It's that time of year again - no, Christmas isn't here (yet!), but the annual Victoria's Secret runway show is just around the corner. This year's show taping took place in Paris and will air on Monday night to a massive global audience; last year's event drew over 6 million viewers, an impressive feat despite dropping 32% from the previous year. As though in an effort to restore viewership, I feel as though marketing for the show has spiked significantly this year, and I can't log onto Spotify without hearing at least three different plugs for Monday night. And honestly, it makes me feel a little bit sick.
Growing up, I was never interested in the Victoria's Secret show. I was shocked by how many of my peers were infatuated with it, and I struggled with my inability to identify with whatever it was they so admired. But what I hated more than anything was the insidious self-hatred that the whole spectacle inevitably produced; at thirteen, my friends were already driven to low-carb diets and negative self-talk because they didn't have Candace's abs or Miranda's boobs. To them, these women were the ultimate goal.
In a study conducted at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo in Canada, female participants were shown an ad for a Victoria's Secret bra before answering questions about their body satisfaction and self-esteem (these were compared with earlier answers after watching 'neutral' commercials for cars, cell phones, etc). After exposure to the campaign produced by Victoria's Secret, which the researchers used as an example of a 'sociocultural ideal' commonly projected onto the female body, it was found that "salience of these norms may actually alter women’s selfworth."
It could be argued that the same results would be produced from watching any advertisement for women's apparel, and this is probably true. However, most high fashion brands do not actively court teenagers as their primary consumers - unlike Victoria's Secret, a brand that is both affordable to younger markets, has a teen diffusion line (PINK), and relies heavily on social media presence, a sphere obviously dominated by young consumers. While eating disorders and body image pressures can affect anyone at any age, as young women we are often inherently more vulnerable to buying into cultural messages about our body, especially as we grow and navigate the challenges of understanding what our identities actually are. And, as the earlier study shows, young women are also likely to be conditioned to believe that our worth is an extension of our physical attractiveness.
Furthermore, the example set by Victoria's Secret and the strict size regulations that they hold for their posse of elite models are unrealistically demanding, setting a dangerous precedent for their impressionable followers. Earlier this year, former 'Angel' Erin Heatherton spoke out about being relentlessly told to lose weight in the lead-up to her final two shows for the lingerie brand, despite working out twice per day and maintaining a healthy diet. In the short period between casting and the show (approximately a month), models are expected to achieve the same body fat percentage as Olympic athletes. Many, as revealed by Adriana Lima in 2011, even subscribe to liquid-only diets in the weeks preceding the show, and in order to receive the necessary amino acids, proteins, and fat for energy and proper biological function, these plans have to be extremely complex and thus monitored closely by nutritionists.
The problem? Most of Victoria's Secret's admirers don't have access to high-end nutritionists. Individuals who attempt a Victoria's Secret model diet are almost guaranteed to suffer from severe physical and psychological drawbacks. Last year, 18 year old Christie Swadling made headlines after nearly dieing from severe anorexia, brought on by an obsession with replicating Miranda Kerr's physique. Swadling told The Daily Mail that she began dieted to get the model look, "because you think that's how you're meant to be." Anorexia took over and Swadling even developed malnutrition.
Although Swadling's case may have been particularly severe, its beginnings are anything but uncommon. In considering my female friends growing up, I can probably count the number of them who never compared their appearance to Victoria's Secret models on one hand. Even in middle school, I can distinctly remember my peers sharing photos and videos of the annual runway on Facebook, posting envious (and self-critical) comments, and pouring over the details of which model was the prettiest, or had 'the best body.' This is not an isolated attitude - it is a unique but pervasive manifestation of our culture's obsession with making women feel inadequate.
Victoria's Secret holds a lot of power in the sphere of dominant ideas about ideal female beauty. While beauty standards are inherently insidious (as we've clearly established by this point), we have also seen forward-thinking brands use them to turn discrimination on its head. Tangential to Victoria's Secret, American Eagle's lingerie line Aerie has had tremendous success since making an effort to forward 'body positivity' in its advertising. In 2015, they began an unretouched campaign and saw sales hike 20% that fiscal year. This year, Aerie also ran campaigns fronted by Barbie Ferreira and Iskra Lawrence, (drop-dead gorgeous) models who both wear a size 12-14; sales rose 32% in the first fiscal quarter of 2016, according to Reuters. Financial success shouldn't be the primary motivator to be more inclusive, but for a multi-billion dollar business like Victoria's Secret, considering a less restrictive casting policy certainly couldn't hurt. And at the end of the day, a business model that relies on body discrimination to meet sales goals, is unethical and unsustainable.
Inclusivity is one thing, and should be applied generally throughout the fashion system, but the narrative that VS advances is one of not only exclusivity but superiority. No body is better than another, and no one should be made to feel as though they need to change how they look in order to be more valued. End of story.