New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying desperately to secure a legacy as a public health advocate before his third term ends in December. As Eliana Dockterman notes on TIME's Healthland blog today, "He's banned smoking almost everywhere, outlawed giant sugary drinks and launched some controversial public awareness campaigns, like the images of small, sad children touting the "real cost of teen pregnancy" and videos of a man drinking fat out of a soda can that aim to educate New Yorkers about their health choices-and scare them."
This week the Mayor's Office announced its latest public awareness campaign, the NYC Girls Project, which is the first of its kind according to the project site. "This fall, New York City becomes the first major city in the nation to tackle the issue of girls' self-esteem and body image," the site proudly proclaims. The campaign was conceived and will be directed by Samantha Levine, the mayor's deputy press secretary, who told The New York Times she was "moved by stories of little girls wearing body-shaping undergarments and getting plastic surgery to improve their appearance," and had been "galvanized by reading the advice columnist Cheryl Strayed, who said a failure of feminism was that women still worried about what their buttocks looked like in jeans." (As a feminist, I would argue that loving the way your butt looks in jeans is a result of two radically feminist acts: 1) self-love, 2) wearing pants.) Nonetheless, the project was created out of a need to recognize "that girls as young as 6 and 7 are struggling with body image and self-esteem," and "to help girls believe their value comes from their character, skills, and attributes - not appearance," according to its website. Like some of Bloomberg's other ham-fisted attempts at transforming public opinion on social issues, this campaign is well-intentioned but misses the mark.
With an aim at encouraging girls to focus on their personality traits and talents rather than their looks, one would imagine that there would be no reference to beauty or physical appearance anywhere in this campaign. And yet, unfortunately, being "beautiful" is the central theme of each ad. The posters do feature photos of girls of all colors, shapes and sizes, but they're captioned with the cry, "I'M A GIRL," followed by a list of positive character traits and culminating with the phrase, "I'm beautiful the way I am." These posters do nothing to dismantle female expectations by overemphasizing gender in a way that sounds to the mind's ear like the vapid cry of a bimbo character trying to rationalize to her savvy male counterpart why she's incapable of doing a simple task. ("Why couldn't you disconnect the cable before the fuse blew, Janet?" "Because I'M A GIRL, Rob! Dammit! You know that!") Additionally, in spite of wanting to eradicate the pressure girls feel to live up to societal beauty standards, these posters only serve to reinforce the idea that being beautiful is a girl's number one responsibility, even if we mean it in a more holistic way.
Though the campaign may succeed on the surface at challenging physical beauty ideals, it doesn't question whether or not being "beautiful" should matter at all. We never see media that tells boys they should be "handsome" or "attractive," but we have no problem telling girls - from a very young age, like, 2 - that they should be beautiful. (Full disclosure: I'm as guilty of this as any mother who has ever primped and preened an adorable daughter.) Try to imagine an ad that read, "I'M A BOY. I'm beautiful just the way I am." It seems silly, right? That's because we don't socialize pre-teen boys to be mindful about their looks, nor do we ask them to be easy for us to deal with. We don't ask them to stay clean. We don't worry about their hair. We all agreed long ago that "boys will be boys" and they're messy and difficult and that's fine, because by the time they're teens and need to attract dates, they'll figure out how to be groomed and well-behaved enough to get a girl, because girls have low expectations of boys. I don't mean to suggest that boys have it easy by any means, because we know that trapping boys and men in a masculinity box is as harmful as trapping girls in a beauty box. But we do expect different things from them, and those things would seldom be described as "beautiful."
It's not just the ironic emphasis on beauty that makes this campaign a failure, but also the extremely high expectations it sets via a lengthy list of happy adjectives for a beautiful girl's personality. The descriptions of the girls on these posters insinuate that only those who identify as "a leader, adventurous, outgoing, sporty, unique, smart and strong," (plus a handful more easy-to-swallow adjectives like "friendly" and "loving") are beautiful. According to the campaign, shy girls aren't beautiful, but "brave" girls are. Sensitive girls aren't beautiful, but "tough" girls are. In other words, girls with palatable, gregarious personalities are beautiful. The campaign isn't wrong about that, of course. I learned long ago as so many women do that my average looks became a lot more appealing with a "great personality" attached. I am the friendly, funny, chubby girl, perhaps by nature, but also by training and design.
Of course I understand why the forces behind the campaign want to promote bravery and resilience; we all want our children to walk through the world with confidence, but making naturally introverted children feel like they have to be extroverts to meet an ideal is damaging, too. The message here is clear: I'm a girl, and I'm the kind of person it's easy for other people to be around. I'm not insecure or needy, nor am I arrogant or bratty. I'm a leader, I'm adventurous, but I'm also kind and sweet. I might challenge you, but I'm not challenging. Put succinctly, I'm perfect. I'm cute and happy and I behave well at all times. I may have physical flaws, but not personality flaws. (No pressure, ladies.)
If the Office of the Mayor really wants to make a difference in the lives of New York City's girls, it might have better used the $330,000 put into this campaign to fund after-school enrichment programs instead. Research shows that girls who play sports feel better about themselves and do better in school, and that children who study music have enhanced language development and increased IQ. Let's give girls a chance to focus on making a beautiful goal in soccer or playing a beautiful piece on the piano instead of feeling like they themselves bear the burden of embodying beauty for the benefit of the world.
-By Carolyn Castiglia
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