Chicago Sun Times

Chicago Sun Times

Exhibit charts journey from girl to woman
But curator says it depicts troubling trip

January 24, 2008
By Andrew Herrmann

The Art Institute calls its new exhibit of about 40 photographs of female adolescents "Girls on the Verge.''

Question is, on the verge of what?
Womanhood certainly. But what kind of womanhood?

Using images ranging from prepubescent middle schoolers to blooming teenagers, the exhibit attempts to show, its curator says, how "in our increasingly sexualized, media-driven culture, the dividing line between childhood innocence and knowing adulthood has become progressively blurred.''

The images aren't graphic, but many hint at how peer pressure and body image fixations can adversely shape girls' development.

"Girls and women are encouraged to be beautiful and perfect and especially thin, and all of this is driven toward consumption. Those are troubling messages,'' said Elizabeth Siegel, an Art Institute curator of photography who organized the exhibit.

She cites a photo by Lauren Greenfield, who has chronicled emerging womanhood in her books Girl Culture, Thin and Fast Forward. In the picture are four 13-year-old Edina, Minn., seventh-graders ready to attend a party.

"You know those girls are the popular girls setting the social standards for their grade. It's hard not to think of the film 'Mean Girls.' They're 13, but they look so adult,'' Siegel said.

Greenfield, in an interview from Utah, where her filmed examination of teen consumerism, "Kids + Money,'' is showing at the Sundance Film Festival, said her work is designed "to isolate moments that reveal our culture, so there can be discussion."

The exhibit debuts as a counterargument has emerged about the lives of girls. Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon, author of Alpha Girls (Rodale), argues there is an "emancipated confidence" in many young women today, thanks to increased academic and athletic opportunities.

In 2005, nearly 59 percent of undergraduate degrees were granted to women, and women make up half of those enrolled in medical school and nearly half of current law school classes, Kindlon says.

"The pessimistic portrait of adolescent girls' psychological health is obsolete," he writes. "The passive, voiceless, self-hating teenage girl appears to be an endangered species.''

Greenfield responds that women can be successful and still have self-esteem issues. As a Harvard undergraduate, "I was surprised to see as many body-image issues among women as I had in my high school. One doesn't negate the other,'' she said.

Greenfield's "Kids + Money'' will be shown at the Art Institute's Fullerton Hall at 6 p.m. Jan. 31.