Does NYC's Self-Esteem Project Miss the Mark?

Having tackled the obesity crisis and sugar drink consumption, Mayor Bloomberg has imposed a new ban during his final days in the New York City mayor’s office: on low self-esteem.

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The NYC Girls Project is a $330,000 initiative that aims to boost the confidence of girls ages 7 through 12. The four-week campaign launched Monday and features girls of various races and body types (none are professional models) touting their personality traits (“I’m clever, adventurous, outgoing, unique, smart, and strong”) and bears the tagline, “I’m a Girl.” The images will be shown on buses, subway stations, and phone kiosks, along with a 30-second video ad in taxis. The campaign also includes 75 eight-week after-school programs throughout New York City that focus on anti-bullying, nutrition, and media literacy, plus the Twitter hashtag #ImAGirl.

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The project was a brainchild of Samantha Levine, 38, Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary. “Three things gave me a sense of urgency to launch this campaign,” Levine told Yahoo Shine. “I was reading the book ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ by Cheryl Strayed, who, after receiving a letter from a older woman self-conscious about her body, noted that the failure of feminism was that women still worried about what their butt looked like in jeans. I also began hearing anecdotally that adolescent girls were wearing Spanx and buying plastic surgery. And lastly, there’s research that shows girls are increasingly falling victim to bullying and eating disorders. Low self-esteem is a public health issue.” 

The campaign is a departure from Bloomberg’s previous public health efforts, which tend to be nationally influential (the Big Apple's chain restaurants were the first to be legally forced to post the calorie counts of each food item) but controversial. Example: In 2012, an antisoda ad revealed a Type 2 diabetes patient with his right leg amputated, seated behind a chart that showed how beverage portions have increased over the years. Levine says that unlike the aforementioned campaigns, which stressed cost and consequences, the message behind "NYC Girl's Project" is positive and empowering, so girls learn the value of their skills and character.

So far, response to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. @DrBholstein wrote, “Wonderful project. Every girl deserves to feel delighted about her talents, strengths, and simply what she enjoys doing!” @chloelenas: “If I could request that more of my #NYC tax dollars go to the Girls Project, I would. Such a good idea.” And @ScritchfieldRD: “Love the #ImAGirl campaign. Hoping one day we don't need $300K to convince girls they are worthy, beautiful, and valuable just as they are.”

“Real girl” campaigns are nothing new. The skincare company Dove is famous for its Real Beauty ads featuring women of various body sizes wearing lingerie and time-lapsed videos revealing the manipulative effects of airbrushing. However, unlike Dove’s efforts, which have been controversial for emphasizing physical beauty, “NYC Girl's Project” seems to focus more on a child’s personality traits, not her physical beauty.

But in a world where 20-year-old Miley Cyrus twerks and grinds on a 36-year-old man, Disney's marketing team gives Princess Merida's character in the movie "Brave" a sexy makeover (causing a firestorm in the process), lingerie brand Victoria's Secret sells underwear to young girls with the slogan, "Feeling lucky," and supermodel Cindy Crawford is still "coming to terms" with her figure, will a month-long city campaign really make a dent in girls' self-perceptions? “As long as the kids in the campaign are truly diverse, it’s a positive step in the right direction,” says Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent." “Miley Cyrus will always be aspirational but this campaign shows that she’s not the only role model.”

And although Levine says the campaign is focusing solely on young girls, there could be an unintended benefit for boys. “In my practice, I see many young male patients who want a sexy and beautiful girlfriend; however, they’re also intimidated by such girls,” says Walfish. “In the 7 to 12 age bracket, boys are still very pliable. The more they’re exposed to happy, healthy-looking girls, the more they’ll focus on quality relationships when they’re older.”

However, there's debate on whether self-esteem is a topic that New York City should be tackling. As Policy Mic pointed out on Wednesday, “How creepy that the city government is telling children how they should feel about themselves. A child's self-esteem is not the government's responsibility — a child's well-being is far too important to trust to a bureaucracy. That's why it's a parent's job. Teachers can help. So can older siblings and mentors and babysitters and coaches and so on. Teaching a child basic self-respect is a crucially important job — but it is not a job that the mayor's office can do.”

Indeed, one glaring flaw of the campaign is that young girls who are getting plastic surgery and buying shapewear undoubtedly have parents giving them the funds to do so. Is the campaign remiss in not addressing grownups, who are so often part of the problem? “This campaign will resonate with some parents, others will ignore it, but those are the ones who end up in my office years later when the problem snowballs,” says Walfish. “The campaign can better influence parents by stressing that the key to successful parenting is a confident kid. What parents want most is for their children to be happy.”   

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