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Look at you, girl

A photojournalist tries to capture what it means to be feminine today.

November 25, 2002|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

The showgirl's handwritten note -- on a scrap of paper, edges curled and yellowed -- was taped to her lighted makeup mirror: "I APPROVE OF MYSELF."

Later, photojournalist Lauren Greenfield was flipping through the pictures of the dancer that she'd shot in Las Vegas for a German magazine. The photograph of the note also shows a dressing room cluttered with hairbrushes and other primping tools, a scene that triggered a subtle association for her, noted Greenfield, 36, a Harvard graduate. The way Greenfield saw it, she and the showgirl had spun out of the same milieu.

Greenfield's new photography book, "Girl Culture" (Chronicle Books), illustrates that world, or what she sees as a twist on the concept of modern femininity, in which rituals of grooming and beauty take on intense significance. The glossy, oversize book also includes interviews with 20 of the girls and women pictured and an essay by Greenfield, whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Time and National Geographic.

"With 'Girl Culture,' I really tried to look at the more universal themes and look everywhere and show the teenager in Minnesota is thinking about the same things as the teenager in Beverly Hills who is thinking about the same things as the showgirl who's a grown woman in Vegas," said Greenfield, who lives in Venice with her husband and 2-year-old son.

At the Stardust Hotel in 1995, Greenfield also noticed that the showgirl had put up pictures of models she admires or looks to for inspiration. "That was the beginning of the project, really.... That idea of how girls construct their identities, and how they use pieces of the outside world and pieces of a magazine, pieces of a model and images of other people or other things, like a piece of clothing or designer brand, to kind of help conceptualize who they are. That was a really powerful idea for me."

In the book, Sheena, 15, from Santa Fe, says she wants to be a "topless dancer or a showgirl" when she grows up; Lily, 6, who shops at a designer boutique in Los Angeles, says, "If I don't dress well, I feel geeky"; and Alison, 17, says she cuts her calves with razor blades for "this release of endorphins." Greenfield also caught girls at a weight-loss camp in New York, pregnant girls and teenage mothers in Inglewood and Stanford University's women's swim team.

A personal project

On a recent afternoon, in her photography studio, which is connected by a walkway to her airy, loft-like house, Greenfield rushed through one phone call after another in the hectic days before her book's scheduled release in December. Her previous photography book, "Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood" (Knopf, 1997), documented the media-saturated world of young people in Los Angeles. "Girl Culture" is "the most personal project I've done," said Greenfield, who grew up in Los Angeles.

As a teenager, she was a chronic dieter. As a preteen, she worried that she didn't have the right designer jeans to wear to Hebrew school. As a 6-year-old, one day, she sobbed at her reflection in the mirror, convinced that she was ugly. "A lot of this was inspired by my own experience growing up here," Greenfield said. "I feel that things are the same, but they're worse. Like, when I was a teenager, you had to be thin, and you had to look good in clothes, but now you have to wear a miniskirt, and have a six-pack [stomach] or decorate your belly, like having a navel piercing ... and wax and tan and dye your hair."

The collection is not meant to be an indictment or "at all representative of girls," Greenfield said. Instead, she tried to point to the thread that tied her to her subjects. "I could always relate to the different girls," she said. "One thing about being a photographer is that you get to see what it's like to be in the popular group. You get to see what it's like to be unpopular. You get to go over the edge into all these different worlds."

Curators at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography have put together a traveling exhibition of photographs from "Girl Culture." For details, go online to


'Girl Culture'

Where: Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles.

When: Beginning Dec. 5, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Ends: Feb. 8

Price: Free

Contact: (323) 937-5525

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