About seven years ago, I was lying on the beach reading "Tiny Beautiful Things," a book of collected advice columns by author Cheryl Strayed, and I came upon a section where a recently divorced older woman was concerned about getting naked in front of a new man. She was worried about what he'd think of her body. In her response, Strayed encouraged her to claim her body and added that "this was feminism's one true failure… we never stopped worrying about how our asses looked in jeans."
Having been part of too many to count conversations about weight, wrinkles, cosmetic surgery and, more recently, cleanses, that sentiment rang true to me and I thought "someone should do something about this." As a communications aide to Mayor Bloomberg overseeing the city's health and human service agencies, I was in the unique position to create a city-wide initiative addressing body image and self-esteem. In researching the issue, I was startled to learn of girls, age five, six, seven, who were turning down ice cream because they were "fat," of eight-year olds who were wearing Spanx, of a nine-year old who had plastic surgery because she was so badly bullied over her ears sticking out.
I reached out to community-based organizations, like Girls Inc, CommuniLife, Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center, as well as the NYC Department of Education and Department of Youth and Community Development, and held meetings and informal focus groups. Their input confirmed my idea that a campaign aimed at helping girls believe that who they are and what they do is more important than what they look like, should aim to reach girls ages 7-12, ideally before they start manifesting signs of having internalized the damaging messages and media.
We narrowed the campaign ideas to a handful and then held formal focus groups with girls ages 7-12 and mothers of girls from the same age group. Again, the focus groups were affirming; the girls and mothers loved seeing empowering words like "I'm a girl" in big bold letters, and active descriptions "I'm funny, curious, smart, caring, a good friend." The girls agreed that it made them feel like they didn't "need to dress up" or "look pretty." They "could be themselves" and "have fun." The older girls thought the campaign would make their friends feel better about themselves.
I secured funding and in-kind support from four city agencies, including the Human Resources Administration, Women's Commission, the Center for Economic Opportunity and the Office of Movies and Television. I worked closely with the community, lining up girls' advocacy organizations, eating disorder organizations, medical experts and community leaders to amplify the campaign and participate in the production.