Ana Grossman has a theory about the raging success of Britney Spears - the ubiquitous teenage pop queen who always seems to be performing or posing in one provocative, midriff-baring top after another. Ana's critique comes down to this: "If she wore jeans and a normal-size shirt, then she would probably not be as popular as she is."
It's a pretty astute comment for a 12-year-old - a girl who's part of the adolescent age group that has helped propel Ms. Spears to stardom, even as critics have questioned the sexual overtones of the young singer's image.
And with the release last week of her second album, "Oops ... I Did It Again," the 18-year-old pop-culture phenomenon is raising more eyebrows than ever as she continues flaunting the kind of sex appeal once associated with far older stars.
As Spears splashes her way across the media spectrum - from MTV to the cover of Rolling Stone (in a tiny, American-flag-type top) - many media observers and feminists worry that girls are getting the wrong message about what it really means to be female as they grow from girlhood to womanhood.
"For the demographic group of 12- to 17-year-old girls, Britney Spears is the biggest role model there is," says Tina Pieraccini, a professor of communication at the State University of New York at Oswego. And the message conveyed by Spears "says you have to be pretty, you have to be thin, you have to have fashionable clothes."
Not all girls buy into that image, of course. Ana, for one, is doing her part to counteract it: As a member of the editorial board of New Moon magazine, a Minnesota-based periodical run by girls age 8 to 14, she helped create an issue featuring "25 Beautiful Girls."
In a direct response to People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People," Ana and the other editors did not look at pictures of candidates, but chose them instead for their accomplishments and character.
"We're sending out a message that you don't have to fit in a mold," she says. "You are who you are, and you're beautiful."
But Ana also knows that despite the efforts of girl-powered 'zines like hers, the mainstream media send a much louder message.
And that's what worries experts. Although recent decades have seen women breaking through traditional stereotypes and limitations, the media still tend to hold up two kinds of women: successful working women or beautiful celebrities. Rarely are women presented as complex individuals, capable of more than one kind of success.
"The role models still often depend on very old stereotypes," says Pam Nelson, who runs Girl Press, a publishing company in Los Angeles. "You can either be Grace Kelly - beautiful, talented, and thin - or you can be Janet Reno, who's perceived as very masculine, really competent, and almost completely identified with her career rather than her family.
"It's time for the media to start holding up role models of women who are multifaceted people," she says.
Many teenage girls are still fundamentally immature, Ms. Nelson says, and not eager to embrace the demands of a culture that pressures them to "dress in a mature way, and to think of themselves in a sexual way at a young age."
Researchers for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) have found a similar kind of confusion among girls. Responding to a questionnaire presented at some 400 summits sponsored by AAUW, girls have written comments such as, "I want to know how to live in an adult world but still be a child," or, "I would like to know if all girls in high school want freedom, but still want to be like the little girl they were."
"Bewilderment is the word that comes to mind," says Pamela Haag, director of research at the AAUW Educational Foundation. "Girls are bewildered by what adults tell them, by what the media says.
"It really seems like there's a double bind on being adolescent," she continues. "The media tries to target them as adults and consumers, but on the other hand, many girls yearn to be children. Some of these girls already felt as if their childhood was over."
The current cultural fixation with teens - Spears is among the most successful of a whole crop of teen bands and singers - is driven in large part by commercial concerns.
Teenagers are currently "the most coveted demographic" by advertisers, says Dr. Pieraccini, because they have huge amounts of expendable income. "That's why there's been a huge explosion of targeting teens."
And Spears plays right into the boom - a marketable teenager singing songs written by other people (her first record was written by a team of Swedish writer-producers), and presenting herself in a highly sexual manner that's meant to sell records. In interviews, Spears plays down her sexual image, saying she plans to remain chaste until marriage, and telling Rolling Stone, "I don't want to be part of someone's Lolita thing."
But experts say Spears can't divorce her image - and its connotations - from the culture she lives in. "It's the wider context in which she operates," says Lyn Mikel Brown, who teaches women's studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
"It's objectifying girls, making them always subject to the male gaze, to be always conscious of pleasing boys, or getting boys," she says. "This is the social context in which girls come of age."
Given the media's pervasive influence in modern culture, it becomes increasingly important for girls to get other messages that challenge media stereotypes - particularly at home and in school. "Home messages are very important," says Pieraccini. "The message that you look good the way you are, that girls come in all shapes and sizes.
"We can't change the media focus," she says, "but we can counter the media focus by sending the right message."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society