1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Girls putting on makeup
The Girl Project
The importance of friendship — and insecurities about physical appearance and body image — come up again and again in the photographs and handwritten comments shared by teenage girls across the United States.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 10/11/2011 10:57:23 AM ET 2011-10-11T14:57:23

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.”

  1. More TODAY News
    1. Dr. Phil, viewers weigh in on dad who shot laptop
    2. First lady greets surprised tourists at the White House
    3. Pedaling hope: War veterans plan 4,163-mile bike ride
    4. Sports Illustrated cover girl revives age of supermodel
    5. Lauren Scruggs takes first vacation, tweets photos

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.

Slideshow: Teen girls’ self-portraits are raw, intimate, honest (on this page)

“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?”

Image: Girls' feet with scale
The Girl Project
Dozens of girls fretted about their weight and took photos of themselves standing on scales.

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.

Back to hell? Helping kids through middle school, ninth grade

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:

  • “Being alone.”
  • “Rejection.”
  • “I’m afraid of screwing up — BIG TIME!”
  • “Disappointing others.”
  • “Not accomplishing my dreams.”
  • “Not having a good GPA.”
  • “Not getting into college.”
  • “Failed future.”
  • “Growing old alone.”
  • “Being stuck in one place forever.”
  • “Being a failure at life.”

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.”

Image: Book cover for "Please Read (if at all possible): The Girl Project"
The Girl Project
Hundreds of photographs and handwritten passages are chronicled in Kate Engelbrecht’s new book, “Please Read (if at all possible): The Girl Project.”

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.”

Photographer reveals kids' kingdoms: Their bedrooms

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.”

Are TV shows making girls mean?

To see additional images from The Girl Project, click here to view a fascinating slideshow or visit The Girl Project’s website.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Teen girls’ self-portraits are raw, intimate, honest

loading photos...
  1. 'Please Read (if at all possible)'

    In her new book, “Please Read (if at all possible): The Girl Project,” photographer Kate Engelbrecht shares self-portraits and diary-like entries submitted by 13- to 18-year-old girls across the country. The photographs and in-their-own-words confessions reveal that, despite media portrayals to the contrary, being a teenage girl isn’t that different today than it was decades ago. (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Getting an accurate picture

    Engelbrecht started “The Girl Project” in 2007 and ultimately sent Kodak single-use cameras and questionnaires to 5,000 teenage girls across the United States. The questionnaires were based on the Proust Questionnaire, which has the objective of revealing a person’s true personality. (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Opening up

    Young women of entirely different backgrounds, races and faiths provided handwritten answers to 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?” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'Incredibly innocent'

    “The most surprising thing to come out of the project, to me, is that these girls are incredibly innocent,” Engelbrecht said. “They’re innocent in a real and beautiful way.” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Weighty issues

    Dozens upon dozens of images sent in by girls across the United States revealed their concern with their weight and body image. (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A focus on body image

    “It’s amazing how common it was” for photographs to center around body-image issues, Engelbrecht said. “It sort of crosses race and ethnicity and economic background. It’s such a big part of being a young woman – which then, of course, translates into being a woman.” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Dreaming, thinking, going

    In a handwritten submission featured in the book, one girl wrote: “I’m a dreamer, I’m a thinker, I want to go places, and see the world.” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. They're not alone

    “A lot of themes come through in the 27,000 pictures we got back,” Engelbrecht said of “The Girl Project.” “Girls are saying and thinking and going through very, very similar things. Maybe that’s not so surprising to us as adults, but I think it would be surprising to them.” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Revealing what matters

    In answer to the question, “What are you afraid of?” many girls shared a deep-seated fear of loneliness. And in response to the question, “Tell me one thing about you that nobody else seems to get,” one girl wrote, “I believe I’m more experienced and intelligent than people understand.” Another wrote, “I’m tougher than I look. Seriously.” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Looking for something special'

    Many of the girls’ photographs centered on themes of love and romance. “Not sex. Love,” Engelbrecht said. “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.” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'I always wish for love'

    In a handwritten submission featured in the book, one girl wrote: “I just want to be held. Loved for who I am. Listened to.” Another wrote, “Every time I make a wish, on an eyelash or a shooting star or a birthday candle, I always wish for romance and love.” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Friends forever

    “The photos also really illustrate the importance of friendship,” Engelbrecht said. “You see how important female relationships are with one another. This strikes at a really early age.” (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'I can do anything'

    In answer to the question, “What are you most proud of?” one girl wrote, “Myself. I think I’m beautiful and I can do anything.” Another wrote, “The things I have accomplished. And surviving being a teenage girl so far.”

    To see more images from “The Girl Project,” click here. (The Girl Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Video: Are TV shows teaching girls to hate each other?

  1. Transcript of: Are TV shows teaching girls to hate each other?

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Back now at 8:11. For young women , the tween and teen years are critical for creating and building friendships with other girls . But with so much on television focusing on females who can't get along, are we sending our girls a dangerous message? Here's NBC's Janet Shamlian .

    JANET SHAMLIAN reporting: If you have a television and a teenage daughter, you've probably seen it.

    SHAMLIAN: Cat fights, back-stabbing, lying and cheating. They used to be the signature moves of middle-aged women on daytime soap operas and evening reality shows .

    SHAMLIAN: But now, mean girls are all over television.

    Ms. LYNN FOLSE ATTIG (Mother of Teenage Girl): Those kind of shows do not portray women in a very good light. And then parents have to battle against that constantly.

    SHAMLIAN: Lynn 's daughter Abby and her high school friends in Redondo Beach , California , like the shows , but don't always love the behavior.

    Mr. BRIANA STONE (Teenage TV Viewer): I think they show women being like kind of bitchy and always fighting, and never getting along when women can get along really well and be best friends.

    SHAMLIAN: On programs like " The Bad Girls Club " on Oxygen , a network owned by NBC Universal , young women are often their own worst enemy.

    Ms. MEREDITH BLAKE (Freelance TV Critic): A lot of these girls you see, they parlay these 15 minutes of fame and their making tons of money off of it. And I think it does send a message that if you act in a kind of rampantly narcissistic way you can move forward in the world.

    SHAMLIAN: Experts say the programs reinforce a stereotype, that women can't get along, an unsettling message at a time when girls and young women are still trying to figure it all out. For their part, the networks wouldn't comment on the criticism. And while the shows are clearly labeled entertainment, some fear it's a misguided moral compass.

    Ms. ATTIG: We need to raise our girls to be powerful and independent and wonderful women that get along.

    SHAMLIAN: There are exceptions, with no outrageous behavior. "Tia Tamera" are an NBC Universal owned Style network hit.

    SHAMLIAN: Proving female friendship doesn't have to be a twisted sisterhood. For TODAY, Janet Shamlian , NBC News, Los Angeles .

    CURRY: Caroline Knorr is the parenting editor for Common Sense Media , and Robi Ludwig is a psychotherapist and TODAY contributor. Good morning to both of you.

    Dr. ROBI LUDWIG (Psychotherapist): Good morning.

    Ms. CAROLINE KNORR (Parenting Editor, Common Sense Media): Good morning.

    CURRY: Boy, am I yearning for the days of Ethel and Lucy , and Laverne and Shirley , right?

    Ms. KNORR: Yes.

    CURRY: The days seem to be gone.

    Ms. KNORR: Yeah. Yeah, I think over the past couple years we've really seen an explosion in these types of shows that kind of amp up this drama. You know, all these shows are competing for your kids' eyeballs.

    CURRY: OK. That said, I did find some research in The New York Times from last year from two researchers who say that girl violence is actually plummeting, that the serious crimes committed by girls has actually gone down significantly.

    Ms. KNORR: Mm-hmm.

    CURRY: Really significantly, compared to what happened decades before. So how should we be thinking about the full impact of this kind of programming?

    Dr. LUDWIG: Well, also there's relational aggression which is very common amongst girls , where there's increased gossip and being nasty to one another. And that's what...

    CURRY: So you're saying there is a difference between violence and relational aggression .

    Dr. LUDWIG: ...yes. Physical violence and relational aggression , which is more prominent amongst young girls . And that's what we see a lot on television. And the truth is, if kids are watching these kinds of interactions, and the message is you're popular if you're nasty and mean, girls who identify with that will certainly make that a part of their mental script.

    CURRY: So, you're concerned about how this will play out in the future. I mean, but this is really anecdotal evidence, isn't it? Is their any kind of clinical evidence that would support this idea?

    Dr. LUDWIG: Well, yes. I mean, they are doing studies, but they're newer studies. So of course, the longer we study it, the more information we'll have.

    CURRY: So Caroline , what -- you know, your job is to think about this...

    Ms. KNORR: Yeah.

    CURRY: ...and what media's doing and how it's influencing our kids. So what is the best advice that you have for parents, especially moms who are concerned about their daughters?

    Ms. KNORR: Yeah. I really think that you -- now kids are watching TV on the Internet , they're -- it's -- TV is mobile, and I just think that, you know, if parents really get involved and take a look at the TV Guide and make a conscious decision about what TV shows ...

    Dr. LUDWIG: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. KNORR: ...that they really want to watch that reinforce their own values, then they will be showing shows that, you know, really show better behavior.

    CURRY: Are you saying that we should talk to the networks? Or are you saying that we should watch TV or ban certain programs with -- from our girls ?

    Ms. KNORR: Well, I think that, you know, we all love outrageous TV . It's fun to watch and it's entertaining.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. KNORR: So I think that, you know, if -- you know, not everyone is going to watch, you know, the Ozzie and Harriet style shows . So talk about some of these issues that come up. And talk to your daughters about do you think this is realistic? How would these women , you know, work together and support each other. How could this friendship, you know, be more positive?

    CURRY: Oh, OK. So you're using it as a learning lesson.

    Ms. KNORR: Absolutely.

    CURRY: You watch it together and talk about it. I mean, I'm wondering if -- I mean, because of this stuff is so shocking.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Mm-hmm.

    CURRY: That I wonder if it's having kind of an opposite effect because some of the girls are saying, 'Oh, there's no way I would do something like that.'

    Dr. LUDWIG: Well, that can happen. Certainly girls who say, I know what real friendships are like. It doesn't look like what we see on TV ,' can differentiate. Although young boys who are looking at this really are mischaracterizing or stereotyping what female relationships are all about.

    Ms. KNORR: Mm-hmm.

    Dr. LUDWIG: So it does have an impact. But again, if parents train their kids to think critically that makes all the difference in the world. If you train your child to say, how do you think the victim feels in this situation, then you're really teaching empathy and you're using what's part of this media diet in an effective way.

    CURRY: So much of this violence also seems to be connected to this idea of judgment, girls judging each other, you know, women judging daughters.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Mm-hmm.

    CURRY: I mean, it almost seems that if you could have a home where you have less judgment, you know.

    Ms. KNORR: Yeah.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Well, we have judgment TV .

    Ms. KNORR: Yeah.

    Dr. LUDWIG: That's what reality television is all about. We like to be in judgment and we like to feel superior. And that's all part of the appeal right now.

    CURRY: All right. Well, Robi Ludwig , and Caroline Knorr , thank you so much .

    Ms. KNORR: Thank you.

    CURRY: All right. Helping our daughters.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. Courtesy Tricia Somers

    How one nurse answered a dying mother's prayer for her son

    9/22/2014 7:32:10 PM +00:00 2014-09-22T19:32:10
  1. Budweiser via YouTube

    Budweiser does it again with dog ad that makes us whimper

    9/22/2014 9:52:37 PM +00:00 2014-09-22T21:52:37
  1. John Moore / Getty Images

    Missing Afghan soldiers found trying to enter Canada

    9/22/2014 7:31:04 PM +00:00 2014-09-22T19:31:04
  1. Shutterstock

    Celebrate National Elephant Appreciation Day with these pictures

    9/22/2014 5:41:48 PM +00:00 2014-09-22T17:41:48