant in Chinatown, Greenfield walks in confidently without a trace of makeup, a Leica camera hanging from her shoulder.

The makeup thing isn't a political statement: She's a working photojournalist, wife and mother of a 2-year-old boy - she doesn't really have time for vanity. When it comes to her subjects, though, she walks a fine line between empathy and objectivity. She captures a girl's trip to the prom with the same poignancy as she does a girl who makes tiny cuts on her abdomen because she hates herself.

One might expect a woman who sees so much pain and confusion in young women to be, well, militant. Instead, she is a soft-spoken and petite brunette with short curly hair and pensive green eyes. A Los Angeles native who refers to "Girl Culture" as her "labor of love," Greenfield started taking pictures as a hobby while she was a student at Harvard. When she traveled around the world to France, Mexico and London, she began to view the world as an outsider, which helped hone her skill as an intern at National Geographic and provided her with the confidence to return to Southern California.

After reading "Less Than Zero," novelist Brett Easton Ellis' seedy glimpse at L.A. youth culture in the 1980s, she got the idea for "Fast Forward." It is a candid look at youths growing up in the shadow of Hollywood - from teen parents and child actors to gang members. Thirty publishers rejected it before Knopf published the book, which was eventually optioned by Columbia Pictures to become a feature film. Greenfield is now working on a film about anorexia and traveling across the country with the "Girl Culture" exhibition.

She has worked with the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona to develop an online faculty guide (greenfield.viiphoto.com/girlculture) to keep the discussion going about what girls learn about themselves and what can be done to improve their self-esteem. As with her first book, the photographs in "Girl Culture" are not as simple as the relationship between subject and voyeur. They are imposing glances and narrative sketches at the struggle to be a part of something bigger than adolescence or transition. They are an articulation of what it means to come of age in a world of mixed messages, for people who haven't yet learned how to express the confusion of it all.

Though Greenfield could identify with some of her subjects' feelings, she was never an outcast.

"But I never exactly fit in," she says.

Being in social limbo helped her relate to some, but not all, stories. Some were too powerful or graphic to include in the book. Example: A girl who didn't make the exhibition or book had seizures outside of Greenfield's hotel room after her beer was laced with the date-rape drug GHB during a spring break trip. Greenfield also met an overweight girl so afraid of girls in her neighborhood making fun of her that she wouldn't leave the house unless she could run from her front door to her mother's car.

"It's a lot harder for girls now," Greenfield says. "Everything is much more extreme, the bar is that much higher. They have the midriff clothes and we didn't really have that, but now they have to have the six pack to go along with the clothes."

Where it comes from Christina. Pink. Beyonce. Teen idols themselves aren't really to blame, experts say, but the media are.

A study released last year by the advocacy group Children Now found that almost half of women seen in newspapers, television and movies are portrayed as thin. Ten percent of the time, women are presented grooming or "preening." Nearly 40 percent of all articles in teen magazines focus on appearance.

Tamara Sobel, project director of the Girls, Women + Media Project in New York, calls "Girl Culture" an eye-opening exhibition not only because of how it explores cultural pressure on women and girls to be thin, but also because it delves into how girls see and interpret sexuality.

"Not only do we have more and more media images forming the visual background of our lives, but those images are increasingly sexual, especially when it comes to the female body. . . . Often these are images of bodies that have been perfected by computers, or bodies that have been altered by surgical technology, so they are impossibly perfect for the average girl/woman. That's also new," Sobel said.

Greenfield's photos, according to Sobel, move people away from a theoretical and abstract debate.

"(Her work) reminds us that we can't forget that girls are always watching, eager to learn how to be a woman, how to incorporate our sexuality into our lives," she said. "Ultimately, I think her message is, our confusion is theirs too."

So, who is responsible for the girls who feel pressured to be thin or beautiful? Sobel and Greenfield agree that a family's role in shaping a healthy self-image is perhaps most important. And yet, parents are often shocked by her images.

"Some of them consider themselves very conscientious, but they let their kids have some of that clothing," Greenfield said. "They don't think, 'What does it mean?' Instead, parents act as enablers."

Sobel suggests that families can restrict girls' media exposure, encouraging them to think for themselves about what makes them feel good. She also suggests being proactive about what types of images girls see by checking out movies before their families watch them. It may be as simple as telling the girls in your life that you love them for who they are.

"I think the hardest thing about being a girl," says then-15-year-old Ruby, "is having enough self-confidence to believe in yourself and think, I'm pretty and I'm smart; I'm gonna make it."

Kristen, 19, a lanky blonde who hails from Chicago, walked through Nordstrom at the San Francisco Centre. She said her family has been a major force in affirming her self-esteem.

"You always feel like, 'I may not be good enough,' " Kristen said. "But self-confidence is so important. You can't worry about what people think."

But Kristen, like many of the other girls in the exhibition and at the mall,
agreed that girls will probably always care about what people think of their bodies and their worth. They all shrugged it off, saying it's a part of society and just part of being a girl.