— The female characters on “90210” are ambitious, scheming and sex-crazed. The girls on “Gossip Girl” are privileged, scheming and sex-crazed. And the teenagers featured on the show “16 and Pregnant” are all — well — pregnant.
Kate Engelbrecht, 35, spent a number of years watching the increasingly debauched portrayal of teenage girls in the media. She found herself wondering: Have teenage girls lost their minds?
“I was thinking to myself, ‘These girls are crazy, and their lives are crazy. What’s going on here?’ ” said Engelbrecht, a photographer based in New York City. “I couldn’t imagine how or why teenage girlhood had changed so much since my own adolescence.”
Engelbrecht’s curiosity led to “The Girl Project,” a sociological experiment that’s bound to make many parents heave a collective sigh of relief. Starting in 2007, Engelbrecht sent Kodak disposable cameras and detailed questionnaires to 13- to 18-year-old girls across the United States. Over a span of about two years, she reached out to 5,000 girls.
On condition of anonymity, about 1,000 of those girls mailed back cameras loaded with self-portraits and questionnaires with heartfelt, diary-like entries. The result? A photo library of about 27,000 candid images and a treasure trove of handwritten confessions.
Many photos from “The Girl Project” can be found online, and hundreds of photographs and handwritten passages from the entire effort are captured in Engelbrecht’s new book, “Please Read (if at all possible): The Girl Project.”
Above all, the project reveals that many 21st century girls are remarkably innocent.
“They’re innocent in a real and beautiful way,” Engelbrecht said. “These girls are not any different than girls were 20 years ago or 30 years ago — and, probably for that matter, 80 years ago.”
That’s not to say that teenage girls aren’t dealing with heavy-duty issues. A number of major themes come through in the photographs and questionnaires, which included questions such as, “What is your idea of happiness?” “Tell me one thing about you that nobody else seems to get?” “What are you afraid of?” and “What are you most proud of?”
Scores of girls described their intense insecurities about their weight and physical appearance, and dozens took photos of themselves standing on scales. Several opened up about the stresses they experience in their relationships with their family members and friends.
In answer to the question “What are you afraid of?” many girls revealed a deep-seated fear of loneliness and failure. Consider just some of their responses to that one question:
What’s more, many of the girls’ photographs and written comments center on themes of romance and love.
“Not sex. Love,” Engelbrecht stressed in an interview. “This was huge-huge-huge. There was so much there about love and being loved and the desire to give love. They’re looking for something really special, which is so contrary to how the media makes it out to be.”
“Every time I make a wish, on an eyelash or a shooting star or a birthday candle, I always wish for romance and love,” wrote one girl. Another wrote that her idea of happiness is “being in love with someone who loves me for me.”
Sound familiar? “Girls are saying and thinking and going through very, very similar things,” Engelbrecht said. “Maybe that’s not so surprising to us as adults, but I think it would be surprising to them. ... When you’re looking through the book and reading their words, it’s very difficult to find something these girls are saying that isn’t still relevant to a 35-year-old woman.”
The images and written entries don’t resonate only with girls and women. One of Engelbrecht’s friends has a son who just started ninth grade. When given a copy of the book, the teenage boy devoured it and read it cover to cover.
“He told me, ‘Wow, it’s so interesting to see that girls are going through the same things I’m going through,’ ” said Engelbrecht, who is married and has a 5-month-old son. “So, hey, it’s also a book for teenage boys. Or, husbands, want to understand your wives? Here you go.”