I did a double take yesterday when I saw the “Inspire her Mind” commercial that Verizon and Makers just released. Showcasing a young girl who was intrigued by science, nature and engineering but discouraged with comments like “Who's my pretty girl?" and "Don't get your dress dirty," the voiceover cautions that “our words can have a huge impact… isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant, too?”
Yes, it is.
Last fall, while working for then-Mayor Bloomberg, I created the "New York City Girl's Project,” which was designed to help girls believe that who they are and what they do is more important than what they look like.
The campaign featured 21 girls of different sizes, shapes, races, ethnicities and abilities with the words: "I'm a Girl. I'm smart, funny, creative, brave, a leader. I'm beautiful the way I am." It was designed with two goals in mind: help girls realize that their character, skills and attributes were more important than their appearance and expand the definition of beautiful beyond the healthy, unrealistic images that saturate the media.
We put these posters up in the subway, on buses, in bus shelters and on phone kiosks and the public response was extremely positive and overwhelming: “Amazing!!!! I think this should be done nationwide!!!” and “THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I am glad you guys are creating an atmosphere for girls to be who they are! I think every state should do this! I think it would help girls and women of every age!” These were among some of the hundreds of responses we received. People wrote in from around the world offering to volunteer, requesting materials and asking how to bring the campaign to their city, state or country.
The “New York City Girl’s Project” was the first time a major city took on this issue and it started a national conversation about girls, body image and self-esteem. Because of how enthusiastic the response was I thought it would be exciting to engage the public in the next step. So last week I launched a Kickstarter to crowd fund an independent effort to bring a new version of the campaign, “I’m More Than Pretty” to the Washington, DC area.
Even as women have made enormous strides in education, politics and the workplace, the frustrating reality is that girls and women are still more often than not rewarded or punished for their physical appearance. Every day girls are bombarded with disempowering messages: T-shirts that stereotype girls as being more interested in flirting and dating than math (let alone smart enough to handle math!); sexualized images of young girls; hysteria around food. The enormous pressure for girls to focus their energies on being thin at the expense of being brilliant, creative, kind and passionate damages girls.
More than 80% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. And by middle school, 40-70% of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body. The new Verizon ad points out that 66 percent of 4th grade girls say they like science and math, but only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female: There are health consequences to poor self-esteem and body image as well: higher incidences of obesity, teen pregnancy, smoking and alcohol use. For girls to be healthy and empowered, they need to believe that they are valued for more than their appearance. They need to believe they are more than pretty.
On the positive side, we are seeing a growing and vocal resistance to how women and girls are represented: there was an outcry when a girl was sent home from her prom in Virginia because some men found her dress distracting; students, parents and the public strenuously objected when school administrators in Utah edited girls’ yearbook photos, but not the boys; female reporters and critics cried foul when a group of male critics criticized the weight of opera singer Tara Erraught and ignored her voice and performance; most recently, social media erupted when pundits discussed the weight of star tennis player Taylor Townsend.
The fundraising – and overall success – of Goldieblox as well as Lego’s upcoming new female scientist line, along with LeanIn’s Getty Image partnership plus the introduction of a powerhouse like Verizon into this space (alongside ongoing players like Dove) indicate a meaningful and growing movement to change the way we think about and value girls.
Work remains to be done and campaigns like More Than Pretty are critical in that they provide a visual counter image – and message – to the negative and unrealistic images with which girls are constantly bombarded. Massive-scale, city-wide media campaigns are a powerful way to interrupt these messages and ignite local and national conversations in the media, families, schools and communities that celebrate girls’ real value.