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AMBER. JENNIFER. LEANNE // GIRLS A PORTRAIT OF CHANGE

There is something achingly beautiful about an adolescent girl.

She changes moment to moment, from who she was to who she will be and back again. At age 12 or 13, emotions wash across her face like shifting light through a window: First a girl, scrubbed and bright. Then a young woman, rounder, her expressions more veiled.

As she negotiates the path from childhood to adulthood she may lose her way, uncertain where to place her next step or of who she is. Recent studies on this critical age say we are failing to give her the help she needs.

Many of the emotional and physical changes a girl experiences are the same as those of her mother before her _ the fights with parents, the push for freedom to be out with friends and boys, the wondering if she will ever have breasts.

But there are new issues, the pressures of modern times. The consequences of premarital sex have transcended the edicts of religious beliefs and communal shame to become a risk to one's very life. Drugs may be proffered to kids still deciding on lunchbox colors. And while new doors to education and careers have opened for girls, studies show many teachers, parents and male peers perpetuate the Father Knows Best past, praising girls for obedience or prettiness, for being, while encouraging boys to do.

Both boys and girls suffer a drop in self-esteem between the elementary and high school years. Girls lose far more ground, however. Less than a third agree with the statement, "I am happy the way I am," by the time they reach 16. While African-American girls retain much more confidence than white girls, studies show they may falter academically, vying for attention in the classroom but getting little.

The alarm that we shortchange girls was first sounded in the early 1990s in a study on education by the American Association of University Women. An ensuing string of books, many of them written by women with daughters of their own, illustrate society's damaging messages, in the media and in attitudes. Too many girls slide from almost cockiness at age 8 or 9 to self-doubt in their teens. On Sept. 18, AAUW will release its most recent report, on how girls fare in middle school.

To capture the poignancy of the change from child to teenager, girl to woman, Times photographer Joanna Pinneo spent four months with three girls, ages 12 and 13, their families and their friends.

Each girl is a mercurial mix of emotions, talents and dreams. They share a penchant for strong opinions. They want adults to stop lecturing. They want adults to listen.

In the hope of a young face, the tilt of a changing body and the passion of newfound convictions, we glimpse their turbulent and exhilarating journey.

_ Susan Aschoff, Times staff writer

Their stories and photos, inside Floridian on pages 3F-5F.

Photographer Joanna Pinneo, 41, has been on assignment in more than 60 countries during her 15-year career. She recently completed her fifth assignment for National Geographic magazine on the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic, to be published in 1997. She is on contract with the Times throug November.

Debbie Cone videotapes her daughter, LeAnne, moments after she won a beauty pageant in Tampa sponsored monthly by Evelyn Stewart's Florida Model Inc. Her mother borrowed $30 from the mortgage payment for the entry fee.

Amber White contemplates what to take with her on a weekend sleepover with friends. She shares her bedroom with her 12-year-old sister, Heather.

Jennifer Reed, center, a church-camp counselor over the summer, enjoys an afternoon skating trip to Southland Roller Palace in Pinellas Park with the Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church campers.

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