Cleveland Jewish News

Cleveland Jewish News

March 5, 2007
Obsessing about beauty in the 'Girl Culture'
Jennifer Daddario

After photographer Lauren Greenfield completed her first project, “Fast Forward: Growing up in the shadow of Hollywood,” an exhibit and book about kids growing up in L.A., she continued taking assignments documenting the lives of youth.

When looking through her photos of the young subjects, “I found some pictures that were really meaningful to me, and I didn't know why,” she admits.

Greenfield soon realized the photos were all related to young girls dealing with the over-emphasis on physical appearance n Greenfield calls it the “stigma of beauty” n in popular culture. “I had been reading about a self-esteem crisis in young girls, but I hadn't seen it in photography,” she explains. “It became a theme of (my new) project.”

The project, “Girl Culture,” which took Greenfield five years to complete, resulted in a book and an exhibit. The photos in both are of females of all ages. They range from girls and women affected by eating disorders, to a summer camp for overweight teens, to innocent, young girls playing dress-up. Each photo is accompanied by a first-person story from the subject.

Her inspiration to tackle the issue had autobiographical roots, Greenfield says. “I had some very vivid memories of being in high school and worrying about dieting, being in the right clique, and wearing fashionable clothes.”

In interviewing young women, Greenfield was struck by the emphasis on outward appearances. “Young girls talk about body pressure. A girl says she's aware she needs to be perfect, blonde, thin, and buy her clothes at one of three places, the popular girls say.” Other girls “feel pressured to keep up.” They say they hate that, Greenfield adds, “but it's still hell to not be a part of it and not fit in.”

To collect materials for her project, Greenfield concentrated on taking magazine and newspaper assignments on subjects that she could use in “Girl Culture.” She also secured a grant to begin photographing individuals she knew should be included in the project, such as patients at an eating-disorder clinic.

“Once I get access to a place, I spend a lot of time meeting people, getting accepted and listening to stories,” she relates. “Getting official access is just the first step. Then I need to earn the trust of whomever it is I want to shoot.”

During her interviews, Greenfield would sometimes get “shocking statements.” They gave the photographer a firsthand view on how “aggressive advertising and consumerism is to young people and how it fuels their insecurities. It brought together a lot of things for me, things I kind of thought but didn't really know were true.”

One example is the shocking statement 15-year-old Sheena made. She told Greenfield, “When I grow up, my dream is to be a topless dancer. I know if I could do that, I could do anything.”

A few months later, Greenfield read an article on current fitness trends and learned that the latest craze at chic New York City gyms is a class called “cardio striptease.” Students learn the dance moves of a stripper. “It showed me how the icon of a stripper or a showgirl lives in the mind of a teen,” Greenfield says. “Things I saw and heard brought the project full circle for me.”

The photographer is currently working on another photo project and book that grew out of “Girl Culture.” It's called “Thin.” “Thin” examines the most self-destructive way of coping with body images: eating disorders. “One in seven girls has an eating disorder,” Greenfield points out. “The messages that are there are about where we are going as a culture.”

As popular culture and aspirations of beauty continue to intertwine with the lives young teens lead, Greenfield has found more parents growing concerned. The photographer hopes that her photos, currently being shown across the country, will stimulate dialogue for parents and teens.

“The more girls and women learn to de-construct some of these messages and the dynamics in our culture,” she says, “the more power they have over them.”