After his election, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously undertook a great experiment in improving humanity through the use of new laws, banning outdoor smoking, trans fats, and, most controversially, Big Gulps. Since some of us have serious doubts about any law’s ability to change human behavior, we might be more tempted to find solace in Bloomberg’s latest initiative, which is focused on transforming hearts rather than actions: a campaign to improve the self-esteem and body image of young girls:
The $330,000 campaign, called the NYC Girls Project, kicked off Monday with bus and subway ads starring 21 amateur models of different races and sizes (some are the daughters of city workers) giggling, beaming, playing the violin, palming a basketball, or flexing their arms. “I’m a leader, adventurous, outgoing, sporty, unique, smart and strong,” say the signs. Or: “I’m funny, playful, daring, strong, curious, smart, brave, healthy, friendly and caring.” Or: “I’m clever, adventurous, outgoing, unique, smart and strong.”
This campaign—with its feel-good slogan “I’m Beautiful the Way I Am”—sounds great. Except for one thing: Some of us aren’t beautiful the way we are. In fact, at the risk of sounding harsh, some of us are downright ugly. And, while we may do everything we can to convince ourselves otherwise, we know all too well what is staring back at us in the mirror. We know all about our crooked noses, our unsightly hairs, and our stretch marks. Some of us can give you list–off the top of our heads–why we will never accept that we are beautiful the way we are.
Katy Waldman at Slate takes issue with the campaign’s emphasis on external beauty: “Isn’t the point of the program to encourage girls to disassociate their sense of worth from their physical appearance? Why couldn’t the slogan simply be, “I’m Awesome the Way I Am?” But that doesn’t quite get us there either. We are not awesome the way we are. Putting aside our ugliness, which is only, after all, skin deep, we have other issues. We have secret, unspoken desires, issues from our past, anger that we can’t quite seem to let go of.
It is enough to make us wonder if it is even possible to derive a sense of worth from ourselves. At least if we’re being honest. Can our sense of worth be truly shored up by slogans or words of encouragement? I don’t think so. However well-intentioned they might be, more often than not, they are just words (or lyrics!). What good news it would be if our sense of worth came from the outside, from someone who assures us that, even though we are unworthy, our struggle for worthiness is finished—someone who love us despite the fact that we are, and always will be, quite ugly, inside and out.