Is Body Image A Public Health Issue?

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Kayla Mitchell and friend shopping on Jamaica Ave. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

The City of New York has just initiated a new multi-agency campaign called NYC Girls Project. The goal of the project is to effect body image and self esteem issues in young girls.

The campaign will focus on public service announcements, ads on mass transit, as well as after school programming which targets girls aged 7 to 15-years-old.

That’s a new public service announcement from the NYC Girls Project…a public health campaign focused on improving the body image of girls in New York. 
No doubt, it sounds well-intended. But it also raises questions…including: Should body image be viewed as a public health issue?
Dana Edell is executive director of SPARK Movement, co-partner in the NYC Girls Project along with the city of New York.
And Emily Rems is managing editor of Bust, a magazine that covers news and culture from feminist perspective. They feature models and editorial content with a wide range of women and body types. 

The NYC Girls Project website states that "over 80 percent of 10 year old girls are afraid of being fat by middle school, 40-70 percent of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body."

This may explain the desire to confront the idea that a girl's worth stems from her appearance, as opposed to her intellect or talents.  But it also raises questions including: Should body image be viewed as a public health issue? And if yes, is city hall the best forum to discuss these issues?

The Takeaway is joined by Samantha Levine, an aide to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who conceived of the NYC Girls Project and is serving as its project director. And Emily Rems is managing editor of Bust, a magazine that covers news and culture from feminist perspective. They feature models and editorial content with a wide range of women and body types.

We talk to them about the significance of this campaign and the public debate it is creating.



Samantha Levine and Emily Rems

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer


T.J. Raphael

Comments [11]

Sara A. Brody from New York

Body image is a huge public health issue especially as it relates to eating disorders and low self esteem. It has one of the highest mortality rates around. Project HEAL ( is an organization dedicated to raising funds to support those who have an eating disorder, want to recover and go to treatment but can't afford the necessary treatment to recover. The funds support our treatment scholarship program where we are helping to save lives and show that full recovery is possible!

Oct. 23 2013 01:33 PM
Katie Ashley from Charleston, SC

Body image is a public health issue whether we see it that way or not. To paraphrase one of my teachers "How others treat us will influence how we see ourselves. How we see ourselves will greatly determine who we are and how we conduct ourselves in the future." If we are constantly being shown images that are truly impossible for the majority of us to achieve we will always feel less than. I believe that the most important message for young women and men, truly women and men of all ages, to hear is that it is okay to love your body. Loving your body does not mean that you do not want to change it. You can love your body and still want to lose a few pounds to reach a healthy weight, gain muscle to be a more effective athlete, or dye your hair to make a statement or portray an image. The important part is to start from a place of love. Additionally, it is imperative to convey the message that our self worth is not 100% dependent on the appearance of our body. That being said, the appearance is only as important and the individual and society make it. It is unrealistic to expect a young person, or any person, to dismiss the value of "looking good" when we as a society place it so high on list of importance. Thank you for raising this topic on a national platform.

Oct. 07 2013 02:18 PM
NAN CAY BLOOM from Prescott, AZ

As a professional ballerina (such a frou-frou word!) from ages 16 -32, I was constantly pressured to either throw up or not eat. Dancers working today are much healthier. As an older woman, I still struggle hourly with body image. I did my best to raise my daughter to focus on health, however I must admit she observed me always feeling "fat" at 110 lbs. Advertising is the worst. Try finding a magazine cover, newscaster, or any media using "real" women with "real" bodies.

Oct. 04 2013 09:25 AM
Brenda from New York City

I think their heart's in the right place but they may be missing the larger point and coming very close to blaming the victim. A subway poster encouraging girls to like themselves can't compete with the softly pornographic photos on the subway platform.

Oct. 03 2013 03:59 PM


Oct. 03 2013 03:53 PM
Lisa Smith from Fort Worth, TX

As a teen, I struggled with body image and eating disorders. As an adult, I've taken up distance running. I'm still obsessed with my body, but I no longer define it by its appearance. My "body image" is defined by how well my body performs in athletic endeavors and how much energy my body has throughout the day. My body is beautiful and powerful because it allows me to do beautiful and powerful things.

Oct. 03 2013 02:00 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

We need to be careful as how we set up these PSA's. They are easy to be ridiculed:

Emily Rems is correct in her analysis of this PSA campaign; the PSA needed to make sense for both boys and girls, and needed to avoid the word beautiful. The inclusion of the word, reinforces identifying girls with Society's image of physical beauty...

If The PSA campaign continues it could try to redefine the word beauty which could include boys:
1. "That car sure is a "beauty."
2. That Giants football game sure was a "beauty" (unlikely this season)
3.That fish you caught, sure was a "beauty."

However, I would avoid the word beautiful all together, in the same way that "this is your brain on drugs" was just seen as a joke to my generation of pot smokers. This new "Beautiful" PSA will fail for the kids it is meant for. These PSA's make parents happy, with their intentions but "no good deed, goes unpunished:" and kids and comedians can read through these PSA's and rip them apart.

No kid smoking pot thought that there was any truth to the "this is your brain on drugs" campaign. Why? Because they were in Medical School or became lawyers, Engineers or Politicians... Look at Carl Hart's research at Psychiatric Institute.
In other words, an effective campaign cannot be a lie,it has to tell some truth which is painful and controversial.

A more honest campaign would be,"You may be ugly and fat, but one day you can have plastic surgery and liposuction; there's nothing the dumb kids can do about being dumb."
The campaign wouldn't even have to be sponsored by the government, but by Plastic Surgeons who have fried their brains like eggs on a skillet in the seventies.

Oct. 03 2013 01:42 PM

I agree with Samantha's theory about adult influence regarding body image in young girls. No matter how much my mom told me I was beautiful when I was growing up I still felt ugly. Maybe if my dad had said it...who knows. Excelling in academics and sports did not make me feel anymore confident in a society that rewards beauty. Also, as I embark on raising my own family I realize the danger, yes danger, of everyday media, especially television.

Oct. 03 2013 01:06 PM
Bill R. from Philly suburbs

CM and BK make great points. Self-esteem, coupled with a focus on physical fitness, can result in a sense of psychological well being. The key is to set aside what advertisers are inculcating into the population as the accepted norm and creating your own path in life that allows belief in yourself as you are. Case in point: I spent two weeks this summer at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. I saw both young men and women hiking extremely strenuous trails, carrying between 30 and 40 lbs. on their backs, and loving every minute of it. That is certainly an example of an activity that leads to self-esteem and a belief in one self that goes way beyond what is portrayed in popular culture. We need more of these types of challenges for young people.

Oct. 03 2013 12:22 PM
CM from Miami

It would be a better idea to focus on developing self-esteem that derives from more than the acceptance of what one LOOKS like. How about getting girls to feel good about their talents,about being good human beings, what their body DOES as opposed to what it LOOKS like. That would encourage lifelong self esteem despite the different changes that a woman's body can go through.

Oct. 03 2013 10:04 AM
BK from Hoboken

Here's an idea- why don't we use our energy to get people fit, instead of making them feel better about being overweight? Our country is literally eating itself to death while millions across the globe starve to death. It's disgusting. People need to take responsibility for their own health. When I hit 30 I was out of shape and not happy with myself. Instead of complaining about how society pushes images of male models with 6 or 8 pack abs, I started running. In the last 8 years I have run several marathons and about 35-40 half marathons. Lastly, the male model images pushed on men are even more unattainable than the female images. Even with my regimen, I still have nowhere close to a 6 pack, nor do most of the very fit guys at my gym. It's easy to get thin, nearly impossible to get 6 pack. Stop complaining and start running.

Oct. 03 2013 09:29 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.