It all started out with a revolutionary idea. American billionaire and corporate titan Leslie Wexner wanted to transform the fashion industry by creating clothing that was mainstream and affordable — a fashion for the masses. In the early 1960s, he launched The Limited, a brand that enjoyed appreciable success due to its recycling of women’s high couture fashion trends into cost-effective and mass-produced clothing items.
Wexner’s initial experiences in marketing items for The Limited quickly prompted him to recognize and exploit a trend that is all too common in the fashion and beauty industries: women being pressured into purchasing products that are marketed in alignment with current beauty ideals and body standards. Wexner’s rationale was simple: if you create the culture and control the body standard, then you will effectively control the market as well. In this way, women are subjected to a duality of existence, reduced to both commodity and consumer. Wexner not only wanted to control the latest trends in clothing and fashion, but he wanted to be the sole dictator of what it meant to be sexy and feminine. In 1982, nearly 20 years after the launch of his brand The Limited, he set out to create a brand that would accomplish precisely that: Victoria’s Secret was born.
What started out as a clothing and lingerie brand quickly evolved into much more. As a result of Wexner’s unethical, albeit effective, marketing strategies, the brand’s values and influence began to permeate all sectors of society. YouTube videos documenting the strict dieting and exercise routines of “angels” littered the internet. The advent of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 1995 quickly became a global phenomenon, with viewership numbering in the millions. The impressionability of young girls was further exploited through the company’s introduction of Pink — a subset of the brand that marketed to the young adult age demographic. All of these elements combined to form a chilling narrative depicting the increasingly unrealistic, ‘ideal’ woman. Billboards and advertisements depicting these ‘desirable’ qualities showcased thigh gaps, exposed rib cages and rail-thin models that all preached the same message: This is sexy. This is seductive. This is feminine.
The vast majority of the brand’s success relied heavily on these tactics of exclusionary messaging and advertising. By including such a limited array of body types and ethnicities in their campaigns, marketing strategists crafted a narrow and elusive definition of the ideal woman. The brand’s chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, said that the brand didn’t want transgender models in the show because it would spoil the ‘fantasy.’ And that’s exactly what Victoria’s Secret was: a fantasy. It was an enterprise created by men for women. One that gave powerful men full and exclusive authorship in crafting a rulebook for femininity — a rulebook that detailed what women should eat, how much they should weigh, how often they should exercise, what they should wear and what they should look like.
The social fallout from brands such as Victoria’s Secret began to manifest in the health of women nationwide, contributing to an eating disorder rate that almost doubled between 2006 and 2013. Female activists began to call the brand’s intentions into question, utilizing social media as an outlet to foster awareness. A Lane Bryant commercial that aired during the 69th annual Emmy Awards made national headlines for its brazen and targeted campaign slogan: ‘#I’mNoAngel’. Lane Bryant unleashed a chain reaction on social media, with women from all backgrounds joining in on its call to action that proudly announced “a revolution in the making. No fears. No filters. No looking back.”
As a consequence of this adapting social climate, the brand experienced a steady decline, and the company’s executives began a sort of frantic damage-repair. It was during this period in which they ridiculously introduced Barbara Palvin as Victoria Secret’s first “plus-size” model … a size 4. The VS Fashion Show in 2018 marked the final year of the brand’s old image, as the public exhibited outrage at the event’s outdated and culturally insensitive nature. A news article by The Guardian shrewdly described the final ordeal as a “circus of competitive anorexia” and body dysmorphia that relied on “pitting girls against girls.” Audiences had finally come to the realization that the fashion shows were never meant to sell lingerie — they were selling the bodies underneath it.
Early on in his career, Wexner proclaimed that the secret behind creating a successful brand was curating compelling stories — stories that would serve as “not only your inspirational mechanism, but also your control mechanism.” And indeed, Wexner will live on in infamy for these stories that he created: stories that were marketed for the male gaze; stories that gleaned control through their underscoring of female anxieties and insecurities; stories with cultural and social repercussions that will continue to echo throughout the coming decades.
As women, it is time that we reclaim authorship of these toxic cultural narratives. Many brands and social media platforms continue to disseminate unhealthy body ideals and standards for comparison that beg for redefinition. The $72-billion-a-year diet industry, the $49-billion cosmetics industry and the $46-billion cosmetic surgery industry are all constructed upon false rhetoric that depicts women as not good enough. It is time that we begin to rewrite these stories and speak our truth, embracing a vision of femininity that is flawed, imperfect and courageously unmarketable.
Tate Moyer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.
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