01/13/2014 11:40 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

Teach Girls to Question the Notion of a Beauty Standard

The NYC Girls Project

In challenging mainstream media's pervasive message that women, in a nutshell, have to be thin, young sex objects, etc., a few refreshing voices have joined the conversation. Last fall, the City of New York launched a $330,000 campaign called "NYC Girls Project" that tackles the issue of girls' self-esteem by offering physical fitness classes and after-school education programs directed at girls ages 7-12 and posting advertisements in buses, phone kiosks and on the subway, all bearing the message, "I'm Beautiful The Way I Am." The campaign's intention is "to help girls believe their value comes from their character, skills, and attributes -- not appearances." Dove® launched its "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty" in 2004 when it claimed to commit to "widening the narrow standard of beauty," and has since added to the campaign a goal to change society's views about women and aging. More recently, Jennifer Lawrence has spoken openly against the Hollywood standard of beauty, proposing that fat-shaming should be illegal.

These new voices are commendable in their efforts to combat the unrealistic beauty standards that mainstream movies, magazines and advertisements have put on women. Especially progressive is New York City's after-school curriculum that teaches students to be critical of television programs' messages about body image and ideals of beauty. This particular kind of criticism serves as the real key to undercutting the pressure of unattainable ideals of beauty, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, the notion that women must conform to a standard of beauty at all.

Advertisers and public figures hoping to improve girls' and women's self-esteem should spread messages that encourage critical questioning about beauty standards beyond just expanding the social definition of "beautiful." If not, they risk compromising their own efforts and, instead, continue to perpetuate the idea that a woman's worth is measured by how beautiful she is, however that beauty is defined.

Amanda Marcotte, writing on The Daily Beast, said "We mean to make girls feel the sky's the limit with messages like these New York Subway ads, but instead we end up signaling that they either touch the sky or they shouldn't be trying at all." Expanding the definition of beauty imposes a standard of 'comprehensive perfection' wherein girls now not only have to be beautiful, but they have to be, as the New York City advertisements suggest, an assemblage of other qualities, too: "funny, playful, daring, strong, curious, smart, brave, healthy, friendly and caring." It suggests that girls are beautiful by virtue of being these other qualities. The result is harmful to girls, and the underlying logic sounds like this: If we're beautiful just the way we are, and being beautiful means being funny and brave, then if we're neither funny nor brave, maybe we were never beautiful to begin with. While the advertisement attempts to put forth a positive connotation of "beautiful," its execution falls short of achieving -- and perhaps even reverses -- its desired outcome. These campaigns still set beauty -- or some set of qualities that undergirds the idea of beauty -- as the ideal to which women should aspire and the standard by which they must measure themselves. Expectations for girls increase in number and become more complicated and, as a result, harder to achieve.

But, what if -- and here's my point -- we don't need to be beautiful? It's a wild thought given that the average American is exposed to over 3,000 advertisements a day and by the age of 17, the average girl has seen more than 250,000 commercial messages aimed at her appearance. It is no wonder that 53% of girls are unhappy with their bodies at age 13, 78% by age 17. Somewhere in there, women have internalized this standard of beauty.

If being beautiful is what you want, then you should be able to pursue that. However, what's occurring now is that women feel that they must be beautiful and that they must define themselves in terms of beauty or else face social rejection. However, when we encourage critical thinking about beauty and the messages that society tells us about what we have to be, we are able to assess for ourselves whether the beautiful is something worth attaining and we are in a better position to redefine the standards, if that's in fact what we want to do.

A Pantene commercial released this past fall is a step in this direction. It depicts and questions the gender bias that tells women that, for example, they can't be too assertive or else they'll be perceived as pushy, but when a man is successfully assertive, he's considered persuasive. The commercial places in clear view the reinforcing messages that condition women's behavior. But, its most effective quality is that it trains the mind to see what was once invisible, to imagine things from a critically different perspective rather than just another angle.

Telling girls that there exists a wide range of 'acceptable' images of beauty is a step forward. But if the goal is to raise the self-esteem of greater numbers of girls, we must teach them to criticize the standard, to question the notion of beauty standards as a category and to reflect on why we are compelled to meet them. In this schema, girls have greater negotiation power over what they look like, what they do, and what opportunities they pursue. And the development of this ability for girls to understand their choices and take ownership over them builds self-esteem.

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