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.