Today's Book Review

Kate Engelbrecht
Please Read (if at all possible)
224pp. Universe. 9780789322609

"About four years ago," writes photographer Kate Engelbrecht, "...I found myself really curious about depictions of teenage girls. Everywhere I looked it seemed girlhood and female adolescence were being portrayed--movies, tv shows, books, news articles, billboards, bus wraps--everywhere! Girlhood had become a very popular backdrop for entertainment... and I couldn't believe the message it was sending about girls. Either it was inaccurate or girlhood had changed a lot since I was a girl."

In response, Engelbrecht sent disposable cameras and questionnaires to over five thousand teenage girls across the country. Girls between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, from different class and ethnic backgrounds, races, and religions, participated in what Engelbrecht called the Girl Project. The result is Please Read (if at all possible), a collection of images and reproductions of the girls' questionnaire answers.

I tore through this book in one sitting, and was struck, more than anything, by how surreally timeless the text and images were--with the exception of the occasional mention of an mp3 or picture of an iPod, both the questionnaires and photos could just as easily have been produced by the girls I knew when I was fifteen. (Well, maybe not the girl who photographed herself hugging a cardboard Edward Cullen.) They photograph their bedroom walls, obsessively collaged with pages torn from magazines and photos; the detritus of their lives (clothes, underwear, makeup, books, music) strewn across their floors or piled into little nests. That habit of marking every available surface feels so familiar: the need to define a space that is yours in a world that is not yet open to you, the need to externalize your own inner workings into a tangible representation of what you are and what you love.

The girls in these pages are preoccupied with personal freedom, with their bodies, with the desire to be seen, and with the desire to be taken seriously. "I think it's bullshit," one girl writes in response to the question, "What do you think about the way girls are portrayed?" Though many of the girls photograph themselves standing on scales or write about how difficult it is to navigate the pressures on them to perform a kind of nonconsensual femininity, they seem equally equipped to weather adolescence with a media-savvy eye. It's a little depressing to realize nothing has changed about being a girl since I ran the daily gauntlet of senior hall, where the football team gathered to scratch itself and deliver a uninventive litany of queer-bashing and sexual harassment, but Please Read left me with a little glow all the same. These girls are smart, funny, and aware. And they are, you will be glad to know, doing just fine.

Images courtesy of the author and Universe/Rizzoli.