The Victoria Secret Fashion Show was a long-standing tradition in the entertainment and fashion worlds – all the best models, performers, designers, and press came to see or participate in the world-famous show. The premise was to show off (supposedly to women) Victoria’s Secret’s new lines of undergarments, but by its cancellation in 2019, it was an outdated, misogynistic version of a fashion show. Basically, it showed an unattainable version of a woman walking around in something that made them look very desirable and said two things to the women watching it: one, that if you buy their clothes then you, too, could look like that, and two, that their models were the epitome of beauty and sexuality, and therefore the kind of woman every girl should strive to be.
These reasons, and many more, are why Victoria’s Secret has come under fire in the past few years for their show. Taking place in midwinter each year, the company had attempted in recent years to be more “inclusive,” (read: casting a size 6 model as a “plus-sized” one), as their ratings had been steadily declining since 2016. This year, they officially decided to cancel the show indefinitely, with the head of the company Les Wexner saying, “Fashion is a business of change. We must evolve and change to grow. With that in mind, we have decided to re-think the traditional Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” He said it’s because they need to “re-think” and “evolve,” but anyone can see that the real reason is their tanking TV ratings.
Victoria’s Secret has never really cared about growth or changing to fit the times – they have a strong record of being a company increasingly stuck in the past with their views on the “ideal woman’s” body type, skin color, and sexual orientation. In 2018, Ed Razek, chief of marketing, said in an interview with Vogue, “To answer the question of casting [trans women], shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special.” To begin with, “transsexuals” is an outdated and frankly offensive term for transgender people. The phrase that drew the most criticism came when Ed implied, if not outright stated, that trans women could in no way be desirable or the subject of a so-called “fantasy.” This outraged many members of the LGBTQ community and sparked a heated debate over VS and its parent company’s attitude toward diversity.
To unpack this a little more, why is Ed calling it a fantasy in the first place? Or an entertainment special? Clearly the fantasy is someone’s fantasy, and as we’ve already ruled out VS marketing to the LGBTQ community, it’s safe to say it’s a fantasy for men. From a little personal experience of being a woman all my life, we usually don’t appreciate being the fantasy of a random man, and even though, sadly, it is good marketing, I really don’t believe another woman would be all for putting other women’s bodies on display, and then agreeing to have it marketed as a fantasy. So it’s a fantasy for men, by men, being run by men, to provide entertainment for more men. Putting women’s bodies on display like that shouldn’t be a message that we send to the many young girls that watched the show, particularly because it wasn’t made by other women.
Many women have also come forward to accuse the company, marketing strategists, casting directors, and designers of racism and cultural appropriation. In 2010, they dressed some of the darker-skinned models in animal prints and tribal tattoos – one was even given a neck ring and matching cuffs. In 2017, they received criticism for using Native American headdresses in their “Nomadic Adventures” segment, with critics saying the headdresses were a sign of respect and used in war, and not appropriate for a runway show. Again in 2017, the cast of models recorded themselves singing Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” including themselves saying the n word, and most recently, one of the two black VS models was denied the opportunity to walk at one of their shows at Milan Fashion Week because they already “had filled their quota of black girls” for the day. Clearly race is a huge issue at VS – and while they’re not alone, most of the industry has caught up to the times and the push for increased diversity.
Another issue for which VS has come under fire is promoting an unhealthy body image to the young girls who watch the show. The show exclusively features ultra tall, ultra thin, and traditionally pretty women. This, combined with the hype around the casting of any number of stars and celebrities, promotes a narrative to young girls and women watching it, or even hearing about it, that this is what they should look like. Who wouldn’t want to on some level look like their favorite celebrities? After all, they’re adored for a reason. Thigh gaps, blonde hair, and a tiny waist have all, until recently, been the epitome of beauty in the 21st century. Victoria’s Secret wasn’t helping the matter by giving an audience of teen girls a team of waif-like women as the only people they can look up to. The average weight for a VS model, according to Insider, is 132 lbs. This, combined with their average height of 5’11, makes for a staggering set of numbers that’s largely unattainable for anyone who doesn’t possess the perfect set of genetics.
Luckily, in the past few years, a more body-positive fashion movement has been forming. Models such as Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence, and Saffi Karina have begun to be recognized as powerful forces in the modeling world, and they have featured in advertisements for some of the most famous powerhouses in fashion, such as Gucci. Because of the increasing awareness of diet culture and body positivity, many women have been rethinking their opinions of VS and other such companies that promote an unhealthy body image. As the fashion industry grows, so does the push for equity and equal representation in the industry. Hopefully, companies who decide to not follow other brands’ examples and respond to what their customers want will get the message soon – or they might be left in the dust.