An overweight girl in a yellow shirt is shown struggling to reach her leg in a stretch during weight-loss camp aerobics. On the opposite page two ballerinas with impossibly long legs rest gracefully in splits. With photos that are gritty, gorgeous and often deeply unsettling, photographer Lauren GreenfieldGirl Culture. Her subjects range from strippers to schoolgirls and Southern belles to anorexia victims with photos that challenge pop culture’s beauty and body images.
Greenfield finds beauty in disquieting and starkly illuminating portraits, which exhibit common motifs of sadness and disillusionment. In one photo, a female athlete stares morosely at her unblinking reflection pinching the fat on her arm. In another, hundreds of spring break vacationers cheer at a topless woman against a brilliant blue Florida sky. Greenfield offers us a world where the desire toward beauty and sexiness has become all encompassing. In pictures alive with vibrant colors Greenfield often exposes the emotions and thoughts beneath her subject’s surface identities.
Perhaps most powerful, however, is that she offers no judgment and rather lets the women talk for themselves in a series of personal interviews. Here the media’s influence on their lives is reintroduced in their own words. From the pressures of growing up too fast to a desperate need to be desirable, these girls and women find their own desires overpowered by the expectations of their culture. One starlet confesses that she used to be really beautiful at the age of 15, but now at 19, she has aged and is no longer so beautiful. Another says, "Beauty is everywhere. You can’t escape it. It’s on the billboards; it’s on the buses. So many people here base their lives on being beautiful." Greenfield’s own drive to create Girl Culture stemmed from a similar interest in body image. In an essay in the back of the book, she writes: "I am interested in the way that the female body has become a palimpsest on which many of our culture’s conflicting messages about femininity are written and rewritten."
Even without the social commentary, Girl Culture’s photos are phenomenal works of art that resonate deeply with the reader. In one picture a strawberry blonde leans against a white trailer in Arizona. The scorching light from the sun washes her face out into the oblivion of the surrounding dessert sand. In another the reds, golds and black of a Las Vegas ashtray are so vibrant that it seems to explode.
Girl Culture gives the reader a glimpse into a vast population of young, adolescent and barely grown girls and women. It questions American culture’s obsession with beauty and sexual desire. Has growing up for a girl become a downward spiral of exhibitionism and body obsession? Greenfield demonstrates the media’s damaging and even warping effects on today’s girls’ views of themselves and their bodies.
It does not however, portray the truth for all American girls or even the full lives of the girls chronicled in Greenfield’s work. Girl Culture denies the more uplifting truths about girlhood in America and the many women who are able to push past pop culture baggage. Today, women’s sports have exploded in popularity, and more women are becoming lawyers and soldiers resulting in a healthier, stronger image of women.
Nonetheless, Greenfield’s message is powerful and worth hearing. Girl Culture forces the reader to look at some of the ugly truths about American culture and femininity when it seems easier to look the other way. explores the coming of age process for girls in her second book