All The Real Girls

Outcasts. Prom queens. Fashionistas. Athletes. Photographer Lauren Greenfield says they want to be seen for who they are. But sometimes, they just want to be seen.

Nikki's feet are hemorrhaging out of a pair of Gucci heels. The silver shoes are adorned with rhinestones, and the straps look like they could bust off the Hollywood actress's ankles at any moment. Her toenails are painted bright red, shining like they've been newly coated with polyurethane. Up close, her toes look like cocktail wieners that have been simmering in the Crock-Pot overnight and repeatedly poked with toothpicks. You can't see her face, but you can't help but wonder: Does she mask her blemishes as deftly as her calluses? Why are her feet bursting out of her skimpy heels like high-rise Pillsbury muffins? Is she trying to hide what's underneath, ashamed of the effect a rigorous daily routine has had on her scaly extremities? How did her feet get this way?

Nikki is one of the many beauty-obsessed subjects featured in Girl Culture, a 2002 book by Lauren Greenfield, whose pictures will be on display at the Minnesota Center for Photography January 15 through March 27. It's impossible not to look at these portraits and see a culture that casts women as its greatest display, decorated with barely there clothes, gangly arms, tanned faces, flat stomachs, and enough cleavage to make the FCC blush and crawl back under their mountains of complaints. Greenfield began meeting with the young women in Girl Culture during the late '90s, when her trip to Edina for a New York Times Magazine article ("13 in Edina") revealed a universal truth about girls across the nation: They were held captive by image.

Contestants in the Fitness America competition pose for a photograph, Redondo Beach, California
Copyright 2004 Lauren Greenfield, Courtesy of Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles
Contestants in the Fitness America competition pose for a photograph, Redondo Beach, California

"In a lot of ways, it might be more extreme in Edina," Greenfield says over the phone from her L.A. home. "The kids there have the money to pull it off. But I think what they want is similar to what other kids want. It's all about being popular and fitting in. And in Edina, that means being in the right group and having the right clothes. It's defined in a very particular way."

Greenfield was stuck by the Edina girls' similarities to the subjects in her first book, Fast Forward, which chronicles youth culture in Los Angeles. She learned that the girls shopped at the same stores, ate at the same chain restaurants, listened to the same music, and even primped in the same way. "One girl in Edina told me she wanted to have six-pack abs," Greenfield says. "They wear T-shirts that show their stomachs. It's different than when I was young. In a way, the bar has been raised."

Greenfield was also inspired by The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, a 1997 book by Joan Jacobs Brumberg that examines how girls have used their bodies throughout the ages. In the intro to Girl Culture, Blumberg writes of that book: "On the basis of my reading over 100 personal diaries between 1830 and 1980, I concluded that as the 20th century progresses, more and more young women grew up believing that 'good looks'--rather than 'good works'--were the highest form of female perfection."

Brumberg's writing evokes our media-saturated, celeb-injected culture of "tween" advertising, which has become especially toxic to young girls who attempt to mirror whatever role that hottie from The O.C. is playing in this week's Extra interview. And Greenfield documents these newly formed modern-day roles, showing how they take form in the same awkward and fundamentally constricting shapes in everyone from little girls to grown women, Southern belles to Latinas in L.A., spring breakers in Florida to middle-schoolers in Minnesota.

Looking at the photos of the girls in Edina, who are 13 going on 36, you can almost see their destiny staring back at you: the years of waxing, dyeing, shaving, exercising, tweezing, face-painting, hunting for the right shoes, the right man, the right house, the right life. They pose for the camera in sleeveless cocktail dresses, their hair perfectly shaped, curled, and sexily tousled for the first big seventh-grade party. They look like the girls whose mere perfume could make the less privileged feel ashamed. They are those girls, the ones who tortured everyone in middle school without even knowing it. For a moment, it's hard to pity them.

Yet because Greenberg juxtaposes their photos with those of other girls--the social misfit with a Hanson obsession, the swimsuited outcast getting measured at weight-loss camp, the half-naked stripper pouring bleach down the sink--they all become connected by a singular insecurity. Clearly, they've all suffered from the same desire for come-hither eyes or their own personal air-brusher. And that's the whole point of Girl Culture--to show what it's like to be reduced entirely to your own image.

Many of the girls write revealing diary entries alongside their photos, like this one from Hannah of Edina, who is pictured flipping her hair to the side, staring sideways at the camera in an exaggerated model pose: "I'm not exactly sure about the group of friends I'm in right now. Sometimes our friends can be really, really mean. In our group, people get criticized if you don't look a certain way. If you have a flaw, then you will be criticized whether you like it or not."

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