NOW Foundation Steps Up Women's Health Project

by Elizabeth McGee, NOW Foundation Special Projects Director

Advertising can be hazardous to your health. Have you ever purchased a women's magazine and opened to a page advertising cigarette products stating "We've Come A Long Way, Baby?" Attended a women's sporting event and been shocked to see that it was underwritten by tobacco companies? Do you have to look at a billboard featuring emaciated models every day as you go to school or work?

These are only a few examples of how advertisers market to women and girls by co-opting the feminist message and focusing on traditional concepts of weight and beauty. To raise awareness and take action against this life-threatening advertising, the NOW Foundation launched the Redefining Liberation campaign with a grant administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the first phase of the campaign, NOW Foundation Vice President Education Elizabeth Toledo (1997-2000) and California NOW Executive Director Helen Grieco created the Redefining Liberation video. The NOW Foundation distributed this informative video to NOW chapters and community organizations across the country who are using it to educate and activate people around these issues, especially young women and girls.

The tobacco and fashion industries in particular specialize in targeting young women and girls. According to a 1995 Center for Disease Control study, approximately one in five teenage girls is a smoker. In 1994, the Surgeon General reported the tobacco industry loses two million customers each year to consumer death and smoking cessation. Therefore, the tobacco companies must replace these losses by addicting the most vulnerable people in our society—young women and men. Smoking actually kills more women each year than alcohol, illicit drugs, car accidents, suicide and homicide combined.

"Young women may be uniquely vulnerable to enticements to smoke. There is evidence that girl's perceptions of their physical appearance and overall sense of self-worth are much lower than those of boys and fall with increasing age during early adolescence, and that these perceptions are associated with regular smoking," writes Nancy Kaufman in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Fashion models also send a dangerous message to young people. According to the California Department of Health Services, the average weight of a model is 23 percent lower than that of an average woman; 20 years ago the differential was only 8 percent. The constant bombardment of images of emaciated women on billboards and television and in magazines sells products at a terrible price to our communities. Findings show the diet industry is booming and thousands of young women suffer from eating disorders; it is estimated that 20 percent of college women battle bulimia.

"Negative body image is one of the most prevalent and destructive problems among young women, " says Susannah Northart, co-chair of NOW's Young Feminist Committee. "The media are constantly surrounding us with images that make girls feel bad about themselves."

In the second phase of the campaign, the NOW Foundation is focusing on the development of new and expanded educational materials and increased outreach. The project is mobilizing women and girls to expose the deadly health risks of tobacco and fashion advertising, and we need you to get involved. Show the video in your community, write a postcard to a women s magazine requesting that they stop accepting tobacco ads or start a campaign to get an offensive billboard removed. Your efforts can make a difference to millions of women and girls.

To inform the NOW Foundation about actions against hazardous advertising in your community, receive additional information about the Redefining Liberation campaign or order a copy of the video, please contact Bonnie Rice at 202-628-8669 extension 118. 

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