Campaign to improve girls’ self-esteem focuses on their…beauty?

by Debbie Stoller



Recently, NYC subway stops and bus shelters have been plastered with the faces of little girls in all their smiling glory. Printed over the image of each girl is the headline “I’m a Girl” and then, smaller, “I’m Beautiful the Way I am.”

In between those lines are listed the various ways that the girl is “beautiful”: “I’m a leader, adventurous, outgoing, sporty, unique, smart and strong,” for instance.



Are you feeling the warm-fuzzies yet? I mean, it’s definitely a more positive message than this, right?



The posters were created as part of “The New York City Girls Project,” an initiative by NYC whose aim is to help raise girls’ self-esteem. In particular, its goal is to address body image issues among little girls, given the fact that over 80% of 10 year old girls are afraid of being fat, and 40-70% of girls are unhappy with 2 or more parts of their bodies. To combat that, the posters present an alternate image of what’s important about each girl — her character, her skills, etc — rather than what she looks like.

And yet… why is the word “Beautiful” so much larger than any of those characteristics? Why does everything about a girl have to add up to her being “beautiful”? And most of all, why do all girls need to be beautiful? 

The campaign itself addresses this issue, on their on site:

Why use the word beautiful at all? Aren’t you trying to help girls believe that appearance isn’t important?

We are trying to help girls believe that their appearance doesn’t define them – and to expand the definition of beauty. Only two percent of women describe themselves as beautiful, 40-70 percent of girls dislike two or more body parts and 60 percent compare themselves to fashion models. We think it’s important that girls stop comparing themselves to a manufactured idea of beauty – an often air-brushed, photo-shopped one at that – and embrace their own inner and external beauty.

It’s true that girls should stop comparing themselves to a manufactured idea of beauty — but what’s really important is that they stop believing that they need to be beautiful in order to count in society. 

This issue has been addressed by feminist writers ad infinitim, perhaps most pointedly in Naomi Wolf’s book, The Beauty Myth. “Women,” she wrote, “are mere ‘beauties’ in men’s culture so that culture can be kept male… A beautiful heroine is a contradiction in terms, since heroism is about individuality, interesting and ever changing, while ‘beauty’ is generic, boring and inert.”

Not only does the campaign focus on beauty above all, it also seems to assume that little girls are idiots. They know what the word “beauty” means. They know how important beauty is. I would think that looking at these posters would give a girl a temporary moment of exhileration…and then the follow-up thought, “Yeah, I can be all those things, but that still doesn’t make me beautiful.” 

Obviously, fighting a societal double standard that is based in down-home sexism isn’t something you can change with a set of posters. But perhaps a more effective campaign would have been making real ads for companies, but featuring regular, not model-pretty little girls. Or, they might have been better off producing a campaign that focuses on media literacy. And of course, that sort of campaign needs to be aimed at both boys AND girls, because, I mean, someone does stand to benefit from little girls being focused on beauty above all, and that someone is…boys.

But the main question is, for $330,000, did the city buy a campaign that actually helped little girls feel better about themselves? Was its influence ever even tested? Was it based on anything at all?



I sure hope so. Because beautiful or not, all girls deserve at least that.


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