This month, New York City launched a new campaign called “The True Cost of Teen Pregnancy.” The 4,000 bus and subway posters, which reportedly took two years of planning and cost the city $400,000, feature wailing toddlers and babies (mostly of color) next to captions such as Honestly, Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you… and I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.
Yes, teen pregnancy is experienced disproportionately by girls of color and girls living in poverty. Yet data shows that national teen pregnancy rates across ethnicities are dropping not rising, including in New York City. So why this public health campaign? And why now?
The race and class politics behind the “True Cost” campaign become more obvious when one considers that over the past years, the city has released several public health campaigns that have been critiqued as specifically targeting working class and poor communities of color. Indeed, public health campaigns are never value neutral, and are often used to orient social hostility toward marginalized groups.
While “True Cost” was quickly criticized, most of the pushback has focused on the problems surrounding the use of shame as a health promotion tool, not explicitly around its race and class message. For instance, the New York City Coalition for Reproductive Justice launched a ‘No Stigma! No Shame!’ campaign in response to the ad, and Planned Parenthood of New York City released a statement denouncing the posters, saying they perpetuated “gender stereotypes, stigmatizing and fear based messages” while ignoring the ‘structural realities’ impacting these young women’s lives (Code for racism and classism? Perhaps).
Then there is Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, who defended the use of stigmatization and fear as motivations for healthy behavior in a column for the New York Times, arguing that “shame is an essential ingredient of a healthy society.”
But Reeves’ voice has seemingly been an outlier. Even TED talk ‘shame and vulnerability’ rockstar Brené Brown has gotten into the conversation, arguing against Reeves’ conclusions by asserting, “Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
But I don’t think the issue is purely about shame. The question is: who is being shamed and for what purpose? It is not a coincidence that New York’s current campaign shares a lot in common with a Georgia hospital’s 2011-2012 campaign against childhood obesity. Like the “True Cost” ads, these black and white photos of morose looking children were accompanied by fear-filled captions like WARNING: Chubby kids may not outlive their parents and WARNING: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.
Both campaigns use children (the universal “innocent victims”) to blame parents – a strategy seen often in international development projects, such as Invisible Children’s problematic KONY 2012 campaign. In these narratives, entire communities, or countries, are portrayed as incapable of, or uninterested in, protecting and caring for their own children, or themselves. (Which then justifies everything from domestic governmental regulation to international interference in, or invasion of, other countries)
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