Victoria’s Secret is manipulating women not empowering them

Broadcasting a show of women wearing lingerie with a concert in the background was still relevant for the label after #MeToo. But it had no choice but to cancel the 2019 extravaganza to reinvent itself.

Design by @womenandflowers (IG)

With more than a billion views in 2017, a budget of nearly 12 million dollars in 2018 and performances by the most prominent artists on earth (Destiny’s Child in 2002, Justin Timberlake in 2006, The Spice Girls in 2007, Rihanna in 2012, Lady Gaga in 2016 among others), the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is nothing less but the Superbowl of the fashion industry. However, it is ironical that for the longest fashion show on TV, no one is looking at the clothes. What we are all focusing on are the bodies of half-naked women.

In this post #MeToo era, where we are all tackling the issues of sexism and misogyny, this fashion show seems either untouchable or is deliberately death to what is going on in the world. Since its creation in 1995, the company even rewards itself with the title of feminist, arguing that their designs are made to empower women — what a daring thing to say.

If you are not familiar with the show, keep in mind that the bras and knickers presented are just an excuse. You will find them in a cheaper and less couture version in-store, but this is far from the main aim of the company, contrary to what labels are showing during regular fashion weeks.

With their high heels, massive wings and perfect and athletic bodies, no one can take their eyes off of these models, especially the gentlemen. In the beginning, the show was a soft porn performance where men would be free to fantasise while thinking about what to gift their partner, while the said girlfriend or wife was supposed to dream about having the same body like the ones on the catwalk.

Indeed, the perfect woman represented among the models fits all the criteria: she is valid, tall, skinny without a single milligram of fat on her stomach, smiling, young, and silent. Characteristics that have not changed at all after all these years.

Representation who?

While Fashion Week now books models from different ethnicities, a few designers are paving the way for a better representation of plus-size bodies and diversity in terms of age. Christian Siriano, for instance, is the only one hiring models from a size 6 to 22. The LGBTQ+ community is also seeing the beginning of a shift with French Vogue photographing trans model Valentina Sampaio on its March 2017 cover.

Despite these changes, on the other side of L Brands headquarters glossy doors (the company owning Victoria’s Secret), change does not seem necessary. During an interview for American Vogue, head of marketing Ed Razek even said that having plus-size or trans models on his catwalk was not on the agenda: “No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.” This statement buzzed online and generated huge backlash, forcing Razek to apologise. “We absolutely would cast a transgender model for the show. We’ve had transgender models come to castings… Also, like many others, they didn’t make it… But it was never about gender.” However, he had nothing to say about plus-size models. To him, the company is already doing its best by offering plus-size lingerie. He says to Vogue: “We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still, don’t. […] Do we offer larger sizes? Yes.”

In other words, plus-size women are welcome to shop in-store as clients but not on the catwalk as models. To Joanna, a 24 yo regular VS client and French expatriate journalist in the US, it’s nothing less than segregation among women. “It means lingerie and sex appeal aren’t for anybody. Cup sizes are rarely bigger than a D-cup, and even for these, the quality is bad and damages quickly. The bigger you need, the less sophisticated it is. Also, the price is discrimination as well, and a set is always around 60 to 70 dollars. What is empowering in all that if it is just for a minority of women? Does that mean you can only be empowered if you are a woman with money wearing a size 6 or 8?”

By excluding all of these potential customers, Victoria’s Secret is leaving the door open for loads of other companies that are ready to invest in diversity. Born in the United States, the body-positive movement, celebrating every beauty, has built its way up to the design and marketing open spaces of other lingerie companies.

From Asos to Nike and Savage X Fenty, Rihanna’s lingerie label, these textile companies have understood the marketing and financial advantage of investing in diversity. Creating the perfect antidote to Victoria’s Secret fashion show in September 2018, the beauty mogul and artist orchestrated her first lingerie fashion show with models presenting different kinds of body, skin colour, and genders, all in the same place, in harmony. In 2019, the beauty mogul signed an exclusive contract with Amazon Prime to showcase her fashion show. Once again, every single type of beauty was welcomed, celebrated and represented.

Playing the woke card

Even if Rihanna’s show made waves, it was way less than the billion viewers the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show attracts. In terms of turnover, the brand is the current leader of the lingerie market amid a few closing stores. On Instagram, nearly 63 million people are daily following their certified account.

On top of the commercial success and community of fans, the label is well seen by women media, by other designers and professionals like Olivier Rousteing from Balmain who collaborated on a capsule collection with VS. The models too are passionate about the show, the epitome of any career. The casting is so severe that they are willing to train for months to be booked for the show. This marathon routine is also a promotional asset for the company, which claims that they only dress fighters who achieve their objectives.

After the first months of training for the casting comes the preparation for the ones the company chose. To them, things get more robust as they have to lower their level of body fat to below 18%. Model Adriana Lima was not afraid to say that her unique technique to achieve this was to only drink liquids for nine days right before the D-day.

If these women are ready to outdo themselves, it is because they want to show to the male viewers that they are the ones in control of their bodies. They are the ones who decide to go to the gym two times a day, to hold the wings and get half-naked.

Interviewed by the Telegraph, model Karlie Kloss, who worked for the show several times goes further saying, “It is so powerful to see a woman embracing her sexuality and being in control.” It’s the same story for many other models who claim that they are happy to show to other women that they can be sexy, and sexual, as long as it is their choice. This could sum up Victoria’s Secret woman’s feminist belief. A conviction that seems in tune with what the pro-sex feminist movement is all about, but in shorten and marketing infused version according to Dr. in Gender Studies Ilana Eloit-Seroussi. “I can understand that some models feel empowered while walking on the catwalk, reflecting a certain image of perfection. However, to me, this is closer to the discourse of male revolutionary activists in May 1968 in France. They used to ask women to free themselves sexually by being at their disposal. It’s because of this fake sexual liberation that activists created the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1970”.

“They are selling an ideal version that women are supposed to seek to enhance their attractiveness to the opposite sex.”

Marketing charm

Just like many other brands before them, VS is trying to use feminism to appear as woke and politically involved as possible. For their client Joanna, they are guilty of femvertising; in other words, publicity hidden behind a gloss of hypothetical feminist conviction. “Apart from what they say, are they doing anything for feminism? Are they involved with the fight against domestic violence? I’m not sure of that. They are just selling us a politically involved discourse to hide the fact that their models starve themselves to work for VS. I’m tired of this use of feminism as a trend when it is just for the money”.

Freeing women just by buying a bra is not an argument, but a woman wearing lingerie does have some power, and it should not be looked down on. The brand finds its relevance in this kind of enchantment of men by the undergarments and its wearer. For Professor Sylvie Borau, who teaches marketing at Toulouse Business School, VS is “trying to sell a dream.” She explains: “They are selling an ideal version that women are supposed to seek to enhance their attractiveness to the opposite sex. L’Oréal promises that you will look more beautiful thanks to their products to achieve more success with men. It’s the same. Victoria’s Secret, for the moment, would be a fool to change their strategy and image from a managerial point of view”.

VS created this image of seduction in the beginning, and it was popular. But things have changed. Barbie, who represented the ideal to achieve in 1995, has evolved. Now we could say that next to the doll stands Kim Kardashian, with her small height, a flat stomach, and famous curves. In the same vein as model Ashley Graham, who is okay with her thighs touching or singer Beyoncé celebrating her Fupa (fat upper pussy area) in Vogue embody this shift among beauty standards. However, Victoria’s Secret bubble excludes these scenarios and follows its definition of beauty.

“It’s not the marketing place to decide who is good looking or not, it’s men! If one day the majority of men choose older, wrinkled or curvier ladies over slender young girls with perfect skin, it would be the end of the anti-ageing or slimming cosmetic industry!”

By men, for men

Three-quarters of the board of directors of L Brands are men, just as their new CEO John Mehas. Thus the band can only picture seduction from a male heterosexual point of view. The company itself was created by Roy Raymond, who, after having accompanied his wife to a lingerie shop in 1977 thought that there were too many robes and flowery nylon nightgowns to his taste. He wanted more risqué undergarments for his pleasure. Therefore, every other form of seduction, including the LGBTQ+ community, is eclipsed.

It would be interesting to know how does a lesbian feel when watching the show? Are they enjoying themselves? Not particularly, according to Dr Ilana Eloit-Seroussi, who is gay herself: “The lesbian lust gaze has nothing in common with the straight male one. It is at the centre of every single lesbian and queer counterculture, which is to reinvent gazes, codes, bonds that let us live and desire in other ways. These kinds of performances are idealising femininity according to straight normative criteria while objectifying women”.

The way they picture being a woman in this unique way results in constant pressure on women. Something that VS is not afraid to feed. According to Professor Sylvie Borau “when the brand presents us with sexy and attractive models, who comply with this idealisation of beauty, it also says that by buying their goods, you will get closer to this perfection and will be more attractive.” In other words, we could say they are encouraging women to spend more money, capitalising on their lack of confidence — a smart strategy when you keep in mind that American women are responsible for 85% of consuming expenses.

Professor Sylvie Borau does not agree with this gloomy perspective of a female insecurity market: “It’s not the marketing place to decide who is good looking or not, it’s men! If one day the majority of men choose older, wrinkled or curvier ladies over slender young girls with perfect skin, it would be the end of the anti-ageing or slimming cosmetic industry!”

Victoria’s Secret presents a lingerie fashion show with female models for female clients to empower all of them. It seems that men are the ones with the power in their hands here.

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A freelance journalist who has written on fat activism, inclusivity and new representations for Marie Claire, I WEIGH, Glamour, Slate and The Huffington Post UK

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Dan Hastings

Dan Hastings

A freelance journalist who has written on fat activism, inclusivity and new representations for Marie Claire, I WEIGH, Glamour, Slate and The Huffington Post UK

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