Cleveland Jewish News

Cleveland Jewish News

"'Girl Culture' examines roots of self-esteem crisis," Fran Heller
- November 22, 2002

"You've come a long way baby," boasts the ad that became a buzzword for women's lib.

Or have we?

A small, but revealing exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art asks the question in "Girl Culture," a group of 15 photographs by artist Lauren Greenfield exploring the relationship of girls and women to their bodies. At once sensuous, insightful and deeply disturbing, the intimate portraits convey the message that in the post-feminist American world, body image still plays a strong role in a girl's self-worth.

Consider the photograph of 15-year-old Sheena of San Jose, Calif., squeezing her breasts to emphasize cleavage while trying on clothes in a department store. Or, the picture of 4-year-old Allegra in Malibu, Calif., assuming a provocative pose while playing dress-up.

Exhibit curator Tom Hinson, curator of photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art, characterizes "Girl Culture" as an examination of the roots of the self-esteem crisis among young females in which they judge themselves by their appearance and seek to "better" themselves by changing their looks.
The book accompanying the exhibit includes 107 photographs and interviews with each subject.

Maximizing her body image as a business is Cindy Margolis, "the world's most downloaded woman," according to the Guinness Book of World Records. In the photograph, Margolis wears hot-pink leather and gold shoes.
Fitting the Minnesota definition of beauty as blonde, blue-eyed and thin, is a snapshot of Alli, Annie, Hannah and Berit, four striking 13-year-olds all dressed up for their first big party in the seventh grade.

While some of the images elicit fond memories of what it was like growing up female, others summon feelings of sadness from a culture which idolizes thinness as the ideal.

At one end of the spectrum, there is plump, rosy-cheeked Amelia, 15, at a weight-loss camp in the Catskills. At the other end is the self-mutilating Erin, 24, being weighed at an eating-disorder clinic in Florida. She stands with her back to the scale to avoid seeing her weight gain.

These were the hardest images to photograph and stories to write, admits Greenfield, who spoke about her work at the museum on Oct. 23.

The worship of beauty is evident in the image of a showgirl sitting in a Las Vegas hotel dressing room with cutouts of models' faces taped to her mirror. On the mirror is a handwritten note that says, "I approve of myself."

In a lot of ways, notes Greenfield, this work is also her looking glass. "When I was a teenager, I was wracked with all the insecurities of body image, and used a lot of my own memories and experiences as basic to the work."

Greenfield, who is Jewish, and whose subjects include both Jewish and non-Jewish women, sees the quest for the ideal body as universal. "We're all affected by these images," she said.

The subject matter of Greenfield's 1997 award-winning exhibit and book, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, an exploration of cultural materialism with its graphic images of nose jobs, breast enlargements and glitzy b'nai mitzvah, was much more Jewish in focus. It also catapulted the young photojournalist, now 36, into international fame.
"Girl Culture" was an outgrowth of her work on Fast Forward.

Women's lib was supposed to free "the fairer sex" from equating self-confidence with self-image. Greenfield's photographs convey the message that body image and self-esteem are not only more closely linked than ever, they are filtering down to the youngest set.

Cornell Professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of The Body Project, wrote the introduction to Greenfield's book.

Brumberg believes that girls are maturing earlier, explains Greenfield. Because American society has provided few protections for them, they are very vulnerable to the influence of popular culture and peer pressure. As a result, they turn their bodies into all-consuming projects.

None of Greenfield's subjects looks happy. "It's a tough and challenging time to grow up as a girl," she says. "There's a lot of different kinds of mixed messages that girls are dealing with." Greenfield's book is really about one specific aspect of life for girls, she says, not the totality of their experience.