Women's body confidence. It's a tough issue. There is no simple answer nor resolution to the fact that roughly every second woman in the world has self esteem issues. To counteract this stifling statistic, the U.N, working in conjunction with the Dove Self Esteem Project are hoping to reverse the effects of unrealistic body portrayals by the media, and the scrutiny women are under constantly to maintain a 'shapely' figure.
SWAAY spoke to Stacie June Shelton, Global Head of Education & Advocacy, at the Dove Self-Esteem Project and Amee Chande, Chair of Partnerships and Fund Development Committee, World Board World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) about female empowerment and body image, and why female self image is so skewed throughout the world.
1. Your life is dedicated to empowering women - was it always that way?
Stacie: Girls and women! I am passionate about health and believe that mental and emotional health are largely overlooked by society as critical indicators of a healthy body and being.
My training and work experience are in public health so how to get programs out at scale and focusing on the adolescent age group 10 to 21 as this is critical to setting life habits and making decisions especially around health. To be empowered you first must be healthy and that is what I have worked on for years whether coordinated school health programs in the state of Oregon or rural India helping young people be empowered to make good decisions for life is what I love to do.
I know personally what a challenging age adolescence is and made my own questionable decisions; I want to improve the next generation and learn from my own and create a healthier world. Mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually across all areas that make up an individual's personal health.
2. How did you get involved with WAGGGS?
Amee: I was a Girl Guide in Canada for many years and it was a big part of my experience as a girl. It gave me experiences and exposure I wouldn't otherwise have had, particularly as it related to the outdoors and global citizenship. Today, I chair the fund development and partnerships committee and sit on the World Board, but it is still the interactions with the girls and young women that keep me motivated.
3. How did you get involved with Dove and the Self-Esteem Project?
Stacie: My background is in public health research, programme development and project management to drive behaviour change with a focus on adolescents and school health. This led to a role in Unilever 6 years ago, as Global Social Mission Program Manager for Lifebuoy soap. Here I led behaviour change programmes across Africa, Asia and Latin America to help encourage proper hygiene practices for school children
Now, as head of education and advocacy for the DSEP, I get to help make a positive impact on the lives of young women and girls everywhere – our goal – and my personal mission – is to help empower the next generation of girls and women to reach their full potential in life. We want beauty to be something women feel confident about, not something that holds them back or gives them anxiety.
The Dove Self-Esteem Project works with parents, teachers, mentors and youth organisations - like the young leaders from the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) - using interactive tools and resources which are proven to help drive behaviour change and make a positive impact on body-confidence. It's the largest programme of its kind in the world and to-date, we've positively impacted the lives of 20 million young people across 139 countries. And we've set ourselves the goal of reaching another 20 million by 2020, which is why our partnership with WAGGGS is so important.
4. How beneficial has your presence at the UN been?
Stacie: Body confidence is a serious, global issue and one that disproportionately affects girls. We attended the 61st UN Commission on the Status of Women in NYC with our partner World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, to raise awareness about the issue, show what we are doing to provide girls with self-esteem education, and encourage others to get involved with empowering the next generation of potential female leaders. Attended by governments, NGOs and all organisations dedicated to improving girls' – this is a vital platform to call for change.
5. Where do body insecurities arise from mostly in your opinion?
Amee: It is different growing up as a girl today, compared to over 50 years ago. Girls are subjected to numerous pressures, due in part to the internet and the boom of social media.
Did you know that 8 out of 10 girls with low body-esteem will opt out of fundamental life activities, such as engaging with family and loved ones, sharing their opinion, joining a team or club, or even leaving the house if they don't feel good about the way they look [Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report 2016]. Now that's a huge problem. Not just for those girls but for all society.
Stacie: We know that when girls don't feel good about the way they look, they opt out. In fact, 7 in 10 girls with low body-esteem have stopped themselves from speaking up or sharing an opinion, have opted out of demanding school subjects, or have not claimed responsibility for their own good ideas. When young people opt out, society ultimately misses out. This negative impact on the leadership potential of girls and women is profound and something we must all take a role in countering.
6. How can the media help to change the perception of female body image?
Amee: There has to be more diversity across the media – not just in terms of female body image, but in terms of women in leadership roles too. Women and girls need to see their bodies valued for what they can do, not just how they look. Even more importantly, women must be valued for more than just their bodies. Girls need to be shown what they can achieve. That their potential is limitless and that you don't have look a certain way to achieve your dreams.
Education is also important. I'd like to see the media used as platform to open a dialogue about some of the critical issues impacting girls and young women.
7. You mentioned that less than half the world's females have body confidence issues, is that centered more in first world countries? Where do you see that number in 10 years?
Stacie: Body confidence is a global issue. I remember participating in a training session for leaders. The aim of the training was for leaders to learn how to deliver the Free Being Me curriculum so they could go back into their country and share it with others. What stood out for me was the fact that while the definitions of beauty vary globally, the gap between the beauty ideal and reality is equally wide globally.
Looking into the future, I hope the prevalence of females with body confidence issues will decrease. We are working hard to accelerate this change. Free Being Me has had a huge impact across the world. So far, we have reached 3.5 million young people from 125 countries. Dove and WAGGGS has extended its partnership with the reaching at least another 3 million young people by 2020,
Amee: Our latest research, the Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report 2016, informed by 10,500 females across 13 countries, found that women's confidence in their bodies is on a steady decline, with low body esteem becoming a unifying challenge shared by women and girls around the world – regardless of age or location. It's effecting the confidence of a whole generation of young women.
Despite rising levels of beauty and appearance anxiety, the findings also showed that more women and girls are fighting back against unrealistic beauty pressures, with 83% of women and 77% of girls who say they want to look their personal best rather than follow someone else's definition of 'beautiful', and 83% of all women and 82% of girls who agree every woman has something about them that is beautiful. It is this positivity that we want to focus on through our work with the Dove Self Esteem Project and all our campaigns. It is important to us that we aren't just raising the issues through research, but being an active participant in creating the change.
8. If you could say one thing to girls & women with body image and self-esteem issues, what would it be?
Stacie: My advice to all girls & women is to stop comparing themselves to others. You are your own unique self and that should be celebrated! This is one of the biggest things you can do to help increase your confidence, have your own voice, and ultimately lead the life you've always wanted.
Amee: I'd say to girls and young women: When you're confident in yourself, you feel empowered to make your own choices in life, make your voice heard and make a difference to your local and global community. Our world needs you, your voice and your passion, so go out there and be confident in who you are.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.