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. …