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Samantha Levine Headshot

I Created a Campaign to Boost Girls' Self-Esteem and Was Almost Too Self-Conscious to Promote It

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In the weeks since Mayor Bloomberg launched the New York City Girls Project, which focuses on improving girls' body image and self-esteem, the public response has been overwhelming, with individuals reaching out from around the world and offering to volunteer, requesting materials and asking how to bring the campaign to their city, state or country.

Wrote one person on Facebook, "Thank you for finally bringing some hope and joy to our little girls, who fight this media pressure of who the media thinks they should be! I think every state should do this!"

Mayor Bloomberg launched the project for an important reason: negative body image has very serious health impacts on girls and women, including obesity, eating disorders, alcohol use and teen pregnancy.

But as the creator and director of the project, there is another more personal reason for me, as I suspect is the case for many of the women who have responded so passionately to this campaign.

The day the Mayor announced the project, a few television networks asked to interview me to talk about the campaign. I created this campaign, spent more than a year working on it and care deeply about it. But I hesitated before agreeing to go on camera. Why? Not because I don't know the issue inside and out or because I'm uncomfortable talking to the media (I'm a spokesperson for Mayor Bloomberg). I hesitated because I felt fat and was unhappy with my hair that day.

You could choke on the irony.

But the sad reality is to react any other way would have meant defying incredible odds: approximately 91 percent of women are unhappy with their bodies and only two percent of women around the world describe themselves as beautiful.

Despite wholly believing that girls' and women's value is not derived from appearance, I'm as much a product of our culture as anyone, and I frankly cannot remember anticipating an occasion -- the first day of a job, a wedding, a date, an interview -- without wondering, at least briefly, if I had time to lose five pounds or if I needed a different red lipstick.

This self-consciousness did not magically appear upon becoming an adult. I was 12 years old when a "friend" told me my nose was big and I was a nerd because I wore glasses. I was a freshman in college and weighing myself daily, terrified of gaining the freshman 15, and then spending hours jotting down in my notebook the number of calories I was consuming once I did. Three years later, I ate an entire package of Chips Ahoy because I was miserable and hungry after eating nothing but yogurt and salad for weeks on end.

Don't think for a second my experience is unique. Studies show that more than 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat; 60 percent of girls compare themselves to fashion models; body satisfaction hits rock bottom between the ages of 12 and 15; and watching just 30 minutes of television and advertising can impact how a girl feels about her body.

For too long, our culture has sent girls, and women, two devastating messages: our greatest value is our appearance and there is only one, narrow vision of beauty that is worth striving to meet. And those messages are penetrating at younger and younger ages.

The "I'm a Girl" campaign aims to help girls reject those false concepts at the most important time: when they are still girls. This campaign will help girls believe that value comes from skills and character - who we are and what we do, not what we look like -- while also expanding the idea of beauty beyond a narrow unhealthy, unrealistic vision.

Twenty-one amazing, smart, brave, outgoing, friendly, and yes, beautiful girls participated in this campaign, and I've been in awe of their energy and confidence. If nothing changes in what we teach girls about their value and about beauty, the next three to five years will destroy the self-esteem of many and leave a host of health problems in its wake.

Why did we start this campaign? Because something has to change and we are in a position to help change it.

So on the day the campaign launched, I wasn't happy with my hair and I did feel fat. But I took a deep breath and put myself in front of the camera in the hopes that the next generation of girls won't hesitate.