"BOOK REVIEW: Girl Culture" - Jessica Reaves

A new book by photographer Lauren Greenfield reveals the insecurities, dreams and secret rituals of American girls. What emerges is a portrait of two generations growing up too fast

Annie, Hannah, and Alli, all 13, get ready for the first big party
of the seventh grade, Edina, Minnesota

American girlhood ain't what it used to be. Maybe there are pockets of girls out there who still revel in the "Little House on the Prairie" books or dress up their dolls or run lemonade stands. But they aren't catching the eyes of sociologists, who seem to agree that girls today are growing up in a hyper-sexualized peer pressure-cooker - and they don't show up in "Girl Culture," a new book from photographer Lauren Greenfield (Chronicle Books; $40.00). Even the youngest girls in Greenfield's gritty, gorgeous portraits are far too busy dressing up like Barbie dolls to play with them.

A gentle warning: this is not a book for parents desperate to maintain their naivete about what's happening in their daughters' lives: these accounts show you more than you've ever imagined about the sexual and social habits of girls. Greenfield's photographs are accompanied by narratives from the girls themselves; the stories they tell, which are unflinchingly raw and honest, are often difficult to read. No matter how well you think you understand what goes on in adolescent life, it can be shocking to read first-hand accounts of the jealousy, pettiness, meanness and general anxiety that characterize female adolescence.

The girls in this book range in age from pre-school to post-grad. And Greenfield makes good use of the insecurities of each age, zeroing in on the shame of an 11-year-old at fat camp, emphasizing the anxiety of an up-and-coming actress standing outside her trailer, highlighting the terrible uncertainty of a teenage girl who is banished, by virtue of her rounded face and curly dark hair, from the blonde, slim world of the popular girls.

While it will come as no surprise to learn that beauty and appearance feature prominently the minds of most girls, Greenfield's portraits reveal the force with which the need to be desired, even objectified, in a very adult way is expressed, as well as the unexpected ambivalence with which that objectification, once achieved, is met. The book's teenage and pre-teen girls put on the trappings of adult sexuality - the makeup, the hairstyles, the clothing - but they aren't quite sure what to do with themselves once they're done. One series of photos shows a group of 7th-grade friends getting ready to go to a party; Hannah, a member of the group, talks with aching honesty about the dichotomy of appearance and reality. "I've been approached by people who think I'm older... It makes me kind of uncomfortable, because I might look older, but underneath it all, I'm only 13. It's kind of scary. It's a hard feeling to not know where you fit in yet."

While some of the girls' attempts at premature adulthood are wryly amusing, others are nearly tragic. Four-year-old Allegra is the youngest subject of Greenfield's camera; she poses on several pages wearing makeup, a too-large pink leotard and gold pumps. The images are eerily reminiscent of Jon-Benet Ramsey's now immortal beauty queen poses.

If there's anything to learn from this book, it's that there's simply no escape from the ordeals of girl culture. "Fat" girls get picked on, too-skinny girls get laughed at, popular girls spend their time worrying they'll stop being popular. Even beautiful girls suffer: Sara, a lanky, blonde 19-year-old model living in New York, describes an episode where a businessman approaches her on the sidewalk, puts his hand on her shoulder and asks to take a picture with her. When she brushes him off, he retaliates. "Five seconds later, I feel another tap on my shoulder," she recounts. "I turn around, and the same guy shoved me on the pavement." Sara doesn't seem particularly angry or upset about this incident, just sad.

And sadness is a common underlying theme of these stories; while many of the girls put on the perky, insouciant faces they feel they're expected to wear, their words betray a longing to be superficially different - smaller, taller, richer, blonder. The hierarchy of acceptable attributes is spelled out by one self-described Southern Belle, who prizes her "Southern-girl standards" above (almost) everything else. "I would rather be dumb than a slut," she announces, "but I would rather be a slut than be fat or ugly."