Beauty Redefined Blog

Victoria’s Secret: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Sexual Objectification!


Hello Beautiful Friends! This piece was published almost a year ago, and since that point, I have written a paper on Victoria’s Secret that won a “top paper” award in the Women’s Studies division at the 2011 National Communication Association Conference in New Orleans! In conjunction with my presentation in November, I have written an intriguing new piece on Victoria’s Secret you can find here. Please read and share!

In the U.S. and now across the world, a multi-billion-dollar corporation has been fighting a tough battle for female empowerment since 1963, and according to their unmatched commercial success, women appear to be quite literally buying what this franchise 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 being accomplished through the distribution of 400 million catalogs to homes each year, a constant array of television 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 envelope-pushing “empowerment” sold by Victoria’s Secret, the nation’s premiere lingerie retailer.

Due to Victoria’s Secret’s ubiquitous media presence and radical transformation from a modest, Victorian-era boutique to a sexed-up pop-culture phenomenon in the last decade, a critical look at VS’s media texts is now more warranted than ever. Sexual objectification is in no way subtle here – it is central to VS’s varied promotions and operates at the forefront of the texts.  Thus, my purpose in my work is not to assess the level of blatant sexual objectification or inherent “male gaze” within VS’s advertisements, but to illustrate how Victoria’s Secret teaches and normalizes self-objectification and normalized pornography as desirable, self chosen, and empowering.

Where once sexualized representations of women in the media presented them as passive, mute objects of an assumed male gaze, today women are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in an objectified manner because it suits their “liberated” interests to do so.  I argue VS advertising adds a further layer of 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 subjectification, they must also now understand their own objectification as pleasurable and self-chosen.  As an aside, the Limited Too, a retail chain owned by Limited Brands that targets girls ages 7 on up sells “sexy lingerie” such as camisoles and lacy panties – including thongs – in what can only be interpreted as a move to prepare their girl customers to consume Victoria’s Secret lingerie as soon as they are able to do so.

Further, if we take “pornography” as referring to a state of undress as well as a mode of representation that invites the sexualized gaze of the viewer, VS effectively contributes to the “pornographication of culture” – or the normalized state of porn in our society.  In an era when girls and women learn to treat and experience their bodies as sexual objects from a young age, VS’s nearly inescapable media messages render it not only likely but normal for females to engage in self-objectification as self-chosen and empowering.

A close analysis of the chain’s advertising is necessary, especially due to studies that demonstrate repeated exposure to sexualized female bodies encourages women to self-objectify, positively endorse sexually objectifying images and experience body hatred.  Specifically, vital psychological research done in 2008 demonstrated that college-aged women who were exposed to Victoria’s Secret “Angel” commercials reinforced their belief that they should measure their self-worth with their appearance, and negatively affected their body satisfaction (Strahan, et al, 2008).

The accompanying self-subjectification, endorsement of sexually objectifying images, and body hatred 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 conducive to real progress as individuals or as a culture. Feminist values include self-definition, control over one’s body and personal freedom (see Russo, 1987, p. 104), and VS represents a severe distortion of feminism – a faux form of power – proclaiming women can have it all if they can be it all. When the desire only to be desired is a woman’s primary objective, she loses herself, her control, and her freedom.

In the case of Victoria’s Secret, a push-up bra and thigh-high boots are made to stand for “empowerment” in a way that objectifies feminism and femininity simultaneously through its commodification of the female form. I encourage any readers to consider ways they can take their own power back – whether that is through switching the television channel when the VS Fashion Show is on, complaining to your local cable network when a VS commercial airs during daytime or primetime hours (as they always do), not buying or supporting VS products anymore, or passing this information along to others you love.  We can fight back!

Please feel free to share this work, but contact the author, Lexie Kite, through this site first for citation information you will need if using this for a research paper or other publications.  Citations have been removed for the blog post, but the original research contains all proper citations. Paper titled, “From Objectification to Self-Subjectification: Victoria’s Secret as a Do-It-Yourself Guide.”

  1. Bri Christiansen
    Bri Christiansen01-06-2011

    Honestly beyond the packaging and the ads… The biggest conundrum I’ve found is the fact that while the ads present women with HUGE/pushed up breasts… The fact is that you can’t buy anything larger than a DD. I find that really odd.
    I understand that the average is what you market to and where you sell the most product, but I always wonder if they special order the bras the models wear. Or if it’s all the optical illusion. I’m leaning towards a bit of both.

  2. Jolyn

    It is startling and scary how these media messages have permeated our thought processes that we consider it so normal and our perception is so altered. Thank you for reminding us to evaluate the messages that the media presents us. It is an important lesson for women and girls to hear. Good luck in your undoubted success in bringing this information to women on a broader spectrum.

  3. Irena

    It’s Photoshop! :-)

  4. K. Bancroft
    K. Bancroft02-12-2011

    As a man whose eyes are natural drawn toward VS, but who resists and does not give in nor buy its products – I wonder, is it really women spending $5 billion on this stuff, or men on their women in the vain hope they xan somehow transform their woman into one of these models?

    Additionally, I am always baffled that in this day and age the modern “liberated” woman allows herself to be so objectified as a sexual object while at the same time seeking “equality” with men, it seems such a contradiction to me. If women were to be equal, they would not need to parade their obvious beautiful assetts for the world to see on billboards and mall displays, they would gain attention, as men do, through their other equally valuable merits, and their sexual value would be a treat for their mate.

    • Laura

      Your last paragraph is so true.

      However, I have found from my life experience that women who do sincerely want to be treated as ‘equal’ understand that it’s not through becoming a commodified, sexual object. And yes, that would be a huge contradiction if they wanted it both ways.

      On the other hand, those women who do believe deep down their personal worth is measured by being sexually desirable (as prescribed by the media’s impossible, unachievable standards) are more likely to reject articles like this one. I have friends like this. They say things like, “oh, I’m not a feminist” and go off and get their boobs enlarged and buy Victorias Secret. They may as well say, “I don’t want to be treated as an equal”. When confronted about this they make the appropriate noises about wanting to being treated equally. But deep down there is such an overwhelming desire to be more sexier than the next woman. It’s incredibly powerful for them. They believe they will hold on to their man by being the most beautiful, sexiest woman in the room. They let their self worth and self esteem be measured by outside influences.

      I believe that brainwashing is at such epidemic proportions that there isn’t even an awareness or understanding about how disempowering companies like VS actually are to women and society in general.

      I fear websites like this, that offer a critical analysis, are so few and far between to get the message out but at least they are here.

      • Beauty Redefined
        Beauty Redefined02-23-2011

        Thanks for your comments, Laura! In my research on VS and so many other commodified forms of feminism sold to us as “girl power!” for a massive profit, I’ve also felt discouraged by how powerful and ubiquitous these messages are. It’s a bit scary!! And that’s the reason I’m doing it. I feel like I’d only be contributing to the problem if I didn’t speak up, contribute strong academic research and serious passion to this cause. Passing along messages like this can really begin to help us realize how normalized these harmful ideals are. I’d suggest reading our “strategies for girls and women” page for more practical info that you can share with the many women who might feel defensive about this type of research. As I looked deeper into VS, I decided I wouldn’t shop there anymore. I also decided to publish this piece and my larger 40-page paper as far and wide as I could, and if that’s the best I can do, at least I’m a dissenting voice from the harmful ones we are bombarded with! Have a good day and thank you SO much for reading and commenting :)

    • CrueBabe

      this is all so stupid…how can you NOT understand how a woman who feels empowered in her own sexuality, how you think it is so contradictory for her to feel powerful because shes a sexy woman, how can you see that as her being objectified? who said that they NEED to parade themselves to feel wanted or beautiful…how do you not know that they arent “parading” (as youd say) because they are happy with themselves and want people to see that?

      also, do you not think that men are ever used as sex symbols? have you ever seen an Abercrombie or Hollister store? so you cant compare men to women to being equals like you did…because were all used as sex symbols.

      and its not like those models were forced to take those photos or wear those clothes or pose a certain way…if they didnt want to, they dont.

      and to the author…if you think that a VS catalog is pornographic…id like you to actually pick up a porn magazine or see a porn movie…no wait, dont do that…cause then your little feminist brain would explode…cause, OMG they do that under their own choices!

      all this crap makes me sick….

      • Beauty Redefined
        Beauty Redefined03-29-2011

        Hi CrueBabe! I don’t know you, and you definitely don’t know me, but my response is a simple one: Whether you care about “this crap” or not, I fight for women like YOU to be valued for more than your sexual appeal, for more than parts of yourself, and for more than the power you get from being “sexy.” I have a feeling you are more than just those things, and I want you to know that. If you’d read my blurb from this massive research project, you’d know I never villify models, women who shop at VS, or anyone else. I actually decided to research VS because I was a regular shopper there. If I were you, I’d check out VS’s website and click through the thousands of images of women with arched backs, tugging at their hair and touching themselves as their partner would and look at how those images come out of the most predictable templates of any typical porn… And don’t worry, my “little femininst brain” hasn’t exploded yet. Happy shopping!

      • Mika

        I agree with you CrueBabe that women can certainly can and should feel empowered in their own sexuality. But the key word here should be “own”. There is something really powerful about having a lot of body confidence and being comfortable in your own skin. It’s imperative for a healthy, happy life.

        Unfortunately, VS is not running campaigns that encourage people to be proud of themselves and are not certainly not asking people to find confidence in their “own” sexuality. Instead they present a cookie cutter ideal of what that sexuality should look like. That ideal is based solely on one particular body type and really does objectify women. When was the last time you looked at a VS secret model and wanted to be like them or buy what they are selling for a reason that didn’t involve how they look?

        I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with wearing underwear from VS, but thought should be put into evaluating WHY you are wearing what you wear. There is a major difference between buying something because it looks and fits nicely and buying something in the hopes that it will increase your attractiveness. One is empowering because it allows you to be more comfortable and the other truly is disempowering because it allows outside influences to dictate our actions.

  5. Beauty Redefined
    Beauty Redefined02-12-2011

    Our thoughts exactly! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, especially from the male perspective. I imagine male buyers play a role in that $5 billion a year, and I know the male perspective/gaze plays the ONLY role in that profit. I’ve been studying post-feminsim and commodity feminism, and will continue in that route for my dissertation, and I see these messages of “empowerment’ as some of the most harmful women can encounter. They sell agency and equality to us in a way that can only serve to limit our capacities to gain actual empowerment. It is a sinister plan and it is working! Which is why we are grateful for you and others like you who speak out against these harmful ideals and give women and men an alternative and authentic route to happiness and success! Thank you!

  6. Anju

    Bras are primarily for women, right? Portraying women in lingerie ads as if in whiskey/motorbike ads means you don’t get your target audience! And that’s just bad ad sense. I saw this one other lingerie ad and I’m like are they trying to convince me that I need this product? It seems more like they’re telling guys to date only women who wear these products.
    VS have lovely products – but their brand image is just a bit too… demanding? :D

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined02-24-2011

      Marketing these products (and women!) as if they are for men by replicating porn and beer commercials seems like the opposite of a successful strategy, right? The problem is that women have learned to view themselves as objects of male pleasure, so this backward marketing works wonders. Pretty sad, really. They’re a little too demanding for all of us! :) Thanks for your comment!

  7. BeeAre

    I found your blog from a link that Melinda Tankard Reist had on her blog. As a father with two young daughters, I appreciate the work that you are doing to increase awareness of just how damaging some of the advertising and marketing that children/teenagers (not to mention adults) are subjected to each day. Keep up the great work!

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined02-24-2011

      We love to hear from dads who recognize the seriousness of these issues! It seems like parenthood provides a really important perspective on media problems. Thank you for your comment and the support! Your daughters are lucky to have such a well-informed, caring father!

  8. Gale

    How anyone can think Victoria’s secret is empowering is beyond me. I find it to be the complete opposite, in that it makes me feel absolutely terrible about the way I look. I also find it to be incredibly corny and out dated to have these women represented as “angles” with frilly underwear, winking. Argh, cringe!

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined02-24-2011

      It’s wonderful that you recognize that you feel the opposite of empowered when viewing VS! Too many people don’t. And we’re soo with you on the terrible cheesiness of it all. Ugh.

  9. Susannah

    Thankyou so much for this thoughtful piece. Like others who have commented, I am a well educated woman- with many years of Women’s Studies under my belt!- who is seeking to actively reject the false claim of empowerment through objectification, yet I can’t ignore the lurking feelings of inadequacy which linger at the back of my mind. I am the mother of a seven year old girl who is already told that she is beautiful and it is a struggle to teach her that her appearance- and let’s face it, it all comes back to how attractive she is- is not the marker of her value.

  10. Kayla

    To be perfectly honest, I think that demeaning women for their choices in clothing or underwear can have negative impacts on women’s rights and freedom of sexuality.

    I certainly understand that the type of underwear that Victoria’s secret sell is not everyone’s cup of tea, but certainly it should be the right of the woman to decide what she chooses to wear underneath her clothing, whether for herself or for her partner and herself to enjoy.

    I think making the suggestion that women who do like, and buy, Victoria’s Secret apparel only do so because of media pressures is rather disrespectful and demeaning of women who make a choice to buy underwear from this retailer.

    I ultimately think that the whole purpose of empowerment of women is in allowing them to be afforded the same rights as men and nuturing freedom of choice for how a woman chooses to express herself or her fashion choices. Besides, it’s not like most of us even know who has what on underneath their clothes, so why does it even really matter?

    Honestly, I think there are more pressing women’s rights issues like equal pay, equal opportunities in leadership roles for women and reproductive health rights than their fashion sense.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined03-03-2011

      Hi Kayla! Your points are well taken and actually quite reflective of what I wrote about here. This is not in any way an attack on women’s choices or their underwear, which I never insinuated. I never mentioned products or women’s choices to buy them. This is a critical analysis of a multi-billion dollar industry’s marketing strategies. Conflating empowerment and sexiness doesn’t get women very far. Indeed, this research speaks to a much larger issue than “fashion choices;” (it has nothing to do with that) but instead brings to light the ways feminist goals can be repackaged as “sexy” commodities to be bought and sold. I’m glad we agree that there are some very important issues in terms of women’s equality that need to be addressed! This represents practical research that is a step toward our ultimate feminist goals that it sounds like we share.

  11. BYU Women's Services
    BYU Women's Services03-23-2011

    Wow, thanks for this post! It’s amazing how women so often don’t even realize what media messages they’re adopting.

  12. Carolina W
    Carolina W03-31-2011

    Every single time I have watched the VSFS, I feel bad about myself! How can it be empowering for women to be paraded in front of the entire world, and almost naked?! I don’t get it. Why is it that the media thinks that having men’s attention is the way to being empowered? It just doesn’t make any sense. Thank you so much for the article! Keep up the good work!

  13. Danya D.
    Danya D.04-06-2011

    I can understand where Cruebabe feels that wearing a favorite piece of lingerie might give a woman a sense of confidence because it makes her feel pretty or feminine or whatever. Feeling beautiful and confident in your own skin is a good thing! However, I think the point here is not to make a woman feel guilty about purchasing lingerie from VS or anywhere else for that matter. It seems to me that you’re more concerned with the impetus behind those purchases…the unknowing internalization of the harmful messages VS has marketed so successfully. I have also been a VS shopper and I get at least 2 catalogs each week in my mailbox. I have also begun to look at these catalogs more critically, and have been surprised at some of the messages there. The marketing of their PINK line is a particular cause for concern because it’s geared toward shoppers from early teens through college-age students. For example, you can buy underwear and pajamas from their PINK collection featuring slogans such as “Nice Buns”, “Come Visit Soon”, “I Get Around”, “Your Place or Mine”, “Let’s Get Wild”, “Let’s Get It On”, “I’m Naked Under This Shirt”, “Take It Off”, “Stay the Night”…I really don’t think it’s necessary to go on, right?! I realize my opposition to these messages may come across as being anti-sex or possibly just anti-fun! However, that is not the point. The sexual habits of young women are, like the purchase of products from VS, entirely a personal choice. What matters here is the effective manner in which VS normalizes these messages for young girls, making opposing attitudes and choices appear unusual or undesirable. I completely agree with the authors that VS presents messages of objectification by presenting them in a clever disguise to all their target audiences.

  14. Maria

    This is so true! I am only 17 and just looking at their website makes me hate myself. Its okay for a woman to be thin, or curvy, or chubby, or voluptuous, as long as she likes it, but a voluptuous girls breasts on a extremely skinny girl don’t exist and VS promotes an out of this world unhealthy body image.
    Cosmo and VS and all other such things, are just shrouding sexist male pleasing rituals, in their ‘women empowerment’ veil.
    I’m a 34D but then I am just plain average so I also have a 31 inch wast and 41 inch hips and I’m just 5’6 not 5’11. Now does that mean I am not sexy and will never be, and neither should i feel good in VS lingerie or ANY lingerie for that matter till I get down to a 28A (with coconut sized breasts somehow)-a 22 inch waist and 32 inch hips, which btw i find and will forever find REALLY unhealthy.
    things like these should be banned.

  15. Lori

    Thank you so much for writing this article and starting your organization!!! It’s really great to know that I’m not alone and other people don’t approve of the advertisments from VS.

    I’m naturally skinny, and I use to feel insecure about myself when I viewed VS commercials, advertisements, etc. I always thought that I wasn’t good enough since I didn’t look like the models, so met with four plastic surgeons to get breast implants. They promised that the procedure would increase my self-esteem and self-worth, and I would feel great about my body. Thankfully, my gut feeling said otherwise and I didn’t feel right about getting the procedure done. :) I gradually changed my mind set and started to boycott VS, sexual images of women, and other advertisements that promote unrealistic body standards for women.

    I’m VERY grateful for everything that you do!!!! Thank you so much for helping women see themselves positively!!!!!

  16. michelle

    … not to mention their unsafe methods of approaching young ladies these days. Last weekend I stopped in for a quick gander at some new undies. I noticed the new Beach Sexy Bronzing Body Spray’s main ingredient is BUTANE. Yes, lighter fluid. Awesome. And how is this sexy???

  17. Sam

    Can I please get the citation for this? I am doing a scholarly research paper on this issue and would like to cite this article. Thank you!

  18. Sarah

    I completely and utterly disagree with this post. The fact that it won “Top paper” in a gender studies department shows that there was clearly a lack of any coherent, thought-provoking entries that year. I’m a feminist liberal who spends most of her life arguing against conservative and often sexist dogma; cliches and lines. Sadly, this article was full of dogma and cliches and shed no real intellectual light on any issues. “Women in lingerie is objectifying.” REALLY? I never heard that one before. And actually it’s completely false.

    The main problem with VS, is the same as all other advertising, it’s lies, you will not become sexier nor more empowered through buying their products. That is something from the inside.

    As for promoting sex appeal? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; not is it objectifying. The vast majority of those who tune into the VS shows are WOMEN. The likes of Adriana Lima and Miranda Kerr ARE empowering to women. They have amazing personalities; they promote good self-care and nutrition NOT promiscuity. Admiring female beauty is the same as admiring male strength. Both these assets have been worshipped since the dawn of time as they are necessary signs of fertility for human reproduction. The perversion did not come in the form of naked women; but rather from the Abrahamic faiths which stated that the female body was wrong and sinful.

    There is nothing wrong and indeed it is empowering to be desired by men. The only time it is dis-empowering is when it is your PRIMARY desire. But I go to the library to stimulate my mind intellectually and read Nietsche and Aristotle; Marx and Einstein (yes, really) and then to the gym to stimulate my body. This is not just for a man. It makes me feel better about myself; and that I do not need a particular man; because I am an attractive person. It also stimulates endorphin-release and who doesn’t like looking in the mirror at a beautiful reflection? It doesn’t mean that is my only/primary means of fulfillment in life. I have many.

    Physical beauty IS linked to self-confidence and health; and feminists who try to deny that give feminism a bad name; resort to tired and unintellectually inspiring cliches and to be quite frank: come across as physically unattractive women who resent attractive women. There is nothing more misogynistic than that.

    All the VS angels I have watched seem like genuinely decent people; independent and intelligent, which can be said for a lot of self-identified feminist women.

    We need to unite against the REAL problems women face; such as hardcore pornography where women are co-erced into unwanted sexual acts; unequal pay scales; lack of women in leadership and many of the atrocities committed against women around the world.

    These are the actual problems to be addressed.

    • Natalie

      Sara- I understand your point but I don’t see why, in order to make that point, you have to completely bash this article. Many would agree that hardcore porn, lack of women in leadership and unequal pay scales are bigger issues. However, the oversexualization of females protrayed by VS also has consequences on our society..on both men and women! And even if you do not believe so, many other women and men do. I think women will have a better chance at overcoming the various oppressions of women if we don’t work against one another. We want to hear your views on this topic as well. But at the same time, support this post for what it’s worth because, While it may not be the our biggest problem, it is still in support of creating a better and stronger future for women.

    • Maria de lourdes
      Maria de lourdes09-07-2013

      Sara…tell me darling,if men are seeing in the same way,tell me if you see naked men as a model for young boys;tell me what is the use of reading Einstein and Marx ( and misoginistic men without critical sense,like Nietsche and Aristotle) if you see yourself as a sexual commodity.Is that to be intelligent? well,that´s why many men around the world doubt about our mental skills.

      We women read Einstain but never try to be like him.We spend our energies trying to be the sexual commodities men said we must be to be happy.And you say that´s ok to think our power is to be attractive to men,when their power has other basis.Very smart…don´t forget that men who try to be attarctive to women is “metrossexual”,”real powerfull men” get women no matter if they are ugly or old.

      For a women who says that like to stimulate her mind intellectually,not understanding this point and the link it has with violence etc against women is very odd…

  19. Maria de lourdes
    Maria de lourdes09-07-2013

    “All the VS angels I have watched seem like genuinely decent people; independent and intelligent, which can be said for a lot of self-identified feminist women.”

    If sexist women have always a excuse to do what they do,we won´t go to anywhere.That´s why we never win in this matter: we give excuses for the women who endorsses the sexist culture.

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