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Promoting Healthy Images For Girls, Teens

On the back page of the A section of this morning’s New York Times (I’m writing this on Oct. 1), are two reports from Paris Fashion Week illustrated by photographs of 12 young women who are, as you would expect, extraordinarily thin. Because the camera proverbially adds 10 pounds, they’re even thinner in real life.

You know how you feel when you see a daddy longlegs spider clambering over a pile of leaves on its tentacle-y legs and you think, How can that possibly work? I remember crossing paths with a clutch of runway models after a fashion show in Bryant Park a few years ago: Their legs in their skinny jeans looked so freakishly long and so alarmingly reedy that I worried about them. It seemed miraculous that those legs could carry them.

Here’s the thing: How do you know what’s normal? How do you know what you’re supposed to look like?

You’d think it’d be by looking at everybody else and homing in on the middle of the bell curve. But what if most of the people you see are images on TV or online or in magazines, images of people chosen to match some bizarre ideal — chosen, in other words, because they aren’t normal? Don’t you end up with a weirdly skewed idea of the norm?

And what if you’re 7 or 8 or 9? Aren’t you at risk for thinking you ought to look more like your Barbies? Isn’t that why 8-year-olds go on diets?

Maybe not. Still, when I started reading the rest of the paper, I was heartened to find, only three pages away, a smaller story about an ad campaign just launched by the city of New York to protect its preteen female citizens from just such misconceptions. The story called it “City Hall’s latest public health campaign,” comparing it to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s campaigns against smoking in public, giant servings of soda and teenage pregnancy.

Ads, pitched to girls ages 7 through 12, are showing up on New York’s buses, subways and phone kiosks. Photos show lively, energetic preteens having fun, and the copy is some variation of: “I’m a girl. I’m smart, strong, adventurous, friendly, funny, curious.” The big type says:

“I’M A GIRL. I’m beautiful the way I am.”

When you consider the onslaught of fashion and beauty ads that come out of New York, all trying to persuade you that you’d be beautiful if only you bought this dress or this lipstick or this hair gel, that message seems almost subversive.

There’s more to the campaign than pretty pictures. Several city agencies and New York-based nonprofits are collaborating with the mayor’s office on the NYC Girls Project. The Paley Center for Media has developed two classes, “A Brief History of Girls on Television” for grades six through nine, and “Girls, Body Image, and the Media” for grades seven through 10, to help girls think about how they’re portrayed in the mass media, and to encourage them to challenge media stereotypes.

And the Spark Movement, which describes itself as “a girl-fueled activist movement to demand an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media,” put together a collection of tips on How to Survive Middle School, many of which might help a girl survive even worse things (from “Think about what you really want!” and “Spend 5 minutes a day dancing in your room to music ...” to “Hang out with people who make you feel good about yourself ...” and “It’s OK to be weird.”)

A recent high school reunion jogged my memory about what it was like to be a girl. I remember being deluged with all sorts of “tips” at the time — from parents, teachers, church, magazines, books, TV — about what I should do, want, work on, care about, and how I should be, act, look, etc.

But the focus was always on what I should do to be what they thought I should be: Study harder, do my homework, be kinder to my sisters, help out more around the house, have smooth hair like the Breck girl, stop daydreaming, set a good example, comb my hair, wash the dishes, avoid French kissing, pay attention, pray more, clean my room, be popular, be on time. It was endless, dizzying.

I certainly don’t remember being encouraged to think I was beautiful the way I was. It was made clear to me that I was too tall, too skinny, and my hair was too frizzy.

Not that girls are likely to be instantly and entirely persuaded by ads that tell them they’re beautiful the way they are, and that they need to think more about what they really want. But even to have those ideas floating around in their heads as possibilities seems like a good thing.

Write to Patricia McLaughlin c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106 or