Can We Raise Confident Girls in the Big Apple?

“Does this make me look fat?” asked my six-year-old daughter. I nearly fell off my chair when my second grader said this last week. Then I almost cried.

NYCGirlsProject

Where on earth had she heard that before? I was sure it hadn’t come from me. What would even make her think that? I later got her to spill: A boy in her class told her she was fat, and another boy laughed at his “joke.” And so it begins, a lifetime of body image issues.

I wanted to make that little boy pay for planting that horrible seed, but seeking revenge on one second-grade boy isn’t going to solve anything. And I can’t possibly shield her forever from encountering distorted ideas about what girls and women should look like or be. Instead, I decided to focus on what really matters: Making sure my daughter is secure in herself so she never believes such nonsense again.

I love raising a child in New York City, but I wonder if growing up here will make it harder or easier for her to develop self confidence. On the one hand, our city is full of diverse, strong, accomplished women who are great role models. On the other, it’s an incredibly competitive place that can be harsh. If she can make it here, she can make it anywhere—but if she doesn’t, will she feel badly about herself?

To deal with this very issue, last month Mayor Bloomberg’s office launched its NYC Girls Project, an ad campaign designed to reach girls ages seven to 12 who are at risk of negative body images that can lead to eating disorders, drinking, acting out sexually, suicide and bullying. “New York City is going to take a leadership role in sending a message about what really should matter—their skills, their beliefs and who they are and who they are going to be, not what they look like,” Mayor Bloomberg said.

Conceived by Mayor Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary Samantha Levine, who was moved to action by stories of little girls wearing shapewear and getting plastic surgery, the $330,000 campaign features 21 real girls—not professional models—of different races and sizes with positive messages about the girls’ character and skills and the tagline “I’m beautiful the way I am.” The girls are shown in the campaign’s 30-second video in taxis, on YouTube and on the campaign’s Web site, and in print ads on buses and subways. The project also includes free fitness programs and self-esteem workshops for girls. (See below for details on all related programs.)

To continue my conversation with my daughter, I showed her the video and ads. We then talked about what makes her and her friends beautiful, as well as the girls in the ads. I pointed out that of all the things we said made girls beautiful, appearance wasn’t part of it. “If someone told you you were not beautiful, would that change how you feel about yourself?” I asked. “No,” she answered. “I would tell them they are wrong. I’m beautiful because I’m funny, smart, kind and brave.” Her eyes lit up and her face beamed, and when we were done talking she bounced away feeling good about herself. It won’t be the only time we talk about this, but it was a great start.

What do you and your daughters—and sons—think about the NYC Girls Project and raising confident girls in the Big Apple? We’d love to hear what conversations this campaign sparked in your homes.

RESOURCES
The City’s Department of Youth and Community Development is piloting self-esteem programming at more than 75 after-school programs and half a dozen schools. For information about after-school programs, click here.

Shape Up NYC, the Parks department’s citywide, free fitness program, offers classes in all five boroughs for girls ages 8 to 13.

The NYC Parks Flag Football League, free for kids ages 8 to 17, has 14 and under all-girls teams in Manhattan. For more information, visit the City’s Youth Sports Web site and click on Flag Football under Seasonal Sports.

The NYC Parks Street Hockey Program, a partnership of NYC Parks and the New York Rangers, starts in the winter and welcomes girls ages 5 to 15.

Additionally, Parks Recreation Center membership is free for youth 17 and under and provides access to indoor pools, sports clinics, educational programs, fitness classes and more at 35 Recreation Centers across the five boroughs.

For $90, groups of as many as 30 girls can schedule a private session of the classes “Girls, Body Image, and the Media” or “A Brief History of Girls on Television” at The Paley Center for Media. Additional girls are $3 each. For more information, contact call 212.621.6600 or email eduny@paleycenter.org.

Ellen Sturm Niz is an editor and writer working, parenting, and living in Jackson Heights, Queens. Follow her on TwitterPinterestTumblr, and Google+.