A New York State of Self-Esteem

Over the years, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has gotten plenty of flak for his public-health campaigns. Efforts to curb soda drinking, reduce teen pregnancy, and shrink daily caloric intake all fed into an image of Bloomberg as a nagging pest who used the weight of the city government to scare New Yorkers into submission. But in the last few months of his tenure, the Bloomberg administration is offering a more uplifting message. The latest campaign from the mayor’s office isn’t about frightening city residents into kicking a bad habit; targeted at preteen girls, it’s designed to thwart body-image problems before they begin.

NYC Girls Project

The New York City Girls Project, an initiative piloted by Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary, Samantha Levine, is the first major city public-health campaign to tackle girls’ self-esteem. The program, which has a budget of $330,000, works to amp up girls’ body image in a number of ways. Posters depicting a wide array of 7- to 12-year-old girls—none of them models—playing, laughing, reading, and drawing are appearing on buses, subways, and phone kiosks. A video PSA echoes many of the same themes. The ads highlight the campaign’s slogan: “I’m a Girl: I’m Beautiful the Way I Am.” Girls in 200 after-school programs will take part in a girls’ self-esteem curriculum; others will be able to take part in free fitness classes through the parks department. All of this will, of course, be accompanied by a Twitter hashtag (#ImAGirl).  

Given the gravity and scope of the problem, it’s a little baffling that this program will be one of the first to address girls’ body image as a public-health issue. The creators of the NYC Girls Project ground their initiative in a slew of troubling statistics. More than 80 percent of ten-year-old girls say they’re afraid of being fat. Girls’ self-esteem plummets to its lowest level around the age of 12 and doesn’t improve until the age of 20. Eating disorders are among the most expensive and difficult mental-health disorders to treat; they also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. By targeting the program at girls between the ages of 7 and 12, the goal is to nip some of these unhealthy—and sometimes fatal—attitudes and behaviors in the bud.

Levine, who’s serving as the NYC Girls Project’s director, told the “Lean In” blog that she began thinking about the campaign after reading a response from Cheryl Strayed, the longtime author of the “Dear Sugar” advice column. In her short essay, Strayed lamented one of the great failures of feminism: that even as women garnered more agency and influence, they never stopped thinking about how their asses looked in jeans. Levin’s hope, she told her interviewer, is to inspire the reaction the campaign got from early focus groups: “Some girls said, ‘Wow, that makes me think that it’s okay to be dirty, not dress up all of the time, not wear makeup and go have fun and still be considered beautiful and still be confident in who I am.’”

The program has attracted some criticism, but it’s been substantially more muted than the reaction to other Bloomberg bugaboos. Kat Stoeffel, a blogger for New York magazine, points out that there’s something “slightly contradictory” about the message of the campaign—“Don’t worry about how you look! You look beautiful!”—but adds that it’s “obviously less demoralizing” than previous public-health campaigns. Slate’s Katy Waldman also quibbles with the emphasis on beauty in the slogan, wondering why the tagline couldn’t be something like “I’m Awesome the Way I Am.” Levine, responding to these critiques, says that few women think the word “beauty” applies to them. The goal of the slogan is to help girls redefine beauty on their own terms. “We wanted girls to see images like their own reflected back at them—with the words ‘I'm beautiful’—on subways, buses, and on the streets,” she tells the Prospect.

Other bloggers fret about the initiative’s effectiveness. At Time, Eliana Dockterman calls the campaign “quixotic”; running through the research, she concludes that because the advertising will only run for about eight weeks, the program will have a negligible effect. It’s a fair question: How, one might reasonably ask, can a two-month poster campaign, an after-school program, and a Twitter campaign expect to uproot deeply entrenched social attitudes about women’s bodies?

Given the extent of the problem and the lack of public-health resources, it’s better to look at the NYC Girls Project as a much-needed first step into unexplored territory. Experts on disordered eating and women’s dysfunctional relationships with their bodies are nearly unanimous in their excitement about the program’s potential—not just because it will give New York City’s girls some tools to begin to question the constant assault of unattainable images of female beauty in the media, but because it may encourage more teachers, politicians, and bureaucrats to see girls’ self-esteem as a public-health issue. Even if they aren’t up for long enough to make a significant difference in girls’ attitudes toward their bodies, the mere fact that the city chose to plaster its public-transportation system with these advertisements means that thousands of commuters, many of whom are also parents, will be forced to confront the issue for a few minutes every day.

Predictably, the advertising campaign is receiving more attention than the other components of the initiative. But the after-school curriculum is likelier to make a bigger difference to the girls themselves. The curriculum is designed to help girls manage and reject the onslaught of messages—whether through television, magazines, social media, or even family members—that sow the early seeds of body hatred. “The more that we can get girls engaged in critiquing the culture that surrounds them, the better off we’ll be,” says Sarah Murnen, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College. The after-school programs, which run year-round, can offer the curriculum as many times as they see fit.

The campaign’s budget is, undeniably, a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of dollars that pour into the fashion industry each year. But the sad truth is that when it comes to this issue, even an imperfect approach is better than nothing. Marney White, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, says that because treating eating disorders is so challenging and costly, prevention campaigns can save money with only a few positive outcomes. According to the Eating Disorders Coalition, treatment of an eating disorder, which can last for several months, ranges from $500 to $2,000 per day. “Even though the cost of the NYC campaign pales in comparison to the big-budget ad campaigns presenting the other deleterious, ‘you-are-not-good-enough’ messages, if the NYC campaign can prevent just a few cases of eating disorder, it would be well worth the economic investment,” White says.

The project has little emphasis on social-media use, which is increasingly a source of girls’ negative body image. A study released in January 2013 by researchers at Texas A&M International University revealed that girls who felt inferior to their peers and used social media frequently were more likely than girls who were exposed to “thin ideals” through television or social media to have low self-esteem. Apart from the Twitter hashtag, which isn’t likely to reach as many tweens as, say, a Facebook advertisement, there’s almost no social-media presence in the NYC Girls Project.

The curriculum’s creators acknowledge that this is a problem, even if they haven’t yet adjusted the programming. “Social media is such a minefield,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a private-practice clinical psychologist who co-authored the curriculum on which the NYC Girls Project after-school course is based. “The most vulnerable part of being a teenager—who you are, what you look like, what other people think of you—is all so amplified in social-networking sites.”

For all the fussing over the slogan or the program’s budget, the more important question is whether the administrators of the Girls Project are thinking ahead, adjusting the curriculum for omissions, and tracking, to the extent that it’s possible, the campaign’s results. Levine says that she and her colleagues are in the process of creating metrics for tracking the data (perhaps something they should have developed before the campaign went live, but better late than never). As in any public-health initiative, good data about whether the program works will be crucial for retooling aspects of the advertising or the curriculum—and thinking about other places that could benefit from a similar approach. 

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