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Photo exhibit explores the pressures and pitfalls of modern girlhood

The South Bend, Ind., curator of Lauren Greenfield's "Girl Culture" photo exhibit was anxious. Given the provocative nature of some images, he worried about a conservative board member at Notre Dame University, which hosted the exhibit back in 2003.

Allegra caught in a game of dress-up

The South Bend, Ind., curator of Lauren Greenfield's "Girl Culture" photo exhibit was anxious.

Given the provocative nature of some images, he worried about a conservative board member at Notre Dame University, which hosted the exhibit back in 2003. But the board member, it turned out, was enthused about the show: His daughter, a Notre Dame freshman, had just come home in tears, saying she wasn't popular in school and needed to lose weight. "I totally get the show," he said.

"It's been remarkably uncontroversial," Greenfield, a Harvard-educated photographer based in California, says about the show. "My take on it has been that people see these images all around them, and they don't dispute what the work is saying."

The show, which opened at the Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretative Center last week, features 50 unflinching glimpses into a cultural obsession with good looks and the resulting pressures young women face.

The photos, which chronicle the exhibitionism of contemporary girlhood - and the accompanying first-person essays - are deeply unsettling. It's a shock of recognition, the dark flip side to 1990s girl power. But with a local spin on the exhibit and an impressive lineup of lectures, the Hjemkomst exhibit's organizers are eager to talk solutions.


On a 1998 assignment for The New York Times Magazine, Greenfield hung out with the popular girl clique in Edina, Minn. After getting to know the blond, well-groomed, Abercrombie-clad 13-year-olds, she realized they were as insecure as their less-polished peers.

The photographer's first book, "Fast Forward: Growing up in the Shadow," looked into California youngsters' push to skip ahead to cooler adulthood.

Her second book, "Girl Culture," brought together images of girls and young women from assignments across the country for publications such as Time and Harper's Bazaar. About half of the book's images, along with heartbreaking first-person accounts by some of the subjects, form the exhibit.

The heroes of the show are strippers and debutantes, Las Vegas showgirls and a Britney Spears-obsessed 6-year-old on a shopping spree. They are eating disorder patients and the residents of a weight-loss camp, where a skinny-girl coterie also calls the shots.

The settings include glossy upscale boutiques, sunbathed beachside locales and glamorous interiors. In many of the slick, vibrant photos, the women bask in the gaze of the camera and face it directly with complacent, defiant eyes. But Greenfield captures the self-consciousness in the choreographed poses, in the notice-me gazes and in the handwritten note on a showgirl's dresser: "I approve of myself," stuck next to cutouts of models and her grooming supplies.

Flanked by three dressed-up friends on her way to a party, popular Edina girl Hannah casts a practiced glance to the camera over her shoulder, her lips seductively parted. "In our group, people get criticized if you don't look a certain way," she says in one of the essays that accompany and inform some of the photos.

Four-year-old Allegra, engrossed in the timeless game of dress up, deftly pulls off the pouty lips and faraway stare of catwalk models. Sheena, a 15-year-old who wants to be a topless dancer, sizes herself up in a dressing room mirror with chillingly blasé eyes.

A one-time chronic dieter and timid inhabitant of Los Angeles' tiered high-school culture, Greenfield says she could relate to the body image struggles of her subjects. Yet, she feels things have gotten worse. She heard girls talking about suicide in the weight-loss camp and at an eating disorder clinic.


"The pathological side of it I didn't experience myself," she says.

But the most striking change from her own adolescence was the increasingly aggressive marketing to impressionable young consumers.

"It's always good for the work to make people think about what we take for granted," Greenfield says. "Parents may buy teens the latest fashions to help them be accepted by their peers without even thinking about the message they're sending."

Healthy discomfort

Hjemkomst program coordinator Sara Dalen says members of the exhibit committee felt slightly nervous about the reception the provocative images would receive. The show, which features some nudity and sexually charged images, is not recommended for children 12 and younger. Hesitant parents are encouraged to check it out on their own first.

But the organizers believed the urgent, powerful message of the show more than made up for its unsettling effect.

"Girls aren't living sanitized lives though sometimes we like to think that," says Jill Johnson-Danielson, committee member and co-director of the Latina organization Mujeres Unidas (which translates as Women United). "If we don't face the actual desperation that's there from not fitting in, girls can end up being extremely vulnerable."

Says Dalen: "Some of the images can be shocking until you look at the exhibit as a whole. Then, it becomes very benign."


Still, the photos' reluctance to look on the bright side came up in planning meetings. "A committee member expressed concern that at first glance the exhibit put American girls in not so great a light," Dalen said.

The center called on the local community to nominate inspiring area young women, "girls who are bypassing some of the pressures this exhibit portrays," in Dalen's words. The photos and biographies of the dozen or so nominated girls will go up in the center's basement corridor Monday; applications are still accepted.

In addition, the center will host weekly Tuesday talks on relevant topics, from bullying to eating disorders to abusive relationships. On Feb. 28, Greenfield will discuss the exhibit and talk about her directorial debut, the documentary "Thin." The movie, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival later this month and runs on HBO in the fall, tells of four young women undergoing treatment at a Florida eating disorder clinic.

"I think Lauren's exhibit sparks the questions, and the Tuesday night lectures offer the solutions," says Johnson-Danielson.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

If you go

What: "Girl Culture" photos by Lauren Greenfield


When: Through March 24. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays

Where: Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretative Center, Moorhead

Info: Tickets $4, $5 and $6. The Hjemkomst recommends children 12 and younger be accompanied by an adult. (218) 299-5511. For more information, to view images or listen to first-person essays, visit www.girlculture.com .

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