​photographing girl culture at the turn of the 21st century

Lauren Greenfield’s new photobook Girl Culture is a celebration of girlhood in America at the turn of the 21st century.

by Oliver Lunn
30 August 2016, 11:05am

Leafing through Lauren Greenfield's new photobook, Girl Culture - which includes photos of cheerleaders, strippers, debutantes and models - you're struck by the underlying sadness of the culture: the desire to be skinnier, taller, more popular. There's Sheena, a 15-year-old who shaves her arms because she thinks 'hair sucks'; Jennifer, an 18-year-old at an eating-disorder clinic; Fina, a 13-year-old in a tanning salon.

Made over a five-year period, the book holds a magnifying glass over the anxieties and insecurities of both popular and unpopular girls. Not content with being a fly on the wall, Greenfield interviewed her subjects too, like a hungry reporter keen to understand what it means to be a girl in America. That first-person interview style was a precursor to her forays into documentary, with 2006's Thin, 2012's The Queen of Versailles, and her Emmy Award-winning viral smash #likeagirl, in which she looked at how the words 'like a girl' had become an insult and how that affected girls during puberty.

When I spoke to Greenfield about Girl Culture I was conscious that the project, originally released in 2002, was squarely in her rear-view mirror and thus a bit hazy. Yet she spoke about the deep-rooted issues of media influence, peer pressure, and what she calls the 'precocious sexualisation of girls' with the eloquence of someone who's never anything less than 100% engaged with their work.

In Girl Culture, there are certain character types people might recognise from movies - the cheerleader, the outsider. Was your aim to delve beneath those clichés of youth?
I think there is power in clichés and in undermining them too. When I looked at the popular girls in Edina, Minnesota, there were a couple of things I learned. One is, being popular is really important - that's the stereotype and what it's always been - but then the next layer, the anthropological layer for me, was learning that popularity was based on commercial values; you needed to shop at one of three stores: Abercrombie, Gap, J Crew. And you had to wear something from those places but not wear the same shirt as another popular girl, or else they'd get mad.

It struck me that, actually, the popular girls had more in common with the less popular girls than they thought.
Yeah, and I learned that in my first book Fast Forward, which was about kids growing up in LA. The cover picture shows a bunch of kids from Beverly Hills High in convertible cars at the beach. Mijanou, in the centre of that image, was this very beautiful girl who was voted 'best body at Beverly Hills High'. And in her interview she talks about how tough it was to not fit in, how she came from a poor family and couldn't have the clothes and the cars and the houses that all these kids from Beverly Hills had. I remember when I had the exhibition of that work, at the show there were some of her classmates and they said, 'What is she talking about? She had it easy.' So I think there's that tension.

Girl Culture is heartbreaking at points, when it touches on girls with eating disorders and weight issues. Is that something you discovered more and more as you met girls or was it rare?
No, it was something I already knew about, going back to my own high school experience. A lot of my work starts at puberty and this formative age, and so I started Girl Culture thinking about my own insecurities from high school, about weight and fashion and being popular. And so I started there. But then the stories of the girls kind of takes me on this journey where I don't know where it's gonna land. I started thinking about how the body was the most important avenue of expression for girls, and also looking at the exhibitionism of the culture and how that affected regular girls.

What did you find were the main pressures that these girls faced growing up?
I don't think I could be reductive and say what the number one issue is, but I think that how you present is really important; that's weight, that's clothes, that's your personality. I think in the age of social media it's kind of jumped off of what I was doing. It's even more about your branding, your marketing, and maybe your personality is a part of that, but it's still all about the exterior. That was really the inspiration for Girl Culture.

To some people, a few of the girls might seem superficial - concerned with their makeup, concerned with what labels they're wearing. Were you conscious of not looking down on them as an outsider?
I really don't look down on them, and there is really not a single kid in there that I don't identify with. Sometimes people say, 'Where are all the normal girls?' And I feel like they are in there. What I am looking to do is to crystalise a moment that reveals a piece of the culture that I do think we're all affected by. No matter how deep and meaningful our lives are, we also catch ourselves looking in the mirror. We can't say that we're above that. So I'm not looking to point fingers at people; I'm really looking to see ourselves in the subjects.

Do you think it's less likely that girls would drop their guard today, given teens' hyper awareness of their own image - online, on Instagram and Snapchat?
A lot of what I was doing was about media influence, but a lot of those ideas have actually exploded in the same direction with social media, with the idea that you're not just presenting to your friends, you're presenting to this virtual world; the image has become more important because a lot of people only know you from your image; this idea of not just loving brands but a kid becoming a brand. It's all so interesting and scary and I think in a weird way I was at the beginning of a lot of trends that have taken on a lot of momentum and not really for good. But one thing that I think has changed in a positive direction is our consciousness about it. I think Like A Girl was kind of an expression of that. It wasn't a new idea but an idea whose time had come.

Speaking of which, Like A Girl went viral and was immensely popular; were your aims with that similar to Girl Culture?
It was very specific, looking at how these words 'like a girl' - which together seem like a very objective descriptor - had become an insult. I started doing this survey with hundreds of people and saw that across the board, from a certain age, it has a very negative connotation. It's what was hiding in plain sight. Half of us our girls, yet just that word has a negative connotation. What does that mean? And it really meant nothing until we heard people's reaction. There was something very moving about it. In the end, people started feeling empowered by it and taking it on themselves to say, 'like a girl means being the world championship soccer player', or 'like a girl means being an engineer'. And so it wasn't directly related to the themes of the body in Girl Culture but it was more like a feminist awakening. I think in a generation that is dealing with this contradiction that we're all the same and yet we're not, it was very powerful but I have to say in a very unexpected way.

Did the girls from Girl Culture seem totally different from those in Like A Girl?
No. A lot of Girl Culture was about the precocious sexualisation that came from the influence of the media and peers magnifying that. And if you look at what people post on social media today and if you deconstruct selfies, the precocious sexualisation is much more out there now. If you look at the celebrities I had in Girl Culture, I had Jennifer Lopez in a low-cut dress; but now you have Kim Kardashian who's done a sex tape. So a lot of the ideas are still relevant but in a way it's a more tame expression. 

Girl Culture by Lauren Greenfield, published by Chronicle Books, is available to buy on 1 September.



Text Oliver Lunn
Photography © 2002 by Lauren Greenfield

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