"ALL THE REAL GIRLS" - Molly Priesmeyer, 2004
CONTESTANTS IN THE FITNESS AMERICA COMPETITION POSE FOR A PHOTOGRAPH, REDONDO BEACH, CALIFORNIA - COPYRIGHT 2004 LAUREN GREENFIELD, COURTESY OF STEPHEN COHEN GALLERY, LOS ANGELES
Nikki's feet are hemorrhaging out of a pair of Gucci heels. The silver shoes are adorned with rhinestones, and the straps look like they could bust off the Hollywood actress's ankles at any moment. Her toenails are painted bright red, shining like they've been newly coated with polyurethane. Up close, her toes look like cocktail wieners that have been simmering in the Crock-Pot overnight and repeatedly poked with toothpicks. You can't see her face, but you can't help but wonder: Does she mask her blemishes as deftly as her calluses? Why are her feet bursting out of her skimpy heels like high-rise Pillsbury muffins? Is she trying to hide what's underneath, ashamed of the effect a rigorous daily routine has had on her scaly extremities? How did her feet get this way?
Nikki is one of the many beauty-obsessed subjects featured in Girl Culture, a 2002 book by Lauren Greenfield, whose pictures will be on display at the Minnesota Center for Photography January 15 through March 27. It's impossible not to look at these portraits and see a culture that casts women as its greatest display, decorated with barely there clothes, gangly arms, tanned faces, flat stomachs, and enough cleavage to make the FCC blush and crawl back under their mountains of complaints. Greenfield began meeting with the young women in Girl Culture during the late '90s, when her trip to Edina for a New York Times Magazine article ("13 in Edina") revealed a universal truth about girls across the nation: They were held captive by image.
"In a lot of ways, it might be more extreme in Edina," Greenfield says over the phone from her L.A. home. "The kids there have the money to pull it off. But I think what they want is similar to what other kids want. It's all about being popular and fitting in. And in Edina, that means being in the right group and having the right clothes. It's defined in a very particular way."
Greenfield was stuck by the Edina girls' similarities to the subjects in her first book, Fast Forward, which chronicles youth culture in Los Angeles. She learned that the girls shopped at the same stores, ate at the same chain restaurants, listened to the same music, and even primped in the same way. "One girl in Edina told me she wanted to have six-pack abs," Greenfield says. "They wear T-shirts that show their stomachs. It's different than when I was young. In a way, the bar has been raised."
Greenfield was also inspired by The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, a 1997 book by Joan Jacobs Brumberg that examines how girls have used their bodies throughout the ages. In the intro to Girl Culture, Blumberg writes of that book: "On the basis of my reading over 100 personal diaries between 1830 and 1980, I concluded that as the 20th century progresses, more and more young women grew up believing that 'good looks'--rather than 'good works'--were the highest form of female perfection."
Brumberg's writing evokes our media-saturated, celeb-injected culture of "tween" advertising, which has become especially toxic to young girls who attempt to mirror whatever role that hottie from The O.C. is playing in this week's Extra interview. And Greenfield documents these newly formed modern-day roles, showing how they take form in the same awkward and fundamentally constricting shapes in everyone from little girls to grown women, Southern belles to Latinas in L.A., spring breakers in Florida to middle-schoolers in Minnesota.
Looking at the photos of the girls in Edina, who are 13 going on 36, you can almost see their destiny staring back at you: the years of waxing, dyeing, shaving, exercising, tweezing, face-painting, hunting for the right shoes, the right man, the right house, the right life. They pose for the camera in sleeveless cocktail dresses, their hair perfectly shaped, curled, and sexily tousled for the first big seventh-grade party. They look like the girls whose mere perfume could make the less privileged feel ashamed. They are those girls, the ones who tortured everyone in middle school without even knowing it. For a moment, it's hard to pity them.
Yet because Greenberg juxtaposes their photos with those of other girls--the social misfit with a Hanson obsession, the swimsuited outcast getting measured at weight-loss camp, the half-naked stripper pouring bleach down the sink--they all become connected by a singular insecurity. Clearly, they've all suffered from the same desire for come-hither eyes or their own personal air-brusher. And that's the whole point of Girl Culture--to show what it's like to be reduced entirely to your own image.
Many of the girls write revealing diary entries alongside their photos, like this one from Hannah of Edina, who is pictured flipping her hair to the side, staring sideways at the camera in an exaggerated model pose: "I'm not exactly sure about the group of friends I'm in right now. Sometimes our friends can be really, really mean. In our group, people get criticized if you don't look a certain way. If you have a flaw, then you will be criticized whether you like it or not."
Looking at Lisa, an Edina girl whose bedroom wall is plastered with posters of Hanson, you can feel the loneliness that's permanently chiseled into her face. Slumped on her bed in her oversized Hanson T-shirt, she looks pissed off, glaring at the camera like it's another person who is criticizing her for not being stick-thin. In her entry, she writes: "You have to be a skinny little Edina girl, which is what everybody thinks Edina should be. So by not being that, people just dislike you more.... People make fun of me all the time because I'm overweight. It's just something you try to hide from, I guess. You don't want other people to see."
That desire--to not have any distinguishable characteristics that separate you from other girls--is captured by Greenfield's lens in shot after shot. Girls in a popular clique in New York's Catskills region look like slightly smeared carbon copies of each other. All of the girls wear their hair down to the middle of their chests, and all are wearing crop pants that rest six or so inches above their identical thong shoes. Their eerily similar pant and hair lengths look like they have been measured against a strict uniform code. Elsewhere, two photos suggest more similarities between girls: The formally dressed group of California damas celebrating a friend's quinceañera, a Latina's 15th birthday party, look like they could have stepped out of the May Day celebration at a girls' preparatory school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the latter picture, the girls are all wearing sleeveless, brightly colored dresses, looking like a field of smiling tulips. With their dresses raised, they reveal garters on their thighs--young brides in the making.
Not only the young girls let TV shows and fashion magazines dictate their look. Greenfield's images reveal how the obsessive desire for beauty links women and girls of different age groups through their mutual attraction to dieting, quick-fix beauty remedies, and blistered feet. In one photo, a girl and her mother get ready to go out for a night in Palm Beach, Florida, both wrapping layered necklaces around their swanlike necks. It's hard to tell who's mimicking whom: The middle-aged mother ties her shirt at her waist to hide her gut and her age, while her teenage daughter wears a low-cut shirt to hide her innocence. The lines between mother and daughter blur until they meld into a time-warped image of a single woman that looks like it could have been captured with an extended 30-year time-delay.
Greenfield pays close attention to the smaller details that unite the women in her book. Take, for example, pouty four-year-old Allegra, who plays dress-up with a pink leotard, a tulle veil, and a pair of gold high heels. She's only a few pages from a photo of Taylor Wayne, a porn star decked out in an equally gold dress. Then there's the 19-year-old girl sitting in the corner of the room at an eating-disorder clinic, her legs tucked up to her chest as she hugs them with her arms. Next to the photo is 11-year-old Paula at a weight-loss camp, whose arms rest in a similar gesture across her chest.
Though the images are associative, they're not necessarily prescriptive: The fact that a four-year-old plays with gold shoes that are the same color as a porn star's dress doesn't necessarily mean they're destined for the same future. But the succession of photos does reveal how girls of every age use their bodies to express themselves, and how even at four years old, girls are engaged in a manner of performance, already embracing femininity as a form of exhibitionism.
Greenfield's book displays some shocking images: women recovering from plastic surgery, girls flashing their breasts, and one college girl in an acrobatic backbend simulating a blow job. But the most disturbing photos are of Jennifer, an 18-year-old anorexic girl whose elbow bones look like they're about to pierce through her skin, and Erin, a 24-year-old who weighs in at an eating-disorder clinic, her back turned to the scale and her face grimacing at the sound of the clicks the scale makes with each pound.
Erin told Greenfield that anorexics don't use their voices. Like every girl featured in the book, they use their bodies to express themselves instead. "Many girls are not taught that it's special to be a woman, and a lot of girls find out that it hurts to be a woman," she writes in the book. "And it's something that is tormenting and frustrating and sad, and it's a struggle to come back. If you can come back."