What Girls Really Want To Be When They Grow Up

Photographs by Ilona Szwarc. Sets by Audrey Hope. Commission by TOPIC.COM.
For many people, the answer to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" changes over time. When I was little, I wanted to be a clown, a gymnast, an ice skater, and a writer — all in one lifetime. Other kids want to be rich, as documentarian Lauren Greenfield explores in her book Generation Wealth. And many girls and women aspire to careers in math and science — despite their dwindling numbers in those industries (and equal capacity to excel). For many people in underrepresented groups, it's hard to be what you can't see.
In 1991, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) published a national survey that assessed "self-esteem, educational experiences, interest in math and science, and career aspirations of girls and boys ages 9-15." They found that 8- and 9-year-old girls were "confident, assertive, and feel authoritative about themselves." However, their self-esteem dipped 31% by high school, "with only 29% of high school girls describing the statement 'I'm happy the way I am' as always true." (Compared to 46% of high school boys.)
AAUW considered the negative ways that lack of confidence might affect girls and women throughout their academic and professional lives. However, the organization also noted that monumental societal changes over the last 10 years have led to people of all sexes seeing women as involved, successful professionals. "Most young people assume that women will combine a job outside the home with their job inside the home," the report stated. "Even more girls than boys think they could enter certain professions, most noticeably, the law."
To figure out where and what girls today aspire to be, TOPIC commissioned a photoshoot by photographer Ilona Szwarc with sets by Audrey Hope, styling by Styled by Liz Baca, and interviews by writer Angella d'Avignon. The shoot included six girls, ages 7 to 11, who discussed how they see themselves now, and what they want to do when they grow up. The end product, called "Here's What Little Girls Are Made Of," is humorous, fun, imaginative — and reassuring.
"We were hoping to create fantastical, imaginary worlds that would envelop the girls and create a dynamic backdrop for their portraits," Szwarc says. "We celebrated them and their interests, and I think we managed to create a very welcoming space for them. I also have to acknowledge how brave they were to share their visions for their futures with us, and open up to so many new people and experiences."
Ahead, Szwarc shares some photos from the series, and talks to Refinery29 about what it looks like when young women feel empowered to pursue their dreams.
Photographs by Ilona Szwarc, commissioned by TOPIC.COM.
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Photographs by Ilona Szwarc. Commissioned by TOPIC.COM.

Ashlyn Begley, 7
Future Gemologist

Refinery29: What did you consider when you were casting, styling, and photographing these girls?

Szwarc: "We started out by doing a casting call in Los Angeles. We did short interviews with about 100 girls from the area asking them what they want to become when they grow up. From there, we narrowed down and finally chose six girls to participate in the project. We tried to parse out visual details from the girls' descriptions, and asked them about what they would be wearing, and what their surroundings would look like."
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Photographs by Ilona Szwarc. Commissioned by TOPIC.COM.
Szwarc: "I wanted those specific details to become jumping-off points for the styling, sets, and props. For example, Adora, a future comedian, described a cake she would make for her audience. Ashlyn [a future gemologist] described how she'd like to go in the caves and find gems and diamonds."
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Photographs by Ilona Szwarc. Commissioned by TOPIC.COM.

Darielle Charles, 11
Future Ballerina

Refinery29: Most of the girls in these portraits aren't smiling. In the New York Times' coverage of your previous portrait series of girls with their American Girl dolls, you said, "I just think there’s more to reveal if they aren't smiling." Why did you choose to portray them that way here?

Szwarc: "These photographs are formal studio portraits, with a sense of gravity and a formality to them. I wanted the girls to be natural, not overly performative for the camera. However, Adora, a future comedian, wanted to perform for us. She kept telling jokes on the set, and once she was in costume, it came natural for her to perform for the camera what a mime would do, and that made perfect sense in the context of this project."
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Photographs by Ilona Szwarc. Commissioned by TOPIC.COM.
Szwarc: "The goal was to portray the girls with as much detail that they themselves provided to us during the interviews, as a guide in the aesthetic choices that we made regarding the sets, costumes, and direction. My vision for the project was to create diptychs: classic, full-length studio portraits, paired with a close-up of girls' hands holding a symbolic prop.

"The close-up of the hands is supposed to emphasize the girls' agency, and remind us of their power to manipulate and explore the world around them. We wanted to depict them as having active and curious bodies, capable of realizing their visions."
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Photographs by Ilona Szwarc. Commissioned by TOPIC.COM.

Zia Nelson, 10
Future Inventor, Robotics

Refinery29: These days, people are very used to having their pictures taken. How did these girls relate to you on set as a photographer?

Szwarc: "I think it was a very exciting experience for these girls to be a part of this photoshoot. They got to see how the set came together, what it takes to work in a team, and how much research and preparation goes into it. But there were moments when girls tried to assume poses they might know from fashion or pop culture. I directed them to relax and go back to their natural posture."
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Photographs by Ilona Szwarc. Commissioned by TOPIC.COM.
Szwarc: "It was important for me that this doesn’t come across as commercial, that it be authentic to who these girls are, and empowering to them."