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How Dove is helping young people build lifelong self-esteem


Stacie June Shelton, Global Head of Education & Advocacy for the Dove Self-Esteem Project, tells us why the impact of good body confidence in adolescence goes beyond ‘selfies’ to self-confidence

Dove Self Esteem Project

I have worked and lived around the world, creating and delivering programmes that promote and encourage healthy behaviours. I’m originally from the US and began my career working for the state government in Oregon on school and adolescent health projects.

I’ve also worked with NGOs in India, looking at issues around HIV/AIDS and comprehensive school health. And for the past nine months, I’ve been working with Dove, helping to create and implement tools to promote positive body confidence and self-esteem in young people around the world.

Dove Self Esteem Project
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Diversity of beauty

For nearly 60 years, Dove has encouraged women to see beauty as a source of confidence and not anxiety. We don’t believe there’s a narrow definition of beauty and use real women in our ad campaigns.

It is important to us as a brand and to Unilever as a business that we have a social purpose.

The Dove Self-Esteem Project, which began in 2004, is an extension of that. It’s us walking the talk and trying to prevent those appearance-related anxieties from happening. To date we have reached over 20 million young people across 138 countries and we hope to double this by 2020 reaching an additional 20 million.

Why body confidence matters

We know from research carried out over a period of 12 years that, when young girls hit adolescence, body image issues begin. For our latest Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report, we interviewed 10,500 females across 13 countries.

Researchers found that 8 in 10 girls with low body confidence were less likely to participate in important daily life activities. This included not engaging with friends and loved ones if they weren’t happy with the way they looked.

It also revealed that 7 out of 10 put their health at risk by, for example, stopping themselves from eating or not going to visit the doctor if they needed to.

How these figures translate to everyday life include girls dropping out of team sports, developing unhealthy relationships with food and feeling less confident about putting their hands up in class.

Creating tools that make a difference

Over the 12 years that we have been working on the programme our aim has been to create evidence-based tools which we test, measure and trial to ensure they have a positive impact.

We work with independent academic experts – including psychologists such as the Centre for Appearance Research (CAR) at the University of the West of England (UWE) – to create evidence-based resources designed to engage and support young people aged seven to 17 years. These are scientifically proven to build positive body confidence.

It’s led to the development of educational tools such as this film which raises awareness about our natural instinct to compete and compare – to want something or to be something we’re not. But we also offer young people simple techniques that help them appreciate that, while appearance is important, they are so much more than that.

One way we do that is to ask them during the Self-Esteem Project to make a comment on a friend’s social post that’s not about appearance but about something else in the image – where they are or what they are doing, for example. It seems a very simple thing, but it works.

Delivering with impact and at scale

My focus in the time I have been with the project and going forward is education and advocacy. How can I use these quality tools and get them delivered at scale, with impact and cost effectively?

We’re looking at ways that we can enable the enablers. For example, by providing tools and training to help science and maths teachers who want to deliver the project, but want to feel comfortable and prepped to do it.

We’re also looking at localising content to take into consideration issues around ideas of beauty and cultural differences. For example, we are looking at specific issues in Muslim countries, or understanding how body-image related issues are different for young people in India versus the UK/US or Africa.

What is in it for the brand?

I understand the cynics out there who look at corporate-backed health programmes as a soft sell for the brand. And there is no denying Unilever is a business – not a charity.

But in many ways that is what makes the Dove Self Esteem Project and other Unilever programmes more sustainable. The Dove brand purpose is to help create a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety. To do that it delivers the Dove Social Mission - to ensure the next generation grows up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look, and help them reach their full potential.

It’s the ethos of Unilever as a company and Dove to have a social purpose and to make a positive impact. And our consumers love Dove for that reason as well as loving Dove as a quality product.

So far Dove self-esteem workshops have been delivered in over 138 countries. And in early October Unilever employee volunteers helped continue this good work by delivering workshops at schools around the world as a lead up to International Day of the Girl on the 11 October.

Does it work?

You would expect me to say YES. But don’t take my word for it.

Our programme is delivered to girl guides and scouts around the world (WAGGGS). It gave Angeli Siladan, a girl scout from the Philippines, the confidence to speak out on the importance of body confidence at this year’s Women Deliver conference.

Girl Guides and Girl Scouts from around the world have experienced the Free Being Me programme (, and have been taking action to raise the body confidence issue locally, nationally and globally.

It’s seen in the work we are doing with WAGGGS to celebrate International Day of the Girl on 11 October, where girls can earn a #TeamGirl badge by sharing the ways they are supporting the UN's Global Goals.

And it personally helped me to give a talk at the United Nations earlier this year. Before I stood up to talk I reminded myself it was OK to feel nervous, to accept my imperfections – because no one listening was perfect either. I told myself it was going to be OK, and in the end it was more than OK – it was great.

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