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.

Looking at Lisa, an Edina girl whose bedroom wall is plastered with posters of Hanson, you can feel the loneliness that's permanently chiseled into her face. Slumped on her bed in her oversized Hanson T-shirt, she looks pissed off, glaring at the camera like it's another person who is criticizing her for not being stick-thin. In her entry, she writes: "You have to be a skinny little Edina girl, which is what everybody thinks Edina should be. So by not being that, people just dislike you more.... People make fun of me all the time because I'm overweight. It's just something you try to hide from, I guess. You don't want other people to see."

That desire--to not have any distinguishable characteristics that separate you from other girls--is captured by Greenfield's lens in shot after shot. Girls in a popular clique in New York's Catskills region look like slightly smeared carbon copies of each other. All of the girls wear their hair down to the middle of their chests, and all are wearing crop pants that rest six or so inches above their identical thong shoes. Their eerily similar pant and hair lengths look like they have been measured against a strict uniform code. Elsewhere, two photos suggest more similarities between girls: The formally dressed group of California damas celebrating a friend's quinceañera, a Latina's 15th birthday party, look like they could have stepped out of the May Day celebration at a girls' preparatory school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the latter picture, the girls are all wearing sleeveless, brightly colored dresses, looking like a field of smiling tulips. With their dresses raised, they reveal garters on their thighs--young brides in the making.

Not only the young girls let TV shows and fashion magazines dictate their look. Greenfield's images reveal how the obsessive desire for beauty links women and girls of different age groups through their mutual attraction to dieting, quick-fix beauty remedies, and blistered feet. In one photo, a girl and her mother get ready to go out for a night in Palm Beach, Florida, both wrapping layered necklaces around their swanlike necks. It's hard to tell who's mimicking whom: The middle-aged mother ties her shirt at her waist to hide her gut and her age, while her teenage daughter wears a low-cut shirt to hide her innocence. The lines between mother and daughter blur until they meld into a time-warped image of a single woman that looks like it could have been captured with an extended 30-year time-delay.

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

Greenfield pays close attention to the smaller details that unite the women in her book. Take, for example, pouty four-year-old Allegra, who plays dress-up with a pink leotard, a tulle veil, and a pair of gold high heels. She's only a few pages from a photo of Taylor Wayne, a porn star decked out in an equally gold dress. Then there's the 19-year-old girl sitting in the corner of the room at an eating-disorder clinic, her legs tucked up to her chest as she hugs them with her arms. Next to the photo is 11-year-old Paula at a weight-loss camp, whose arms rest in a similar gesture across her chest.

Though the images are associative, they're not necessarily prescriptive: The fact that a four-year-old plays with gold shoes that are the same color as a porn star's dress doesn't necessarily mean they're destined for the same future. But the succession of photos does reveal how girls of every age use their bodies to express themselves, and how even at four years old, girls are engaged in a manner of performance, already embracing femininity as a form of exhibitionism.

Greenfield's book displays some shocking images: women recovering from plastic surgery, girls flashing their breasts, and one college girl in an acrobatic backbend simulating a blow job. But the most disturbing photos are of Jennifer, an 18-year-old anorexic girl whose elbow bones look like they're about to pierce through her skin, and Erin, a 24-year-old who weighs in at an eating-disorder clinic, her back turned to the scale and her face grimacing at the sound of the clicks the scale makes with each pound.

Erin told Greenfield that anorexics don't use their voices. Like every girl featured in the book, they use their bodies to express themselves instead. "Many girls are not taught that it's special to be a woman, and a lot of girls find out that it hurts to be a woman," she writes in the book. "And it's something that is tormenting and frustrating and sad, and it's a struggle to come back. If you can come back."

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