Female teenagers have gotten a bad rap in the past year, what with high-profile cover articles on the "mean girl" phenomenon in the New York Times Magazine, Time, and Newsweek. While Lauren Greenfield's new book and accompanying exhibit, Girl Culture, is in some ways the photographic equivalent of those hair-raising tales of feminine aggression, Greenfield's work focuses less on how young women treat others badly. Instead, she posits that hostility among young women is directed primarily toward themselves.
A sociologist as well as a photographer, Greenfield previously documented the perils of growing up too fast in her photo essay Fast Forward, which consisted of startling images of children weaned on the celebrity-worshipping materialism of Los Angeles. In Girl Culture, Greenfield finds that the problem extends beyond geographical borders. Concentrating on "the element of performance and exhibitionism that seems to define the contemporary experience of being a girl," as Greenfield writes, the series includes snapshots of teens getting breast implants, preening under tanning lamps, and attending weight loss camps. While anyone who's survived adolescence knows that much of it is spent seeking approval, Greenfield's photos bear witness to the fact that the preoccupation with beauty starts early for girls. (A 6-year-old named Lily is caught picking through racks of clothing at an L.A. boutique frequented by Britney Spears.)
The brightly lit, oversize photos offer a disquieting glimpse into the lives of young women, but the girls' own words (included as monologues in the book) are equally unsettling. "I want to be a topless dancer or a showgirl. I think it'd be fun, dancing with my tits showing off," says Sheena, a 15-year-old San Jose teen photographed in a dressing room squeezing her breasts together in an effort to create cleavage. "If I can accomplish that, then I can accomplish anything." Though the girls seem to be hyperaware of their motivations, they also seem resigned to the pursuit of physical perfection as a means for self-esteem: "Attention is something people just crave. It's a form of love, and everybody needs love. That's why girls want to be famous like Britney Spears," states 17-year-old Alison.
Through March 1
Admission is free
Though Greenfield does include photos of some teens who focus more on their bodies' abilities than on their looks -- members of the Stanford University women's swim team and players in the Little Indians softball league, for example -- these lucky youngsters are few and far between. For the most part, her subjects have a long way to go toward self-acceptance. "The body has become the primary canvas on which girls express their identities, insecurities, ambitions, and struggles," writes Greenfield. Something is clearly amiss if grooming and plastic surgery top our kids' lists of extracurricular activities.