This fall, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a new public health communication initiative, I’m a Girl. The campaign aims to enhance young girl self-esteem and counter the unrealistic images of women portrayed by media. It’s a collaborative effort of several city agencies including the Human Resources Administration, The Center for Economic Opportunity., The NYC Commission on Women’s Issues, The Administration for Children’s Services, The Department of Youth and Community Development, The Department of Ed.
New York is the first city government to directly address young girl self-esteem and body image. The campaign materials are highly visible—promoted on buses, phone kiosks and subways targeting girls aged seven to twelve years old.
Young girls and body image
The campaign aims are twofold, to promote positive, realistic norms about body image and counter the predominant media about women’s bodies. Research indicates that young girls are uncomfortable with their bodies, particularly weight. More than 80% of 10-years-girls report they are afraid of being fat. Additionally, more than half of middle school girls (ages 12 to 15) report being unhappy with two or more body parts.
Public health implications
For public health professionals, young girls’ self-esteem has implications for both the short and long term. Consequences of poor body image include higher risk of developing eating disorders, smoking to lose weight, alcohol abuse, obesity, bullying and early onset of sexual activity.
In fact, 13% of women have reported they smoke to lose weight. Teen girls with low self-esteem are two times as likely to report use of alcohol. Young girls who diet are more likely to become overweight or obese. And, obese children are 63% more likely to be bullied.
Self-esteem has an impact on health behavior. For health behavior change, self-efficacy is the crux for most behavior change theories. And, self-esteem can serve as a proxy for self-efficacy. By targeting girls in their pivotal “tween-age” years in order to boost self-esteem, this could help them prepare for healthier decisions later in life.
The campaign messaging
The campaign messaging has a positive tone and promotes a sense of empowerment. The messages seek to change the social norms by adding depth and dynamism to a narrowly defined cultural ideal of physical beauty linked to self-worth for girls.
The promotional posters for the campaign include the title, I’m a girl, highlighted in bright colors and all caps, followed by positive adjectives—smart, friendly, courageous, unique, creative. Each poster closes with the tagline “I am beautiful the way I am.” The imagery reflects down-to-earth, active and diverse girls smiling, dancing, holding an instrument or sports equipment. The call to action is for girls to visit the Twitter, website and share what makes them beautiful. The website includes supplementary educational curriculum for use in schools.
Critics of the campaign assert that the use of “beautiful” as a core of messaging actually reinforces the norms it aims to change. The campaign explains: “We are trying to help girls believe that their appearance doesn’t define them – and to expand the definition of beauty.” The messaging highlights activities that the campaign seeks to transcend as a growing meaning of beautiful.
The campaign is relatively new, so there’s been no formal evaluation. Anecdotally, it has been widely received as an important step to supporting the health and wellbeing of young girls. One story from the NYTimes Opinion Pages, indicates success. A young girl on subway“…spies a poster, apparently over my head. An early reader, she works with her mother to make out the words, ending with “I’m beautiful the way I am.” Turning to her mother, she exclaims in delight, “That’s me!”
To learn more, visit the I’m a Girl campaign http://www.nyc.gov/html/girls/html/home/home.shtml
Or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ImAGirlNYC
Emily Oppenheimer ‘13, holds her MS in Health Communication from Tufts University School of Medicine. She’s lived in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Spain, New Mexico, and currently resides in NYC. She’s fascinated by how cultural competence and creative communication can improve health.
Filed under: Health Messaging