We all want young girls to have strong feelings of self-worth and to believe that they are valuable, full-rounded people who can resist the relentless cultural messaging about how being a better sex object is the only thing a woman is good for. That’s why New York City's new campaign—the first of its kind—to sell girls ages 7-12 on the idea that they are just great the way they are is getting such an enthusiastic reception. The campaign, which has ads going up in buses and subways this week, shows girls of various races and body types smiling and being proud of themselves. The slogan: “I’m beautiful the way I am.”
It’s so well-intentioned that I hesitate to criticize it, but the problem is that these ads probably won’t reach the intended audience with the message that they want to send. No doubt it satisfies adults to pat little girls on the head and tell them they’re perfect and beautiful just the way they are, but kids often have better BS detectors than adults give them credit for. A handful of slogans on local ads will not change the fact that, in the real world, girls and women do suffer relentless judgment about their looks and are, whether they like it or not, frequently treated as if how they look matters more than anything else about them.
For kids already picking up on this grim reality, having adults tell them that they’re perfect just the way they are has a strong chance of being read like yet another bit of adult wishful thinking. Girls who are struggling with a culture that is honestly and repeatedly sending messages about how they need to be thin and beautiful all the time to deserve any respect won’t be placated by adults spouting slogans. A girl is going to know if she doesn’t meet culturally normative standards of “beauty,” and telling her that she does when she knows she doesn’t will just make her think you’re not listening to her and understanding her very real concerns.
Beyond just being condescending, I fear that these ads may end up accidentally reinforcing the narrative that the ads are trying to overcome. The tagline “I’m beautiful the way I am” ends up endorsing the larger message that “beautiful” is still the highest aspiration that a woman should have—and in fact that everything else about her is in service of this goal.
Worse, it might end up subtly suggesting that her other qualities—the ads mention “funny, playful, daring, strong, curious, smart, brave, healthy, friendly and caring”—are valuable mainly because they add to her beauty, as if the main goal of every personality trait a woman could have is eventually making her an attractive person to men. The rest of the world is sending girls the message that who they are and what they feel is always about pleasing others, especially men, and these ads do nothing to counter that message.
For some girls, the ads may read as an endorsement of the idea that they have to be all things to all people to be good enough. While the intention is clearly to say to girls, “These other qualities make you beautiful,” the message could just as easily read, “In order to be considered beautiful, you also have to be ‘funny, playful, daring, strong, curious, smart, brave, healthy, friendly and caring’”. Girls are very likely to read these ads and think, “I not only have to be beautiful, but I have to be all these other things, all at once, all the time.”
All our best intentions in telling girls they are all these things are definitely backfiring by creating girls who believe they have to be perfect or they’re no good at all. "This generation was told they could be anything, but heard they had to be everything,” Courtney Martin, the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, tells me. “You can imagine why—when the standard is comprehensive, not to mention delusional, perfection—one's self-esteem suffers. It's impossible to live up to our own and society's expectations." We mean to make girls feel the sky’s the limit with messages like these New York subway ads, but instead we end up signaling that they either touch the sky or they shouldn’t be trying at all.
The problem is that whether or not the standard is stick-thin, impossible beauty or redefining beauty as a bevy of other traits they have to achieve, we’re still signaling to girls that their identity and value is all about external validation. What we need to do is figure out a way to teach girls what boys often learn fairly easily, which is that their judgment of the world is just as important as the world’s judgment of them. Instead of just stacking up more and more markers they have to reach in order to get gold stars, girls need to learn the pleasures of being self-directed. They need to live in this world as if it belongs to them, instead of simply always seeing themselves as creatures who have to perform for the benefit of others.
Part of this message is letting them know that it’s okay not to be beautiful. Or not to be funny or not to be brave or not to be friendly or not to be caring—at least some of the time. As the NYU Langone Child Study Center explains, “Let girls fail.” One reason boys don’t suffer the plunging self esteem in the same numbers as girls is they are given a lot more space to fall down, pick themselves up, and try again. Boys don’t need to be reassured that they’re “beautiful” just the way they are, because boys are allowed to be ugly sometimes.
Indeed, many of the activities that are coded as “masculine” in our culture are all about being able to experiment, fail, be imperfect, and enjoy the journey more than the destination. Sports, video games, and even learning “masculine” skills like how to build things and fix things all have built into the process the understanding that you won’t be perfect at the beginning, and that’s for the best, because the real pleasure is in learning and trying. We automatically teach boys how to view themselves as agents acting in the world, which in turn means they’re more willing to take risks and try new things without worrying that failure will somehow mark them permanently as not good enough.
Ads like this, on the other hand, while they take a larger view of what’s beautiful, still manage to send the signal that what defines a girl is what she is—what static traits define her—than what she does. That kind of message can be paralyzing. The girl whose identity is wrapped up in the idea that she is the “brave one” is going to feel like a failure if she has an experience where she wasn’t so brave. Ads like this could make girls worry that if they have a weak moment, a bad day, or bad grade that they don’t get to qualify as “beautiful” anymore, which could easily lead to lowered self-esteem.
That said, outside of the ads, the program is a very good one and does exactly what girls need to develop better self-esteem. The NYC Girls Project is offering physical fitness classes and pilot programs, giving girls opportunities to accomplish tasks and speak their minds, getting them away from the relentless obsession focused on what girls are instead of what they do.
We need to see more of this: Sports programs, games, video games, extracurricular activities, art projects. When girls are doing and accomplishing and letting themselves fail and picking up and trying again, they have less time to worry about if the world outside is looking at them and judging whether they are good enough yet to qualify as “beautiful”. More of this, and a little less tossing around the word “beautiful” and making girls feel that they have to be that—however it’s being defined—or they don’t get to count as people at all.