Hannah Harshe: The fall of Victoria’s Secret

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - 7:33pm

Hannah Harshe

Hannah Harshe Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily

When I was 15 years old, I saw a post on Tumblr that said something along the lines of, “Why don’t gyms lock their TVs so they can only play the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show over and over? That would really inspire people to start pushing themselves harder.”

In my mind, that made perfect sense. It was 2013 and I was finding my place in a world where the purpose of exercise was to become more attractive, and the word “attractive” was defined by Victoria’s Secret models. So, logically, I found YouTube clips of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and when I got home from school each day, I laced up my Nikes and ran a few miles on the treadmill, all while watching models Adriana Lima and Candice Swanepoel strut down the runway wearing giant angel wings and tiny undies. I don’t remember how effectively it inspired my workouts, but I do remember internalizing the idea that beauty is synonymous with long, thin legs and silky curls.

But that was 2013. Now it’s 2018, and the five years that have passed feel like a lifetime when it comes to changes in cultural values. Case in point: In 2013, 9.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. In 2017, only about 5 million viewers watched it — fewer than the number of viewers who watched “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” earlier that night on the same channel. Bra sales are slowing too, as more and more consumers ditch the bombshell bra and search for cheaper, more comfortable alternatives with brands like Aerie and ThirdLove.

Despite the steady downward spiral that Victoria’s Secret has been facing for years now, the brand doesn’t seem to be able to do much besides dig its own grave. Earlier this month, the brand faced controversy after Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer of L Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, said in an interview with Vogue that he was uninterested in casting a transgender or plus-sized model in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

“Why don’t you do 50?” Razek said, referring to models with larger garment sizes than Victoria’s Secret currently casts. “Why don’t you do 60? Why don’t you do 24? It’s like, Why doesn’t your show do this? 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. That’s what it is.”

This comment was met with major backlash. Razek’s comments were retracted on the Victoria’s Secret Twitter page, but that did little to appease hurt customers. Victoria’s Secret CEO Jane Singer ultimately resigned, presumably as a scapegoat for Razek’s comments. ThirdLove, a lingerie brand that Razek directly dismissed in his Vogue interview (“We’re nobody’s third love, we’re their first love”) published an open letter to Victoria’s Secret in The New York Times, asking, “How in 2018 can the CMO of any public company — let alone one that claims to be for women — make such shocking, derogatory statements?”

The funny thing is, from where I stand, these comments wouldn’t have been considered shocking or derogatory in 2013. I think we would have gone along with Razek’s comments because, at the time, the show was a fantasy. Women, especially young, impressionable women like myself, allowed Victoria’s Secret to define our standard of beauty. The fashion show, therefore, was exactly what Razek said it was: A fantasy. It was a 45-minute peek into a world where we all had long, thin legs and didn’t have to worry about extra fat deposits on our body.

Clearly, Victoria’s Secret doesn’t define beauty anymore. So what’s changed?

Sorry, Mr. Razek, but we think we’re pretty now.

In 2018, women and girls are finally allowed to find themselves unapologetically beautiful, regardless of whether we fit the rigid constraints of Victoria’s Secret models. Plus-sized girls are allowed to own their curves, and supermodels like Ashley Graham, who graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, and Iskra Lawrence, one of the faces of Aerie, prove that thin legs and stomachs aren’t a prerequisite for beauty. Transgender girls are allowed to embrace their beauty as well, without resorting to the fantasy of wishing they looked like a Victoria’s Secret model. Transgender models like Leyna Bloom, Carmen Carrera and Teddy Quinlivan prove that cisgender models shouldn’t be the limit of our view of beauty and femininity.

Besides, we don’t even live in a world where women have to be pretty. In the 2018 midterm elections, a record number of women were elected to Congress, totaling over 100. We are making huge cultural progress toward accepting women as human beings who are just as capable of leading the country as they are capable of strutting around a runway in their underwear. If women don’t want to be pretty, well, it’s 2018, who is Victoria’s Secret to tell us we should? We have plenty of other things we could be instead.

Do we still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting women (and all people) for who they are? Yes, absolutely yes. In fact, the number of female chief executives is falling, which is a sign that women still aren’t valued in the business world as much as they should be. It doesn’t take too much time watching advertisements on TV to understand that women are still expected to be beautiful. But our definition of beauty is expanding, slowly but surely, and it finally encompasses much more than Victoria’s Secret models.

With this change in societal views comes a massive change in consumer preferences. As the Wall Street Journal notes, women no longer feel the need to purchase “sexy” undergarments as often as they used to. Instead, they focus on comfort, and often look to purchase $20 bralettes instead of the $60 push-up bras that Victoria’s Secret is known for selling.

And, unsurprisingly, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is not an effective form of advertising in a world where women don’t want to watch it. Instead, women seem to connect more with advertising from brands like Aerie, which vows not to photoshop any of its models, boasting the hashtag #AerieREAL. Equally notable brands are Rihanna’s lingerie line Savage x Fenty, which features multiple (beautiful) plus-sized models on its homepage, and ThirdLove, which features models of all ages and sizes and carries sizes AA through H.

This year’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show airs Dec. 2 on ABC, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it has a record low number of viewers. As for me, I still find the motivation to work out every day, but I don’t need the prospect of being beautiful to inspire me — I’m confident in who I am. Perhaps Victoria’s Secret should catch on.

Hannah Harshe can be reached at hharshe@umich.edu.

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