Bloomberg v. Pop Culture: NYC’s Campaign to Boost Girls’ Self Esteem

A new New York City public health program aims to improve body image among tweens. But will it help?

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NYC Girl's Project

There seem to be no limits to Michael Bloomberg’s hopes for the self-improvement of New Yorkers. The mayor has made public health a personal crusade during his tenure as mayor. He’s banned smoking almost everywhere, outlawed giant sugary drinks and launched some controversial public awareness campaigns, like the images of small, sad children touting the “real cost of teen pregnancy” and videos of a man drinking fat out of a soda can that aim to educate New Yorkers about their health choices—and scare them.

Now, in the last few months of his term, his ambition is to make tween girls feel better about themselves in the face of a celebrity-saturated media environment that fuels feelings of inadequacy. “Girls as young as seven were undergoing plastic surgery because they were being bullied about their appearance,” says Samantha Levine, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary and project director for the city’s new NYC Girl’s Project self-esteem campaign, which has a $330,000 budget. “Girls in that same age range were buying Spanx.”

There’s data to back up those anecdotes. 80% of ten-year-old girls think they’re fat. And poor body-image at a young age increases the chances of eating disorders, smoking, alcohol use and teen pregnancy later in life. The city program hopes to combat these potential problems by teaching young girls two things: they are valuable because of their character and their skills, not their appearance; and what is beautiful extends beyond what pop culture would have us believe.

Unlike previous NYC campaigns, the tone is more encouraging and less nanny state nagging. Images for the NYC Girl’s Project are uniformly positive, reading, “I’m a girl. And I’m beautiful the way I am,” diverging dramatically from the negative teen pregnancy and soda ads.

These ads are also aimed at a much younger demographic (seven to 12-year-old girls) than previous initiatives. While eating disorders affect teens more than tweens, creating messages for a younger kids can nip the problem in the bud. “Its basically building resilience, hopefully, before all of the bad messages are allowed to permeate and do any damage,” says Marney White, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale’s School of Public Health. The object is prevention, not rectification after the fact. “It’s a lot harder to undo once the damage has set in.”

The campaign specifically chose stories and pictures of girls of various ages, races and sizes, some with glasses and braces, so that “girls who rode on the subway and saw the posters would see reflected back at them girls who looked like them saying, ‘I’m beautiful,'” says Levine. White says using real, relatable young girls could be a winning strategy. “There’s a lot of research from social psychology that shows the more the audience relates to the person communicating, the more likely they are to believe their message.”

The NYC Girl’s Project may have employed all the right tactics, but the long-term effectiveness of self-esteem programs is still in question. In a study published in 2013 on an Internet-based promotion of positive body image, young girls in the study reported a decrease in body dissatisfaction: they compared their bodies less to others and were more satisfied with their own appearance than girls who hadn’t seen the promotion. However, the positive effects had dissipated during a followup interview three months later.

A more hopeful study dating back to 2009 of sorority girls at a state university who participated in a prevention program for eating disorders found that positive mental effects were maintained in both the five-month and one-year followup. However, the program did little to change eating habits.

Overall, a recent meta-analysis found that 51% of available eating disorder prevention programs reduced eating risk factors, and 29% changed current eating patterns for the better.

The right advertising and curriculum can change attitude about body image, if not eating habits. The NYC Girl’s Project is implementing a curriculum developed by the Harvard Eating Disorder Center in 75 New York City after-school programs that has been shown to protect girls against future eating disorders.

But even with the best material and a smart strategy, fighting popular culture is tough, even for city hall. The money that Bloomberg’s office has dedicated to the campaign may seem like a lot, but it’s a blip amid the constant barrage of sexy young actresses and airbrushed women in commercial ads.

And then there are advertising campaigns aimed directly at girls eight to 13: Wal-Mart launched a make-up line in 2011 designed for tweens called “Geo Girl” hoping to jump on the fastest growing segment of the cosmetics market. Last year, Target launched a branded line of “Tinkerbell” makeup to help tweens “enhance” their natural beauty. Meanwhile, bras for young girls are now made in hot pink with underwire and “a full padded cup” and available in sizes as small as 30A.

“The city just doesn’t have the budget large advertising firms do,” explains White. “That’s generally the downfall of a lot of these types of initiatives—they don’t have enough media saturation.”

Plus, like all government funded-campaigns, NYC Girl’s Project has a short shelf-life: the ads will only run in phone kiosks and bus shelters for four weeks and on the subway for eight weeks. Studies in social psychology have shown the more one sees an image, the more she tends to like it. Reach is everything.  Sure, the Dove brand that famously promotes natural beauty, is backing a new #GirlsUnstoppable self-esteem boosting program with all its corporate might, but even they will have a tough time competing with Miley Cyrus, Tinkerbell makeup and those super-popular, super-sexy, miniskirted Monster High dolls.

And what about the boys? Though we don’t often think of young boys as being as susceptible to body image troubles as girls are, they have their own psychological problems brought on by popular culture: the need to seem ultra-masculine, muscular, promiscuous, rich, etc. Male eating disorders are on the rise, as are the use of unsafe substances to increase musculature.

Almost uniformly, campaigns about body image tend to be much more effective for girls than for boys. Perhaps boys need a different strategy or a different message altogether—one that focuses on academic issues that leave boys with higher high school drop-out rates and school discipline issues than girls. But Levine said that we shouldn’t expect a similar campaign for boys in the near future.

The NYC Girls campaign holds promise to effect change for at least a short period of time. But it’s going to take Madison Avenue dollars to apply the research and make a long-lasting dent in girls’ self-image issues.