Girls' future needn't be as bleak as photographer portrays it

January 19, 2003|By SUSAN REIMER

MY HUSBAND SAYS that if our 16-year-old daughter had never played with Barbie dolls, her bedroom would not be piled high with clothing, most of which exposes her tummy.

I disagree, I tell him. It is not as simple as that. She is not as simple as that.

And nothing is as simple as photographer Lauren Greenfield would have us believe in her new coffee table photo collection, Girl Culture. (Chronicle Books, $40.)

In it, youth culture chronicler Greenfield has collected candid photos of girls at their most vulnerable and most conflicted: when they are obsessing about their bodies.

The range of photos is breathtaking, from 4-year-olds playing dress-up to aging Las Vegas show girls.

And Greenfield includes every rotten girl moment in between: from eating disorders and self-mutilation to breast augmentation surgery for the teen set.

From a young woman annoyed by the gantlet of ogling she must pass through every day to the 15-year-old who wants to be an exotic dancer.

From the glum girls at the fat camp to which their mothers have sent them, to the look-alike mothers and daughters primping in the same mirror for a night out together.

A photo of the Stanford University swim team is not nearly enough to mitigate.

Her pictures are not for the faint of heart, and neither is the larger picture they create. The interviews that accompany many of the pictures are just as revealing and disturbing.

"The way I relate to people is based on how I look," says 19-year-old Sara. "I sometimes wonder what's gonna happen when I can't count on that to be successful in my personal relationships or in my career."

The answer for Sara might be as simple as, "You will then be a grownup!"

But Greenfield's photo collection does not offer any hope that our daughters will someday emerge from the sexual-commercial-popular cement mixer of adolescence; that they will grow out of this shallow and self-absorbed state as certainly as they will grow out of their double-zero jeans.

I regret the forces at work on our girls and young women, and sometimes I am horrified. But I am never as hopeless as Greenfield's photo gallery.

At some point we, like our daughters, have to snap out of it.

We have to stop freaking out over the latest reports of oral sex-capades and eating dysfunction.

We have to stop believing in the myth that our daughters are destined to be either carnivorous Alpha girls or their doomed victims.

Then, perhaps, we can see their strength, their resilience, their good sense and their courage.

It isn't easy being a girl today, But my guess is, it isn't easy being a boy, either. It is just that there aren't any powder-room or dressing-room scenes to prove it.

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