Vision magazine

Vision magazine

Vision Magazine, "Holding a Mirror to the Media" - Jill DeDominicis
August, 2005

''When I get home [from weight camp], I love to shop, because I feel skinny and fresh. But I'm upset because I'm not the size zero that I want to be. I want to be a stick-thin girl. A double zero. I look at the models and actresses, and I want to be like that.'' - Stephanie, 14

Lauren Greenfield has always been drawn to documentary work. By the time she left for Harvard she had already received awards for her photographic efforts. At college she took a slight detour to study documentary film and social studies. Her desire to record culture remained strong, and an internship at National Geographic helped her to re-discover the power photographers hold as story tellers. On a later assignment to photograph Mayan culture, Greenfield refocused her goals once again. She decided to work where cultural experience could grant her greater access into her subjects and images, and once she returned home, Greenfield began photographing youth at her old Los Angeles high school.

In 1993, she received the first photographic documentary grant sponsored by National Geographic for a project on Los Angeles youth. The work eventually led to Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, an awarded and best-selling photography book. As she worked with youth across different socio-economic backgrounds, Greenfield found they were all similarly affected by media culture, and the project developed into a commentary on the loss of innocence in a media-saturated society.

While her work and prestige increased, she remained true to her commitment as cultural commentator and kept her lens poised on American youth. Her second work, Girl Culture, drew on her experience with Fast Forward, but also narrowed its depth of field to examine the changing social role of women and girls. Now in its third printing, Girl Culture is the culmination of a five-year project and a traveling museum exhibition.

Greenfield was, in part, inspired to investigate the media's affect on modern femininity through the work of Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls and the introduction to Girl Culture. Through real diary excerpts, The Body Project mapped the evolving relationship between young women and their bodies over the last 150 years. ''One thing [in The Body Project] that I really responded to,'' Greenfield said, ''was about the differences between girls in the 1800s and girls now, and in the 1800s there is the theme that being a good girl is about doing good workÉ in the moral sense. And [I think] in our time [it has changed, in that] looks have become the highest form of female perfection. I've found in my work that there is, at times, an almost moral value [placed on] that, for instance going to the gym everyday, washing my face with cleanser. That was really interesting [to me] and one of the motivations for Girl Culture was looking at how the body has kind of become this primary expression of identity for girls and women [today].''

The candid interviews in Girl Culture give voice to the girls pictured, and speak clearly of this body-centric fixation. One subject, 18-year-old Mary Cady, seems proud to be able to recite her daily caloric intake, bite by bite: ''I could name how much I've exercised and everything I've eaten today. I ran for thirty-five minutes on the FX. Then [later] I ran for ten minutes on the FX, for a total of 6.01 miles. For breakfast I had a green apple and a skim milk mocha and a cranberry orange muffin. For lunch I had half of a veggie sandwich and two pickle spears. I came home at six and had a salad with chicken. What else did I put on it? Peas that were left over and salad dressing. And then I had a couple of dried banana chips. Pretty impressive. I took my dogs for a walk, but I don't count that as exercise. But that's what's in my food log, if you look at it. Oh, and I did a set of twenty push-ups. I could probably tell what I had all week if I had to.''

Other girls freely discuss topics from popularity, dieting, dating and fashion, to stripping, drugs and sex. The interviews take us beyond the role of observer, adding another dimension to these girls and providing a window into their world. To some the unobstructed view may seem scandalous or extreme, but as Greenfield explained, ''understanding the dialectic between the extreme and the mainstream-the anorectic and the dieter, the stripper and the teenager who bares her midriff or wears a thong-is essential to understanding contemporary feminine identity.'' For most of us, the stories speak a truth that lies beneath our rose colored glasses, and offer an honest look at what it means to grow up with a media that dictates exactly what's ''cool.''

In her introduction, Brumberg questions whether, ''appearance junkies are made, not born,'' by reminding us that children are ''born anthropologists, able to expertly deconstruct and mimic what culture offers them.'' So just how do we ''make'' these appearance junkies? Greenfield believes it stems from the accessibility of media, and the in-your-face way the cult of celebrity and materialism is portrayed to young kids. ''I have spent a lot of time looking at [how children grow up so quickly] with Fast Forward, and how kids are affected by what I call the ''guise of Hollywood''. And I don't know that kids want to grow up fast, I think they just do. [Partly] because there is so much information- they learn so much, and there's really so little that can be kept from children. I think parents need to kind of monitor what their children are exposed to, but I also think those filters are really hard to put up around them. The other big development that has really affected this is direct advertising and marketing to children. Children and teenagers have become a huge and important consumer market. Often it's the child in the family [that is] deciding what cereal that family is going to buy. Children are so impressionable and have such good brand recognition that this is an incredibly lucrative market. On top of that, advertisers are marketing products to children that used to be considered for adults, so you might have a makeup line for girls, or at one point a brand was marketing thong underwear to pre-teenagers. And I think little girls have always wanted to play dress up and be like their mommies, but now they have these products being directly marketed to them.''

Girl Culture's contrast of adult and child subjects reflects the impact cultural images of female maturity may have on a world full of girls who want to be all grown up. Greenfield's camera centers on the exhibitionist nature of females in the media spotlight: aspiring models and actresses, exotic dancers and celebrated porn and pinup stars-all images of women who use their body to gain attention and sexual power. Whether girls are more affected by the overextending arm of the media than boys is debatable, but Greenfield points to some of the unconscious ways we contribute to the epidemic of image obsession in girls. ''Girls learn at an early age that their power as a woman is going to come from their beauty, and that that beauty is defined in a very particular and conventional way. I think this gets communicated so early to girls [through] things that we are not even conscious of, like you'll see a little girl and say, ''Oh, you look so pretty today, that's such a pretty dress'', and that's not what we'd say to our little boys.'' In some of the more private settings in Girl Culture we see these young girls'' skill in imitating our feminine cultural icons. We see 4-year old Allegra seductively pose herself while playing dress up, and 15-year-old Sheena scowl as she pushes her breasts together in front of a dressing room mirror.

Through such imagery, Greenfield provides a more complete picture of what goes on behind closed doors. ''In my work I try to show what I see that we are [not] necessarily thinking about. I think a lot of times moms [will] buy girls what's fashionable so they fit in and feel good about themselves without thinking about the implications of a midriff or low riding jeans. I try to isolate it so we can think about it, in terms of a broader, cultural [and] historical context.''

And although we have come a long way from the days of petticoats and corsets, our freedom in clothing choice comes at its own cost. ''I think it's a double edged sword,'' Greenfield said. ''In some ways our culture selling the body in a racy way has as many or more restrictions in terms of what you have to do to be presentable than when there were very specific rules about having to be covered. There's certainly a part of it that has liberty, but I think it's not as freeing as we would like to believe- When I photographed the 13 year olds in Edina, Minnesota, for example, they said that to be popular you had to buy clothes from one of 3 chain stores: the Gap, Banana Republic, and Abercrombie and Fitch. So I think for kids, liberty isn't always as great as whatever the expectations in their world are mandating.'' And so we see a culture of girls undergoing various ''body projects'' in the never ending quest for perfection: summers at weight camp, tanning, shaving and waxing, and make-up to more extreme physical measures like eating disorders and self-mutilation.

Given the explicit content of Girl Culture, Greenfield expected her audience to be of high school or college age. What she found instead surprised her. ''When I first did this work, because of the sexuality, nudity and disturbing content in some of the pictures and interviews... I thought the show [would] be for high school to college age, minimum, but I found a lot of parents were bringing middle school girls to the show. When I asked if they were concerned about keeping some of the material from their girls, the parents said girls know about it anyway, and they prefer the girls saw it within a more positive and educational context, where they could discuss the issues. With the Internet, TV and movies being as they are, [girls are] being exposed to these things, and I think it was good of [these] parent teaching those girls in a way that they can control and that is going to serve the child instead of trying to sell them something.''

The museum show has been a powerful means in reaching a younger demograpic-a group that doesn't buy $40 coffee table books or read art reviews in adult publications. In partnership with the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona, Greenfield also developed a free, online educational curriculum for teachers, parents, and students. The curriculum helps break down some of the concepts seen in Girl Culture, and opens up her audience even further. ''The curriculum is something that has been used in a lot of schools and is also something parents use with their daughters; I think that just talking about these issues is empowering for kids. I have a 5 year old and when he says I want the Ninja Turtles toy or whatever, we often talk about why he wants it- It doesn't stop him from wanting it, but I just think that it's important for kids to kind of have that broken down for them, because that's the great power of advertising-it's not being broken down, and [companies] take advantage of that.''

When asked about positive media for girls, Greenfield returns to the academic world in which she was raised. ''I think these issues have been really well covered in the literary world. When I did Girl Culture, I was inspired by books like The Body Project and Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia. These books have made a big impact; many times when I have an evening show or attend lectures, university girls and graduates have read these books. And [I find] young women are very informed about these issues, and mothers are very concerned and informed about issues of self-esteem. I'm not sure about specific role models, but I do feel there has been a lot of really good information out there and I think that's why Girl Culture got such an amazing response. [The] show [has] gone all over the country and sometimes to very conservative communities where you would think the work would be more controversial than it has been, and it's because there are no parents that do not see how their girls are affected by these phenomena- I guess the big challenge for me now is as a mom. I see the way kids are affected by these ideas and expectations. The one thing that I really saw with these kids was that being aware of these pressures does not grant you immunity from them. A lot of girls know that these things are not important and yet they are still as affected by them as anyone else. I think that's really hard as a mother, it's very difficult to filter the positive to your children.''

Not surprisingly, the most consistent visual metaphor throughout Girl Culture is the mirror. We see many reflections, but few seem to be smiling back at themselves. Greenfield's role as silent spokesperson for pre-voting age kids offers us the ultimate cultural mirror. In her closing to Girl Culture, Greenfield reflected, ''Photography is an ideal medium with which to explore the role of image in our culture. The camera renders an illusion of objective representation, just like a mirror. But as every woman knows, a mirror provides data that, filtered through a mind and moods, are subject to wildly differing interpretations. This project has been my mirror and my attempt to deconstruct the illusions that make up our reality.''

Watch for Lauren Greenfield's Thin, a documentary film about eating disorders, set to air on HBO in 2006. For free educational pamphlets and information about both the Girl Culture exhibit and book go to