Dove has launched a report titled The Real State of Beauty, a global study that aims to understand how beauty impacts women and girls today.

A staggering 63% of South African women – and 35% of girls aged 10 to 17 – grapple with mid to low levels of “body esteem” and two in five women globally would give up a year of their life to achieve their beauty ideals.

Most disturbingly, the levels of confidence South African women once held in their own beauty is plummeting – from 93% in 2016 to 72% in 2024.

These findings are part of a greater study of more than 33 000 respondents across 20 markets where women opened up about the reality of beauty and the pressures they face every day.

But many women are already standing up and turning their backs on misrepresentations and manipulations of their beauty, seeking a future in which they get to decide and declare what real beauty looks like.

“The results underscore a concerning trend, particularly in South Africa, where the decline in body esteem and confidence among women and girls calls for urgent action,” says Mpoomy Ledwaba, the founder of wellness hub Wisdom & Wellness and a Dove ambassador. “Beauty should be a source of confidence, not anxiety. These statistics are a stark reminder of the work still needed to dismantle unattainable beauty standards and foster a culture of inclusivity and self-acceptance.”

Joined by veteran broadcaster Zuraida Jardine and spoken word artist Botlhale Boikanyo, Ledwaba spent some time in London as one of the voices redefining what “real beauty” is today. Dove renewed its commitment to women and pledged to never using AI to represent women in its ads.

“Over the past 20 years, our Campaign for Real Beauty has sought to challenge the narrow definitions of beauty and celebrate the rich authenticity the South African woman embodies,” says a Dove spokesperson. “The impact of hollow beauty standards is felt around the world and we all have a joint responsibility to safeguard the confidence of women and young girls.”

While the beauty standard has evolved in the past two decades, it is still impossible to achieve, and impossible to escape. The study also found that women feel they are expected to look healthy (76%) while also being slim (68%); and they should have a small waist (64%) while also being curvy (57%) – creating a world where women and girls are willing to give up so much to meet unrealistic expectations.

Furthermore, a resounding two-in-three (62%) believe that women today are expected to be more physically attractive than their mother’s generation.

One of the biggest threats to the representation of real beauty is artificial intelligence (AI), something previous generations did not have to worry about. And today, almost 90% of women and girls surveyed say they have been exposed to harmful beauty content online.

With 90% of content online predicted to be AI-generated by 2025, the rise of AI is a threat to women’s wellbeing: one-in-three feel pressure to alter their appearance because of what they see online, even when they know it’s fake or AI generated.

While AI has the potential to foster creativity and access to beauty – with one-in-four women (28%) and almost one-in-two girls (41%) agreeing that being able to create different versions of yourself using AI is empowering – there is still a need for greater representation and transparency.

“AI is transforming the way we consume and experience beauty – with women and girls at the forefront of its influence,” Dove’s spokesperson says. “AI-created or altered toxic beauty images are proliferating and reinforcing impossible to achieve beauty expectations. At Dove, we remain committed to protect, celebrate, and champion Real Beauty.”

Since 2004, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has challenged society, media, and the beauty industry itself to change its representation of women, be transparent about digital distortion, and face-up to the harmful impact unrealistic beauty standards have on women and girls.

To help set new digital standards of representation, Dove will create the “Real Beauty Prompt Guidelines”, easy to use instructions for everyone on how to create images that are representative of Real Beauty on the most popular generative AI programmes.

Dove’s new campaign – The Code – also reflects the impact of AI on beauty and demonstrates the impact real beauty has made to change beauty for the better.