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Maya Fuhr
Photography Maya Fuhr

Deconstructing the ‘high school girl’ image

A new generation of photographers are readdressing one of the most globally recognised visuals by swapping out perfection for an ideal that’s closer to reality

‘American High School Girls’ – their style, relationships and general ambiguity (bitch or friend? Gay or straight? Virgin or not?) – have fascinated filmmakers, fetishists, fashion designers and pornographers worldwide. By now, they are fundamental component in the neo-liberal middlebrow visual indentity, symbolic of a carefree, affulent life. From John Hughes’ films to Neve Campbell and Lindsay Lohan – what we think of now when we think of the ‘American High School Girl’ now is evolving from the lavish Sweet Sixteenths and prom dresses, shopping and suggestive sexuality.

But for female contemporary artists emerging now, the prevalence of those images of the American high school girls in the 90s and early 2000s is loaded: it emerges in the hyperfeminine cupcake feminism of Petra Collins, for example – or in complete contrast, in the dissident perspective of Amalia Ulman. More than just pop socks and apple-cheeked buttocks under pleated skirts, the American high school girl is iconoclastic, narcissistic and is being remodeled by a new generation for the next.

In Dafy Hagai’s No Life zine project (2014) the self-projection of American high schoolers meets the iPhone in white suburbia. The techno-narcissim of Hagai’s suburban princesses is flattened by fantasy: artifical clouds, smiles, and swimming pools give an unreality to the typical teen. This part-fantasy, part-sentimentality can also be seen in the aesthetic of artists such as Dana Boulos. But there’s a deep ambivalence to these types of images that artists are more than aware of through their own (recent) personal experiences as teenagers.

Artist Maya Fuhr, who photographs high school girls, says, “If you google ‘high school girl’ what seems to come up are photos of thin, happy girls smiling.  This is a small percentage of reality. From what I know, high school is one of the toughest times in a girl's life. Exploring sexuality, developing self esteem and understanding your body. I had a lot of trouble with my body image in high school because I was easily influenced by magazines and media. There weren't enough outlets like Rookie where girls could openly talk about these important issues. Depression and eating disorders are incredibly common in high school years so the fact that the American high school girl is typically beautiful and happy is a misconception. Not that it's easier to be a teen today – because it's still arduous – but in my opinion teens are much more supported by the strong outlets and communities on the internet. There is such an influential girl culture going on right now that easily influences the mass sad girl culture, therefore making sadness more acceptable. All body types, different forms of sexuality and individual styles are praised in our present times as opposed to repressed. My photographic style has developed by taking photos of my subjects in their natural state and realising and understanding that the image of a ‘happy girl’ is not as sincere as we think.”

Picking up on the political slant of the American high school girl aesthetic, Amalia Ulman’s 2014 Instagram project Excellences & Perfections indicts the American high school girl as symptomatic of the uncertainty that comes with capital freedom, the self-doubt and competitiveness that causes people to self-segregate. Ulman picks up not only on the self-styling and one-upmanship game that goes on on social media (she did not have a boob job but she did get botox for the project) but she also exposes the corrosive language that goes along with such posts shared among young women. Perhaps born exactly from that impetus that Ulman critiques, many female artists promoting unity and familiarity in a digital network ecology have seen their work explode lately among a teen community – heavily influenced by the American high school rom coms they would watch as teens.

Feminist fashion platform and online store Me and You’s co-founder Mayan Toledano is among them. Their images are often shot in a bedroom setting, a motif that is important as it presents a site of intimacy, privacy, a site of boredom, experimentation, self-expression that is usual free from any outside gaze. Their motive is to create a free unity between young girls and embrace girlhood. “I think femininity today is whatever we like it to be, girls can explore whatever type of femininity that's right for them so it's a lot more about self love and acceptance. I think in accepting ourselves we become more aware of supporting each other as women, which becomes super relevant. For me right now it's this hyper girly thing that celebrates womanhood. I choose pink in my work and include it to reclaim a colour that we don't choose, but is traditionally assigned to us. Escapism is very much part of your life as a teenager. American cinema has the ability to glorify and romanticise the pains of being a teenager. The visual language is something I always reference for that innocence and vulnerability.”