Victoria’s Dirty Little Secret
You’ve probably heard VS rolled out a line of lingerie for teens called “Bright Young Things.”As part of the PINK brand for all the teenaged “things” across the world, these undies feature polka-dot hipsters with “Feeling Lucky?” printed on them, a lacey thong with the words, “I dare you” on the front, and so much more. This isn’t some conservative “too sexy, too soon!” cry. This is doctoral research into Victoria’s Secret — a company that profits by selling sexually objectifying and limiting messages to all ages and claiming it is “empowering.” This may give words to the feelings you’ve been having about how harmful this brand is, so read on. And don’t forget to read our latest post on VS published in time for the December 2013 “fashion show!”
Some of you may be thinking, “But VS just came out with a statement claiming they never targeted young girls – this is a line for college-aged women!” And I would say “Yes, they did just make that claim because of massive upheaval among parents and news organizations. But let’s look at the facts: The “Bright Young Things” models and others in the PINK line reflect the less curvaceous young girl-like bodies NOT typical of VS in any way. Justin Bieber was the headliner at VS’s “fashion” show – he’s a tween’s dream. The CFO of VS said what anyone who sees their marketing can guess – they are targeting young teens while not claiming it publicly. Of course VS is marketing to young girls! But that’s to be expected. VS isn’t going anywhere, and neither are those that will back VS til the day they die. It’s pointless and emotionally draining to fight them. Instead, we use media literacy to educate people on an individual level about the marketing tactics of these companies and why it encourages feelings of shame in girls and women of all ages and backgrounds who see that they could never meet the ideals presented. When their marketing isn’t instilling feelings of shame, it encourages girls who feel they could fit the ideal with the right products to buy those products and emphasize those parts. Either way, it diminishes the power of girls and women who have SO MUCH more to do and be than be looked at.” Now keep reading!
In the US and now across the world, a multi-billion-dollar corporation has been fighting a tough battle for “female empowerment” since 1963, and based on their crazy success, women appear to be quite literally buying what this company is selling. Holding tight to a mission statement that stands first and foremost to “empower women,” and a slogan stating the brand is one to “Inspire, Empower and Indulge,” the company “helps customers to feel sexy, bold and powerful.” This is accomplished by mailing hundreds of millions of catalogs to homes each year, constant TV commercials all hours of the day, a CBS primetime show viewed by 100 million, and 1,500 mall storefront displays in the U.S. alone. And to the tune of $5 billion every year, women are buying into the “empowerment” sold by Victoria’s Secret, the US’s No. 1 lingerie retailer. “Our main appeal is for women. We are not for men to look at but for women to feel good about themselves,” their spokesperson said in the late ‘90s. Hmmmm…. Let’s investigate this!
Friends, Beauty Redefined stands behind a solid truth: You are capable of much more than being looked at. And when the most powerful companies in the world profit off of teaching you that your body – specifically your enhanced, bound, lotioned, glittered, posed, surgically and digitally altered parts of your body – are your only source of “empowerment,” they are lying to you. When you find out the truth about your body, you learn the truth about your power, your beauty, and where your happiness can be found. Lindsay and I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in media studies and body image and are now wrapping up our Ph.D.s in 2013 – and I have spent so much time buried in research on Victoria’s Secret.
In November 2011, I went to New Orleans to present this research at a huge national conference where I won “top paper” in the Feminism and Women’s Studies Division! So why not share this with you too?! Right now I invite you to go on this journey with me – I’ll give you the fast forwarded version – and you’ll move from angry to motivated, too. Promise!
Victoria’s Dirty Little Secret: She Got an Extreme Makeover!
From VS’s birth in 1963 as a place for men to buy lingerie for their wives in a classical, comfortable setting to a now women-only club, VS has undergone an extreme makeover. From working women shopping the pastel-painted stores for European-inspired lingerie to lacquered black stores with sky-high photos of unclothed models, pounding music pumping and seductively posed mannequins, this was a makeover of the most radical kind. Back in the day, VS executives were quoted saying, “We represent beauty and artwork. We’re not as explicit or cheesy as Frederick’s of Hollywood,” which is a sneaky way of presenting themselves as “safe” and non-pornographic in an artistic sort of way. The ONLY scholarly analysis of VS’s ads took place in the late ’90s, when feminist scholar Jane Juffer claimed the company was distributing pornography into homes, doctor’s offices, and mall storefronts all while claiming to be selling “decorous products in a Victorian manner.” While she stated no models were featured in beds or bedrooms so as to not appear overtly pornographic, today’s models are sprawled across bear-skin rugs in centerfold spreads, posed on beds wearing panties with buttocks’ jutted in the air and fingers in their mouths, and lying down with only bottoms on, tugging at their hair, reflective of pornography. Besides the obvious employment of digital and surgical enhancement as a new industry standard unknown in the ‘90s, the current “Angels” are oiled up, with long, flowing hair, heavy makeup, decadent jewelry, and sky-high platform heels. Victoria’s Secret has now made a great name for itself as some of the most extreme Photoshoppers of all time. Models limbs tend to go missing quite often, as the spaces in between their thighs suddenly widen more than a living person can handle.
VS’s mission statement stating a driving force to “empower women” and help women “feel sexy, bold, and powerful” is paired alongside thongs on digitally altered pornographically posed bodies in unquestioned ways on our coffee tables, TV sets, and storefront windows. In October 2012, Victoria’s Secret opened one of its “PINK” store in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas — the first time the company has opened a store at a professional sports venue. Remember, their “main appeal is for women. We are not for men to look at but for women to feel good about themselves.” And while the PINK line at VS is “technically” for college girls, a VS executive claimed it’s actually designing for a younger audience in mind. “When somebody’s 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be?” Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer said at a conference. “They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that’s part of the magic of what we do at Pink.” Hmmmm….that logic inexplicably tells us the “Bright Young Things” line for teens is most definitely a line for tweens AND YOUNGER.
Today, normalized pornography like that in VS’s advertisements, catalogs, and “fashion shows,” seeks to “empower” us by convincing us that unlike sexist media in the past that objectifies women against their will, this stuff is “just for us” now and has nothing to do with men. While men are never spoken about in text or featured in the images, the willful objectification of women posing for women is presented not as a way to seek men’s approval, but as pleasing ourselves, and in doing that, we might “just happen” to win men’s (or women’s) gazing admiration. Want a few examples? In the 2010 Christmas Dreams catalog, women have the opportunity to buy panties with sayings, like Page 32’s “ALL NIGHT SHOW” and “Unwrap Me” thongs. If these photos and the lingerie itself is “for women to feel good about themselves and not for men to look at,” who do they expect to read these slogans behind the women? On Page 32, a full-page photo of a model wearing a thong and push-up bra states “There’s just 2 things I want for Christmas: The ‘Miraculous’ instantly adds 2 sizes.” “Sexy, bold, power” means big breasts are key to our power, happiness, worth, and have nothing at all do with people looking at us.
You see, where once sexualized images of women in media presented us as passive, mute objects of an assumed “male gaze,” today we are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present ourselves in an objectified manner because it suits our “liberated” feminist interests to do so. I argue VS advertising adds a further layer of truly harmful oppression. The brand’s official slogan is “We are redefining what it means to be sought-after,” and in this regard, the company is NOT exaggerating. Not only are women objectified as they have been, but through sexual objectification, we must also now understand our own posed, enhanced, bound, sexualized, bodies as pleasurable and self-chosen. Plus, the Limited Too, a retail chain owned by Limited Brands (same company that owns VS) that targets girls ages 7 on up sells “sexy lingerie” such as camisoles and lacy panties – including thongs – in what can only be seen as a move to prepare their girl customers to buy Victoria’s Secret lingerie as soon as they are able to do so. On top of that, now their “Bright Young Things” collection outrightly sexualizes the youngest of females in appalling ways. Thanks, VS!
The time-wasting, body-hating self-objectification proved to go hand-in-hand with such “bold, sexy, powerful” ideals – though ideal for an industry raking in $5 billion a year and expanding across the globe – is not a great pathway to real progress as females or as a culture. The values Beauty Redefined stand for include control over our bodies, freedom, happiness, and an understanding of our power and worth. Victoria’s Secret represents a crazy, fun-house mirror reflection of those values – a fake form of power. When the desire only to be desired is our No. 1 priority, we lose ourselves, our control, freedom, happiness, and worth.
In the case of Victoria’s Secret, a push-up bra and thong that says “best kisser” are made to stand for “empowerment” in a way that basically slaps us in the face. If you believe me – and you should!! – then the time to fight back is now. Let’s take back beauty, healthy sexuality that involves MUCH more than what we LOOK like, and happiness for every female that needs to find it. A few suggestions:
STICK IT TO ‘EM!
Have you seen our sticky notes with awesome phrases like “There is more to BE than eye candy!” One of their most fantastic uses is slapping them on advertisements (or storefront windows…or catalogs…) to remind those who pass by that it’s OK to question media messages that hurt us. It’s OK to push back with a positive message that doesn’t make any money. It’s OK to speak up and take your happiness back! Also, it’s pretty fun. And feel free to buy some of these post-its from us and help us continue our nonprofit work through for Beauty Redefined Foundation here.
Sometimes we forget how easy it is to turn our heads, change the channel, flip that magazine around, etc. If you’d like to see a huge change in the way you see yourself, choose a period of time to steer clear of as much media as you can. That way, you can see how your life is different without all those messages and images, and when you return to popular media, you will be more sensitive to the messages that hurt you and those that are unrealistic. Studies back this up and we’ve tried it – IT WORKS!
JOIN THE FIGHT
If our suggestion to turn away from media that degrades or otherwise hurts you is just not enough for you, consider your fierce influence as an advocate for women. When you come across a company’s advertising that fuels female insecurity or a magazine that objectifies women even as it claims to empower them, speak up! Blogging your disapproval is a great start, and so is posting links to news stories that reveal harmful ideals on social networking sites. Join way more than 15,000 of us on Facebook for regular links to share and continue this conversation! If you’d like to go a step further, write to and/or call your local cable company, network TV station, newspaper and any other media outlet perpetuating harmful messages. Make your voice heard – you will not be alone in doing so.
This blog post is a condensed version of a paper written and presented by Lexie Kite for the 2011 National Communication Association Conference, which took Top Prize in the Women’s Studies Division.