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ISBN: 9781935552017
It Ain’t Pretty
NYC’s I’m A Girl Campaign Misses the Point
Margaret Heftler

One day, I was walking down the street when a poster on the side of a bus caught my eye. Had it been like the images I was used to seeing all over New York, with sexy models hawking some new perfume or denim brand, I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. But this poster was different. It featured a tween girl who looked like someone I might know, not airbrushed to perfection or conventionally beautiful. The girl was smiling brightly. Written across the center of the image in all-caps were the words, “I’m a girl.” Beneath that, it said, “I’m smart, funny, creative, curious, astute, honest and brave. I’m beautiful the way I am.” I was happy to see such a positive message aimed at young girls. But something about the poster seemed off. It nagged at me as I continued my walk home.

Later I decided to find out what the poster was all about. According to nyc.gov, the “I’m A Girl” public service campaign makes New York City the first major city to tackle the issue of girl’s self-esteem and body image. The campaign, NYC Girls Project, aims to send the message to girls as young as 7 that their value comes not from their appearance but from their character and skills. The issue is definitely a pressing one; their website reports that 80% of 10 year-old girls are afraid of being fat. The campaign features colorful images of a diverse array of girls posted on the sides of buses, and in subway stations, with similar copy to what I saw.

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After thinking about it, I realized that what had been bothering me was the choice of the word “beautiful” in the tagline. It’s confusing and contradictory that the campaign’s intention is to encourage girls to define themselves by inward characteristics – friendly, caring, curious, brave, hardworking – only to affirm at the end that beauty is what’s most important.

image by NYC Girls Project

It also seems contradictory that the campaign’s message is that being viewed as beautiful and viewing oneself as beautiful is what’s most essential about being female. I understand what they’re trying to say: That every girl is beautiful in her own way and just needs to recognize it. Those behind the campaign have the best intentions, to widen the societal definition of beauty to be more inclusive of what’s on the inside like courage, adventurousness, and a sense of humor.

Girls Won't Get It

But it also seems unrealistic that one campaign touting that beauty comes from within will stand out amid the plethora of perfect images of female beauty we see plastered all over the city. I don’t think young girls seeing it will internalize that message when the rest of the world is telling them otherwise. Had I seen one of those posters when I was younger, I wouldn’t have gotten their message. I used to spend hours watching the Disney channel and looking at tween magazines, fawning over Ashley Tisdale and Hannah Montana’s clothes, hair and accessories. I wanted to be sexy like my Bratz dolls, and I liked to pretend with my friends that I was a teenager who went to parties with boys, wore pink nail polish and sexy clothes while chatting on my cell phone.

I remember I always asked my mom for blonde Barbie dolls because I thought they were prettier than the brunette ones. I also remember hearing my mom complain that she looked fat and would look better if she was thin. I had a very clear picture of what beauty was supposed to be, and it did not look like the girls in those posters. I don’t think I would have found those girls in the campaign beautiful, having been so exposed to conflicting ideals of beauty, even if now, as a 17 year-old, I am able to appreciate beauty that is more unconventional.

image by NYC Girls Project

In fact, had I seen those images as a child, the campaign might not have appeared truthful. I only knew of one definition of beauty and those girls are not it. To me, it seems like this campaign may have been more about adults trying to convince little girls they are all beautiful, without taking into account how actual kids that age would respond to this message.

This campaign has the right idea but they are using the wrong language. I think it would have been more effective to try to teach girls to dissociate their beauty from their intrinsic value as human beings, rather than coming out with a slogan not many girls will believe anyway. Most girls already have an idea of what beauty means and where they fit in relation to that ideal. Although the campaign is not saying beauty is all that matters, that’s how it comes across to me.

For instance, had they made the tagline: I’m Awesome the Way I Am, or I Am Perfect the Way I Am that would have conveyed their message that people are defined by their character. These examples emphasize that beauty isn’t the only source of a girl’s value. In fact, the word isn’t even mentioned.

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