12 December 2016 | Maygan Eugenie Forbes
Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show: the models advertised as “Sexy Little Things”, the underwear advertised for “The Perfect Body”, and their yearly revenue estimated to gross up to $7.6 billion. Introduced to mainstream media in 1995, the Show is a mass-marketing extraordinaire. From the beautiful models wearing wings and diamonds to the pop star heavyweights who perform, there’s no denying that this blockbuster extravaganza (the “Super Bowl of fashion,” according to CBS) has an astronomical amount of pulling power — so much so that influential publications all over the Internet are lambasting the Show’s “largely unattainable image of perfection.” However, is the question of attainability really the problem here? Or, is it rather a problem that, whether attainable for some or not, the Show directly reflects and reinforces a wider pool of homogenized, and ultimately oppressive, standards of beauty that are elevated so far as to become an “ideal”?
In preparation for this article, I researched ‘Body Positive’ blog posts that reacted to the Show. Many of these posts labeled Victoria’s Secret models as having “perfect genetics” and being “not normal, nor real.” A lot of these posts claimed to be coming from a “realistic” standpoint. One blog entry went as far as to claim that the level of beauty showcased on the Victoria’s Secret stage is only common in “one of those small countries” where the models are from. To the women who have ingested a lifetime’s supply of self-hate, critiques such as these unequivocally offer comfort and solidarity; however, the narrative is clogged with a dangerous conception that lends itself to a fictionalized Western beauty ideal. It cannot be denied that images of models are airbrushed and retouched to present a fundamentally idealised representation of their bodies. Nonetheless, you cannot divorce them from the real women behind the images. So, what are we saying when we condemn a body type for being too unrealistic?
To condemn a standard of beauty for being unrealistic we are buying into an ideology that legitimizes these standards. We are agreeing to a concept constructed out of a greedy ploy to monetize societies’ vulnerabilities to the belief that, yes, in order for the body to become a successful commodity it must replicate *enter fashionable millennial name here*. Never mind the fact that any perceived flaws are subjective, never mind the fact that different cultures perceive beauty with a completely distinctive set of eyes, never mind the fact that we all show up on this planet in different body suits; I am not my mother’s body, nor my neighbour’s body. Rather than accepting someone else’s standard of beauty, we should celebrate the very things that make us unique entities in the world.
In an attempt to address the public backlash it has received, Victoria’s Secret launched its “Perfect Body” campaign (a name that garnered the company new rounds of controversy and was eventually changed online — although not in-store — to “A Body for Every Body”). As part of this rebranding effort, Victoria’s Secret posted a short video entitled “Don’t stress what someone else has – love what you got!” to their Instagram page. Reaching 48.6 million users worldwide, the video featured one of their Angels, Sara Sampaio, comparing her body and bone structure to another Angel, and thus attempted to show someone who has “The Perfect Body” but still faces the albatross of a quixotic beauty standard.
The Victoria’s Secret Angel is typically thought to be contiguous with the problem of toxic body images, but the video reminds us that there are many sides and many faces to the struggle against such images. Rather than celebrating each individual body, Sampaio is made to be relatable only if she acknowledges the accepted guidelines for the perfect body. In an article on Jezebel.com, contributor Erin Gloria Ryan responded to the Instagram post by writing: “My main problem with the video is that it purports to fight a problem all women have…while perpetuating the problem. Love your body, because no matter what you do and what you look like, you will never feel good enough. This isn’t about the model; it’s about the marketing.”[i] The world might market itself as being more accessible to those who follow a type of beauty standard; however, often times, these standards open doors to dangerous cliff ends that arise out of a pervasive systemic perpetuation of self-loathing that betrays us all.
In a recent effort to shut some of these doors to cliff edges, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that advertisements promoting unhealthy body rhetoric would be prohibited on all Transport for London networks. As a North London girl who grew up around men and women who were a direct product of an overzealous diet culture, this act spoke volumes to me. As a black female, I occasionally see my physical self represented in the media; however, these forms of representation can often be problematic and less than positive. During my adolescent years, I allowed the Internet to destroy my self-esteem. High school is hard enough but throw self-hate into the mix and those dishonest playground whispers that cause you to second guess your body can become a threatening reality. I feared my own skin; I lived in the bodies of others, escaping through the tunnels of socially respected figures that looked nothing like my own, but everything like acceptance. Perhaps I myself am being too utopian but I now know my body. It’s a good place for me to be. It works like a charm, responds when I need it to, informs me when there’s a problem, and it doesn’t let me down. My body is neither the Victoria’s Secret Angel nor the American Apparel vixen, but it is of the same value. My body exists in my own space; loving and embracing of all the ways other bodies show up on this planet.
Born in London, I have spent the majority of my higher education studying in cold cities and defending the spelling of my name. I am currently studying an MSc in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh; my research interests include representations of feminine adolescence onscreen in Hollywood and World Cinema. When I’m not having a quarter life crisis in the postgraduate room, I can often be seen wandering around Edinburgh humming songs by Kate Nash and petting dogs.
Article edited by Ruby Katz, Richard Elliott, and Bridget Moynihan.
Erin Gloria Ryan. “Helpful Victoria’s Secret Reminder: Even Models Hate Themselves.” Jezebel. 14th November 2014. http://jezebel.com/helpful-victorias-secret-reminder-even-models-hate-the-1658845173
Angels. Jamie McCarthy. http://popcrush.com/2015-victorias-secret-fashion-show-worst-ratings-ever/
Protein World http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-36516378