Victoria’s Secret Angels like Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio and iconic fantasy bras revealed every year have long been an inseparable part of the Victoria’s Secret brand. As the most-watched fashion event in the whole world, Victoria’s Secret’s annual televised celebrations made this brand’s presence known to the whole world. Walking into a Victoria’s Secret store, one might question if what is being sold is not undergarments, but fantasies — or perhaps something more sinister. As the company has been trying to stuff their stores with framed photos of angelic faces and heavenly bodies, I can’t help but wonder what purpose Victoria’s Secret actually serves. Does their lingerie bestow empowering confidence, as claimed, or are they simply merchandising unrealistic fantasies of sex?
This discourse has been debated for several years now, repeatedly coming to the forefront around the time of the brand’s famous annual fashion show. This year is no different. On Nov. 8, Victoria’s Secret rolled out the pink carpet in New York at Pier 94 and showed off their brand with 14 of their Angel ambassadors and 49 other models from all over the world. Generating $7.4 billion in 2017, Victoria’s Secret is still the leading U.S. lingerie brand. However, the company has been losing its market share rapidly. Sales are sagging and the company’s stock is down 41 percent this year. In a Sept. 2017 consumer study conducted by Wells Fargo, 68 percent of respondents said they liked Victoria’s Secret less than they used to and 60 percent said they think the brand feels “forced” or “fake.”
Victoria’s Secret has been losing its customers to rising commercial competitors like Adore Me and Aerie. More and more women have escaped pink fantasies and are gravitating to more comfortable lingerie design –– a direct opposition to Victoria’s Secret brand of fantasy body worship. That being said, body worship is still highly influential which helps Victoria’s Secret maintain its cultural cachet. Nevertheless, looking at their declining sales does beg the question of how long Victoria’s Secrets’ dominance will continue when a growing number of consumers actively seek more body positive campaigns representing diverse body types.
The 2018 show was, in keeping with tradition, a star-filled spectacle that featured famous names in fashion such as Adriana Lima, Gigi and Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner. However, its failure in an inclusive representation of body types and gender diversity provoked the strongest Victoria’s Secret fashion show backlash to date. On Nov. 8, Vogue published an interview with Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer of the company’s parent brand L Brands, and Monica Mitro, executive vice president of public relations. During the interview, Razek was asked to explain why the annual spectacle does not include transgender or plus-size models. “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should,” Razek says. “Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.” In his response –– which included a potentially outdated and offensive term “transsexual” –– Razek said that trans and plus-size women do not exemplify the “fantasy” that Victoria’s Secret is trying to sell.
Razek added that he and the Victoria’s Secret team have previously thought of casting trans and plus-size models but ultimately decided against doing so. “If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have,” he continued. “We market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world.” Saying that, Razek not only looked down on trans and plus-size women but also indicated that Victoria’s Secret does not aim to serve them. A day after Razek’s comments had gone viral and ignited a social media firestorm, Victoria’s Secret shared his apology via Twitter. “My remark regarding the inclusion of transgender models in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show came across as insensitive,” he said in a statement, failing to acknowledge what he said about plus-size models. “I apologize. To be clear, we would absolutely cast a transgender model for the show.” However, this weak apology failed to relieve heated tension, because without making any changes to address the base issue, this apology is nothing more than a robotized PR job.
Looking into Victoria’s Secret product design, we will find Victoria’s Secret’s apology far from sincere while its products are inconsiderate to women without Victoria’s Secret angel bodies. Every summer, impeccable photos of Victoria’s Secret models in risqué bathing suits make the rounds, selling a fantasy of sexual empowerment. I myself admit to having been drawn in by the fantasy. After the reality of trying one of the bathing suits on, I went straight home, lay on my bed and wondered why I didn’t feel flawless. The same questions haunt a lot of women. In 2015, Buzzfeed decided to recreate a Victoria’s Secret swimsuit photo spread and asked women of all different shapes, sizes and colors to choose one of the models and try to recreate her pose. Would the bathing suits prove flattering on women who aren’t supermodels? The conclusion was a big fat “no.” One of the models in the Buzzfeed photoshoot, Macey J. Foronda, later said, “Everyone has cellulite, stretch marks and pudge . . . A photograph is so misleading because it’s just capturing a millisecond. Everything is flexed or tucked (or photoshopped), so it’s not real.” The swimsuits were made to flatter supermodels, not the body types of ordinary people. The question isn’t whether or not the Victoria’s Secret brand fails to serve the vast majority of women and their bodies, but how much of that failure is the product of ignorance and how much is intentional exclusion.
It is not surprising that around the time of Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, we are inundated with posts from women saying they now “need” to go to the gym, or that they “need” to stop eating, or that they “need” to do any number of things to achieve that trademark Victoria’s Secret body. While we try to push messages of acceptance and recognizing the beauty in all sorts of bodies, at some level many of us still idolize beautiful models with perfect bodies. It is a hard cycle to break. We could blame narrow social boundaries of femininity, but we, the consumers, are the force for change and capable of expanding mainstream definitions of beauty. After all, we the people are the mainstream. Victoria’s Secret will never change so long as a critical mass of people buy into their message of “good bras give you confidence.” We should never give lingerie the ability to empower ourselves. Ultimately, it is just a piece of cloth.
Perhaps Victoria’s Secret was groundbreaking decades ago with its unabashed sexuality. While high fashion and modeling industries were and still are promoting double zero bodies, Victoria’s Secret shouted out for more voluptuous shapes. However, while the fashion industry — or at least parts of it — have started taking steps toward being more progressive and inclusive, Victoria’s Secret has stayed where it started, and is getting left behind. We are more than what we look like, and we don’t need to flaunt our sexuality according to narrow, preconceived notions of desirability to be confident. And if Victoria’s Secret can’t get with the program, we need to leave it behind.