“Unflinching portrait” - Kate Santich, November 7, 2004
A photographer and one of her subjects share a journey into the pressures facing young women today.
She was captured standing on a scale in a hospital gown, two attendants flanking her, her face full of despair.
Erin Cosgrove, then 24, was 72 pounds and slowly starving to death.
She had turned her back to the numbers -- a blind-weighing, they called it -- because she didn't want to know. The mere sound of the scale clicking up a notch unnerved her.
The scene almost looked like a crucifixion.
At an eating disorders clinic in South Florida, Lauren Greenfield -- an award-winning photographer who had worked for National Geographic, Time, Life and The New York Times Magazine, among others -- froze the image on film. Greenfield was finishing up a documentary project she called "Girl Culture," a journey that had taken her from debutante balls to plastic-surgery centers to porn-star auditions.
But there, in the Coconut Creek clinic, she found the view especially disturbing. Some of the patients would not get well, she knew. And those who did would need years of intense therapy. Their bodies had become a canvas for the way they felt about themselves, colored in part by society's relentless messages on the female form.
Greenfield never had endured a full-blown eating disorder herself, but, in Cosgrove's tortured weigh-in sessions, she recognized the emotion.
"When I was 6, shortly after my parents' separation, I remember looking hard at my reflection in the mirror, realizing that I was unimaginably ugly, and crying hysterically," Greenfield, 38, would write later. "It is my first memory of painful self-consciousness, although it would not be my last."
Greenfield would go on to shoot hundreds of photos, interview dozens of subjects and spend months editing before her book Girl Culture was published in late 2002 to national acclaim. But for two years, she would have no idea what became of that emaciated young woman on the scales -- a woman who had sliced the flesh over her own womb in a symbol of loathing toward her gender. Erin Cosgrove was simply one more person whose path she had crossed, one more piece of an intricate, layered portrait of how girls transform their physical selves for acceptance, power and affection.
"Erin was very sick when I met her," Greenfield says. "And she would actually get sicker after I left."
Lessons start early
Lauren Greenfield is considered one of the 25 most influential photographers working today. Museums and galleries in Rome and Moscow and Amsterdam have featured her work. An exhibition of Girl Culture is now making its way around the United States, including a current stop at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach.
Her mission is as much cultural anthropologist as it is artist. In that respect, she has been preparing for this work since she was 3, when her mother, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, toted her along for a research trip to an Indian village in the highlands of Mexico.
A painfully shy child growing up in the image-obsessed, materialistic society of Los Angeles, Greenfield searched for acceptance by osmosis, surrounding herself with the thin and popular girls. She remembers vividly the first time a man paid her a compliment -- he was the boyfriend of a camp counselor and told her, in front of everyone, that she had pretty eyes. It reinforced the lesson she was learning: beauty brings attention, approval, worth.
As an adolescent, Greenfield began to notice the odd, absorbing rituals of her peers as they slaved over their hair and makeup and wardrobes and figures, coveting flat stomachs, bosomy chests and lean legs.
It was in some ways a foreign concept.
"In my family, the way you looked was not important," she says. "Education was important, and your values were important. My mom was always very positive about body image and would say, 'You're beautiful the way you are' -- which I didn't really believe. Even with all those countervailing influences in my own life, I looked to the mirror for validation."
Though she was average-sized, she began to diet chronically, obsessed, at least periodically, by what she ate and what she weighed. Even in college at Harvard, it continued to shadow her. On one crash diet she dropped 26 pounds in three months. Her newfound confidence was so intoxicating she plunged into her first serious relationship, with the man she would later marry.
"Yet my struggles were really very ordinary," she says in retrospect. "Things have gotten a lot worse in today's world. Young women are much more sexualized and fashion is much more sexualized, and there's much more aggressive marketing to teenagers and adolescents. Everything is more."
After she graduated, after she went off to document the contemporary French aristocracy and the modern-day Mayans and the gangs of Los Angeles, Greenfield returned to the culture she knew firsthand -- being a girl in America.
Terrified by changes
Eleven years behind Greenfield, Erin Cosgrove grew up in California, too, just outside Sacramento. She was always petite, but her body also matured early. In the seventh grade, she developed curves that brought her attention she didn't know how to handle.
"It made me feel insecure -- and in a way unsafe," she says. "You know, when you're 11 and getting catcalls from 30-year-old men, it's a little disturbing."
She even taped her breasts in an effort to conceal them.
At 15, she was raped.
"It was a breaking point for me," Cosgrove says. "It just confirmed all the negative feelings I had already. It was like, Wow, I'm not really in control of any of this. But the one thing I can control is my appearance."
It started with a diet. Five pounds. And when that wasn't satisfying enough, she lost five more. She had once played sports and danced and become a cheerleader. But the more weight she lost, the weaker she grew. One day in high school, she passed out from hunger.
She also had started cutting herself -- a way, she says, to release the pain bottled up inside.
Shortly after graduation, overwhelmed by the expectations of adulthood, she grew so sick she had to be hospitalized and tube fed. At one point, her weight plummeted to just 62 pounds, and she started having seizures. Even though she faced the threat of kidney and heart failure, she would still "cheat" -- taking out the feeding tube or forcing herself to vomit.
By age 24, she had been hospitalized more than a half-dozen times and had to drop out of college. She had seen psychiatrists and specialists and had a network of people trying to help her. And she could see the fear in their faces.
When she heard about the Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Fla., reputedly the best eating-disorder treatment clinic in the United States, she figured it was her last chance. She packed up and moved across the country.
But after five months of treatment, she had made only modest progress, and her insurance was running out. A counselor suggested she leave.
Instinct to survive
It is the nature of Greenfield's work that most of the connections she makes with her subjects are fleeting. She is with them a day, a week, maybe a month, and then she is gone, off to the next subject, the next project.
But sometimes they come back to her, especially those in her books, sensing that their exposure, their willingness to share a part of their lives, changed something.
After Renfrew, at her counselor's suggestion, Erin Cosgrove had moved into a transition house in Tampa. Though it seemed terrifying at first, in retrospect, it was precisely what she needed.
The setting at Hyde Park Counseling Center was both more nurturing and less controlling. Residents were expected to try, at least, to care for themselves. They did their own grocery shopping and fixed their meals, and they lived in a homelike setting, not an institution.
"I could no longer have the illusion that someone else would make me better," Cosgrove says.
And with therapy, she learned to fuel what she called her "little light" -- that primal instinct to fight for survival. She still struggled, she still backslid on occasion, but the relapses became fewer and farther between.
"I think no matter how beaten down you've been, no matter what you've been through, everybody has that light," she says. "It's not always bright, but it's there."
In July 2002, she was strong enough to start working. A month later, she began taking classes again, enrolling at the University of South Florida as a sociology major.
Shortly after that, one day as she was searching through a drawer, she came across a business card. It was from that photographer she'd met back at the treatment center. She decided to e-mail her. Whatever happened to that book you were working on? Cosgrove asked.
As it turned out, Girl Culture was fresh off the press.
After work one afternoon, Cosgrove stopped at a bookstore, found a copy and nestled in a corner, alone, flipping through the pages. There were the Panama City girls-gone-wild bikini contests, teenagers at a weight-loss camp, 4-year-olds preening in front of mirrors. There were fashion models and beauty contestants and a stripper giving a lap dance. With most of the photographs, there was the person's story, told in her own words.
Two-thirds of the way through, Cosgrove saw a starving young woman on a scale, her distraught face half-turned away. "I just hated being a woman," she had written. "It brought me nothing but pain."
The image and words shocked her. They seemed to come from a different person.
But in the months that followed, Cosgrove would periodically return to the bookstore to reread her words and study her picture, and their impact began to shift. Slowly, a sense of liberation emerged and, maybe more important, the hope that someone else might be helped by what she had shared.
Cosgrove showed the book to her parents and her friends and the man who would become her fiancé. As he read it, he had tears in his eyes.
So in May of this year, when Greenfield flew to Fort Lauderdale to work on another project, Cosgrove -- still thin, but vastly healthier and happier -- drove to see her. They had a long talk and dinner.
And Cosgrove realized why she needed to reconnect. Something about being in that book had shifted the way she looked at herself.
"I don't think she knew how much it helped me," the 27-year-old says. "I had always used my body to express myself, but she gave me a voice. The fact that she found value in what I had to say made me think, 'Wow, I am purposeful, and I can do something.' "
It is not something Greenfield had expected. "But it was pretty amazing to hear," she says.
Yet Girl Culture, to which she devoted five years of her life, transformed her as well, though more subtly.
"It's not something I can really quantify," Greenfield says. "But this work was also my mirror. It came from my own memories and also from my daily experience as a woman, as well as the time I spent with the subjects. When I put it all together, I said, this is a really dark picture of what it's like to grow up as a girl."