The Culture of Girls in Context

In her essay from Girl Culture (Chronicle Books, 2002) Joan Jacobs Brumberg presents a historical overview of developmental and societal influences that have affected girls and their bodies.

Girl culture is the key to understanding what it means to be a young woman today or in the past. In every historical epoch, girls have formed a unique set of activities and concerns generated by their developmental needs as well as the adult society in which they live. What girls do, how they think, what they write, whisper, and dream, all reveal a great deal about them and about us. Lauren Greenfield’s photographic vision of contemporary girl culture is both a revealing documentary record and a disquieting personal commentary, infused with a distinctly sympathetic but biting point of view.

A century ago, the culture of girls was still rooted in family, school, and community. When they were not in school or helping Mother, middle-class American girls were reading, writing, and drawing, as well as playing with their dolls. Many young girls knew how to sew, knit, crochet, and embroider, generating homemade crafts to decorate their rooms or give to friends as they sipped hot chocolate and read aloud to one another. Young women flocked to the Girl Scouts and the Camp Fire Girls, only two of many national and local single-sex groups in which they could learn critical skills under the close supervision of older women. When girls were together on their own, they chattered about new hair ribbons and dress styles and inscribed sentimental rhymes in one another’s autograph books. In private, many prayed and wrote earnestly in their diaries about how they wanted to improve themselves by helping others or becoming more serious people. Celebrated for their purity, innocence, and all-around spunk, American adolescent girls in 1900 were considered a great national resource. (Some continued to believe the old Mother Goose rhyme that girls were made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.”)

A hundred years later, the lives of girls have changed enormously, along with our perception of them. Girl culture today is driven largely by commercial forces outside the family and local community. Peers seem to supplant parents as a source of authority; anxiety has replaced innocence. Despite the important and satisfying gains women have made in achieving greater access to education, power, and all forms of self-expression, including sexual, we have a sense of disquiet about what has happened to our girls.

In the l990s, a warning about girls was sounded by some best-selling books such as Meeting at the Crossroads by Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan and Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. These powerful discussions alerted the nation to the psychological difficulties of growing up female in a society that silences and stifles girls even in social and educational settings thought to be enlightened. Other studies confirmed that women really are the “stronger sex”—that is, until puberty, when their vulnerability to physical and mental health problems increases. In The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, I argued that our current cultural environment is especially “toxic” for adolescent girls because of the anxieties it generates about the developing female body and sexuality. On the basis of my reading over one hundred personal diaries written by adolescent girls between 1830 and l980, I concluded that as the twentieth century progressed, more and more young women grew up believing that “good looks”—rather than “good works”—were the highest form of female perfection. The body projects that currently absorb the attention of girls not only constitute a “brain drain,” but can also threaten mental and physical health.

Joan Jacobs Brumberg


from Lauren Greenfield's Girl Culture: Faculty Guide
Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona