Pioneer Press

Pioneer Press

"Photo exhibits explore 'Girl Culture'" - Ellen Tomson, January 15, 2005

Allegra, 4, of Malibu, Calif., purses her lips and juts one hip provocatively as she plays in her pink leotard and gold, slip-on high heels, and two friends, both 5-year-olds, apply make-up and examine themselves in a sparkly hand mirror.

In another photograph, Lily, 5, peers over her small, wire-rimmed glasses, one ring-clad hand on hip as she scrutinizes the offerings in her size on a clothing rack at Rachel London's Garden, a shop where Britney Spears has had clothing designed. Interviewed a year later, 6-year-old Lily says, "I really want to be a teenager. Now. Really fast."

"If I don't dress well, I feel geeky," she confides. "And if I feel nice, I feel like people like me." She wants to be famous, she adds, "so everyone can see my pretty face and my whole body. How I look and stuff."

At 13, popularity for the Edina girls requires following certain rules: shopping at six particular stores to keep up with trends, looking the best (which requires wearing more make-up than other girls without looking "trashy"), having the best clothes and steeling yourself to criticism from other girls who are part of the "in" group and quick to criticize the slightest flaw.

"I'm not really sure about the group of friends I'm in right now," admits a popular girl in her interview. "Sometimes, our friends can be really, really mean."

Making yourself attractive - looking older than you really are - sometimes results in frightening responses, the same girl admits.

"It kind of makes me uncomfortable, because I might look older than I actually am, but underneath it all, I'm only 13," she tells Greenfield. "It's kind of scary. It's a hard feeling not to know where you fit in yet."

A 15-year-old photographed on the sidewalk outside her house while shaving off her body hair talks about how "girls want to look pretty. They want to be sparkly, shiny. Stick out of the crowd."

"You need to have attention in order for people to know who you are or for people to see you," she explains.

In the same interview, though, she recounts how a middle-aged neighbor grabbed her by the neck, forcing her to kiss him.

"He violated me," she says. "I was really disgusted with myself. The rest of the night, I was crying and just saying, 'Ew.' "

But then again, there's the inescapable fact that at some point just about every girl seeks validation from boys or men.

Mary Cady, 18, from an old, established family in Chattanooga, Tenn., is proud that she has been schooled in the proper behavior for just about any social situation and describes herself as the "goody-goody," the "traditional" girl in her group of friends.

Yet, if she draws whistles from men as she runs down the street in shorts and a sports bra, one thought she has is: "I must be doing something right."
"That is the really fine line girls walk," Greenfield observes. "You have to have evidence of being sexually attractive and yet not cross the line or you're considered a slut."

Another complicating factor is that a girl soon discovers how her attractiveness to men translates to power over them.

A 21-year-old college track star who pays for her education by moonlighting as a nude dancer poses with her track medals hanging around her neck and tells Greenfield she feels empowered when she is dancing "because I have a guy around my pinkie, basically. And on top of that, he's giving me money for my time."

What could be wrong with that?

Some answers come to mind in Greenfield's photographs of young women undergoing and viewing the results of their breast enhancement surgery and in other images that show what girls put themselves through to attain that kind of power.

It's a power that depends on youthfulness, which is fleeting, and the notion of a perfect body, which is impossible to fulfill.

In her interview, Cindy Margolis, a former pinup girl and allegedly the "world's most downloaded woman" on the Internet, tells Greenfield, "It just kills me when these girls look at magazines and wish they could look like that.

"I try to tell them, 'Nobody looks like that. Everything's airbrushed. My pictures are airbrushed. You should see me without makeup. Everything is lighting and makeup and hair.' "

Who - or what - do we blame? Boys and men? Girls themselves?
"I don't believe there is anyone to blame at this point," Greenfield says. "I have a lot of images of girls judging each other. Only another girl would know those are the right jeans, what a size 7 means. Boys and men and are kind of oblivious to this kind of thing.

"If you can point to anything, it might be the culture and consumerism around us now," she says. "There's a lot to be gained in the commercial world if people have insecurities and a need to fix themselves. There's a big financial incentive for companies to market aggressively to teenagers and girls."

'I'm saying I never grew up around girl culture like that," observes Sarah Lawrence-Gonzalez, an American Indian teenager who lives in North Minneapolis, as she sits in a gallery of Greenfield's images at the Minnesota Center for Photography, nods at Greenfield's images lined up along a wall and then looks at her own in the exhibit "Girl Vision: A Response."
"Girl Vision" is the culmination of an eight-week mentorship program that paired at-risk girls and professional photographers. The girls in the project were loaned small, single-lens reflex cameras to record their ideas about girl culture. They also took studio portraits of each other.

Sarah's photographs include an image of her 10-month-old daughter, Anjeni, in a gated day care room; a pregnant friend; two American Indian girls inside a McDonald's gazing up at a Destiny's Child poster; and a woman having her hair done at the Aveda Institute, where Sarah would like to train some day.

Greenfield's photographs reflecting mostly white, middle-class girl culture "is not what I see every day," Sarah says. "First, big is beautiful here where we live. And we have a lot of teen pregnancies. Most of my friends are either pregnant or already have kids."

"It's cool to be bad here, too," adds her cousin, Janelle Thompson, 17. "A lot of girls now are into smoking, drinking and having sex. It's cool right now to be a bad girl."

The cousins enrolled in a photography class at a technical school prior to the "Girl Vision" project and were among the few project participants to complete the program. They each shot about a half-dozen rolls of film and became adept at photographing subjects without getting noticed or approaching strangers to seek permission to take pictures.

Janelle's work includes an image of her older sister drinking Corona beer from a bottle while trying to hide her face with the bottle and her hand.
"I like the way the label on the bottle is facing us and there's light on the top her hand," Janelle says.

Another of Janelle's photographs shows an "Apartment for Rent" sign. "Part of girl culture for me is looking for a place to live - to try to get out and be on my own," she says.

She also includes an image of the mirrored dressing table in her room. "A mirror is a girl's life. The curling iron, lotion, spray, hair ties - all the necessities are right there. The mirror is the first thing you go to in the morning, to get ready."

Hilary Rollwagen, 17, a senior at St. Paul Academy and Summit School, photographed sections of a friend's body up close to draw attention to "covert" details of the current mainstream middle-class teenage "look." These sections collectively convey an overt message of sexuality that can be missed or dismissed because it has become so commonplace.

The bra strap showing. The midriff revealed between the short shirt and hip-sunk jeans. That part of her friend's stomach.

When the details are enlarged and set apart, "people almost feel wrong looking at them," she says.

There is no background to the images to suggest anything in particular is pushing the girl to conform to the "look." "It's about that girl," Hilary says. "And it is about how we exploit ourselves and allow it."

The pictures that do show the girl's face show an expression of indifference.
"I'm trying to bring to mind the girl and the viewer, and what we're looking
at and see daily," Hilary says.

One of the first to react to Hilary's work was another girl, also a friend.
"Wow, she has a really nice body," the girl blurted.

Hilary says she felt frustrated that her friend didn't "get" what she was trying to do with the images. Yet, her friend affirmed the reason for her project: to show how automatically and unconsciously we gauge appearance according to a certain standard.

"A good body. That is what we look at, what we see. That's all we see," Hilary says. "And I don't feel like I'm not a part of it and don't play into it," she adds. "Because I absolutely do."

Just one of Hilary's photographs shows her subject's entire face. The view is from the shoulders up, and because the shoulders are bare, the subject appears to be naked.

"Can people still accept sexuality as a positive thing? Can sexuality be pure and beautiful and be OK?" Hilary asks. "Or has it become too much about power and manipulation?... Who is in control? The girl who knows the bra strap will get attention or the man who makes the catcall?"

"Answers I don't have," says Greenfield when asked to explain her work. "The value is more in the questions it raises, the dialogue it promotes."
"I started out trying to find an answer with my photographs, and I found more questions," echoes Hilary.

But as a young woman growing up today, she looks back at the Victorian era and concludes "progress hasn't necessarily come with modern times."
Girl culture today demands so much more than wearing a corset to the ball.
"What's worse?" she asks. "Sucking in your tummy for a night or not eating for two days?"