Beauty Redefined Blog

Victoria’s Secret War on Women. Nothing Sexy About It.

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One of the things we at Beauty Redefined hate most in this world–even more than Bratz dolls or people asking if we’ve seen the latest Dove video–is when companies try to commodify girl power or empowerment to sell sexist, objectifying baloney. One of the most successful swindlers of our time is Victoria’s Secret, whose “secret” is telling the masses their marketing “empowers women” and “helps customers to feel sexy, bold and powerful.”

VS NO

Let us say right up front: this isn’t about prudishness. So go ahead and skip those comments. This is about our in-depth understanding of objectification — depicting and viewing women as objects rather than people — which mass media does perpetually and Victoria’s Secret does egregiously. This is about the major mental and physical consequences of objectifying ourselves, or self-objectification, which is nearly inevitable for females living in a world of constant objectification of women (like VS’s marketing). Self-objectification leads us to view ourselves from an outsider’s perspective — in essence, to view ourselves and treat ourselves as objects to be looked at and consumed. This way of living holds us back from everything more important than worrying about what we look like — in other words, literally everything. Period.

Studies show girls and women can’t throw a softball as hard when they feel self-conscious of their looks. But you can say the exact same thing for math tests, spatial skills, weight lifting, and lots more.* Self-objectification is linked to poorer sexual functioning and inability to find satisfaction and pleasure in sexual experiences**, as well as decreased sexual assertiveness, including the ability to say “no” or ask about contraception. How not sexy is that? VS should really reconsider their marketing tactics of constant objectification if they truly want to help women feel “sexy, bold, and powerful.” Can you even imagine the effects this constant body surveillance has on educational decisions, career choices, political participation, mental and physical health, romantic relationships, and everything else worthwhile in life? We’d rather not, but we can’t ignore it.

Boycott with us!

Boycott with us!

So why call out VS, specifically? Because this is a company that is nearly inescapable, between its marketing, storefronts, and nationally televised “fashion” show. This is a company that rakes in $5 billion annually by selling sexually objectifying and limiting messages to all ages under the guise of empowerment. It is pushed into our lives through our mailboxes, in 100s of millions of catalogs sent to homes and offices, through our TVs and computers, with commercials at all hours of the day, a primetime CBS “fashion show” viewed by 100 million; and non-stop TV coverage of the models and the show surrounding the primetime event, from Good Morning America to David Letterman. Not to mention thousands of sky-high window displays of Photoshopped parts of women in malls near you. 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.

This brand begs us to believe, and totally relies on us believing, that our power comes from enhancing, accessorizing, fixing, and flaunting our bodies. It relies on us believing beautiful and “sexy” look ONE very specific way — very thin, tall, young, and wrinkle- and cellulite-free — and that we must achieve those ideals by any means necessary in order to be “sexy, bold, and powerful.” If we believe we are empowered (and made desirable, happy, and healthy) by perfecting the looks of our bodies above all else, we are giving our power to an industry that profits immensely at the expense of our self-worth. What you’ll see from VS is not empowerment, but about asking girls and women to give away their power by doing one of two things in order to feel a fake and fleeting form of “power:” 1) fixing it, or 2) flaunting it. Both leave us at the harmful and stifling state of self-objectification* that hinders female progress,  health, and happiness in every possible way.

1. Fix It!

VS: Where no thigh is good enough as-is.

VS: Where no thigh is good enough as-is.

Watch social media FLOOD with girls and women publishing their body shame triggered by the VS Fashion Show (which aired Dec. 10, 2013). “I am seriously on a juice fast starting NOW!” a teen will tweet. “I’d kill to look like that VS model. What is her secret?!” a woman will post on Facebook. This will happen to a startling degree. (UPDATE: this DID happen to a startling degree. Check out Indy Ink’s awesome roundup of the tweets here). Watch the “news” stories air about the extremes to which the VS models resort to “fix” their own bodies for their near-naked stroll down the catwalk on primetime network TV. Last year, Adriana Lima shared her diet and exercise plan, which we would publish here, but it is a complete recipe for organ failure and we don’t want to promote that crap. There is nothing “empowering” about starvation. 

Not even the “angels” fit these ideals. Interestingly enough, this year, it seems VS has done some PR cleanup after people were concerned about the publicly proclaimed disordered eating taking place among models, so now all you’ll hear is how much all the models eat of whatever they want and how little they exercise before (or after) the show. Plus, on top of the lengths many models must go to in creating VS’s body ideals, never forget that VS has made a name for itself as one of the most extreme Photoshoppers of all time. Model’s limbs tend to go missing quite often, and the spaces in between their thighs are widened more than any living woman could handle. (Want more Photoshop examples from others? Click here). Keep in mind that for every woman taking to social media to announce her next diet to look like the VS “angels,” there are countless others who see the inescapable VS messages and feel intense shame for the ideals they know they will never meet. They will store these images in their psyches and work relentlessly to hide themselves from scrutiny or fix their parts with products and procedures. They will internalize this objectification and spend a lifetime self-objectifying because they believe they are to be looked at above all else. Body shame, which is often triggered by self-comparisons to idealized bodies in media, leads people to hide or “fix” their bodies, and hiding can often do as much harm to  mental and physical health as “fixing.”

2. Flaunt it!

Among those who do not feel immense body shame triggered by these images, objectifying messages like that of VS often “inspire” them to endorse objectification and flaunt their parts as their most important attributes. Today’s VS models are sprawled across bear-skin rugs in centerfold spreads in the catalog, posed on beds wearing panties with backsides jutted in the air and fingers in their mouths, absolutely mirroring pornography stereotype pose.  Today, the normalized pornography of VS seeks to “empower” us by convincing us that unlike sexist media in the past that objectified 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. Need us to prove it? 

  • The annual Christmas catalog promotes panties with sayings like “ALL NIGHT SHOW” and “Unwrap Me.” VS’s spokesperson in the ‘90s said their products and advertising are “not for men to look at, but for women to feel good about themselves.” If that is the case, who do they expect to read these slogans on our behinds? Surely not the women themselves.
  • Sex sells beauty redefinedYou’ve probably heard VS rolled out a line of lingerie for young women (but, really, teens) called “Bright Young Things” in 2012.  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. And while the PINK line at VS is “technically” for college girls, a VS executive claimed they are actually marketing to a younger audience. “When somebody’s 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be?” Their CFO said, “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.” Magical, isn’t it? Get Justin Bieber (2012) and Taylor Swift (2013) to perform at a sexually objectifying, shame-inducing event where you convince beautiful women to starve themselves, put on underwear (or less) and call it all a “fashion show” that airs on network TV for the world to see.  Sheer magic.

The values Beauty Redefined stands for include control over our own bodies, freedom from the chains of self-objectification, 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 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.  The time to fight back is now.  Let’s take back beauty in ALL its forms, healthy sexuality (which involves much more than what we LOOK like), and happiness for every female that needs to find it. 

To join the fight: 

magazines1. Speak up when others, in person or online, talk about VS — whether they’re Fbooking about how many meals they need to skip, or saying they wish their kids didn’t have to see the racy commercials. Any mention of VS is a great opportunity to talk about media literacy (the ability to critically deconstruct and understand media messages) and the harms of self-objectification. Talking about objectification, especially ultra-prominent forms of it like VS, is key to denormalizing it and resisting it. Post this link under their comment. Introduce them to the powerful media literacy lessons at Beauty Redefined.

2. Recognize and resist feelings of body shame and tendencies to self-objectify. Consciously consider the times you are focused on what you look like, rather than fully focusing on whatever task is at hand. When we acknowledge our inclinations toward hiding, fixing, or flaunting our bodies in an attempt to gain power, we have the opportunity to make more empowered decisions as thinking, feeling, humans — not objects to be looked at.

3) Boycott the VS brand and the VS Fashion Show if you understand how harmful their marketing is. Do not seek out the images online or watch the perpetual media coverage of it afterward. Throw out the catalogs. Unsubscribe from their mailing lists. Plenty of other companies make excellent bras, underwear, and other lingerie and don’t use in-your-face objectification to sell them. If you do boycott VS, feel free to tell them why you’re doing so via FB, Twitter, their website, etc. We doubt it will make a difference in their marketing (see: $5 billion annually), but it can’t hurt to let them know, especially publicly via social media.

For more on how to help girls and women recognize they are more than bodies, try these tips. For more on how sexually objectifying messages influence girls and women, see this post. For a list of strategies for girls and women to take back beauty, read this. For a post on how to teach boys and men to see women as more than bodies, read this. For a list of strategies men and boys can implement to help take back beauty, read this. For sticky notes with empowering messages you can stick on VS ads in public places or anywhere else (as depicted in the photo above), see ours here.

br VS

This post is a condensed version of a paper written and presented by Beauty Redefined co-director Lexie Kite, Ph.D., for the 2011 National Communication Association Conference, which took Top Prize in the Women’s Studies Division.
 
*Numerous studies demonstrate repeated exposure to sexually objectifying media encourages women to self-objectify (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998; Strelan & Hargreaves, 2005; McKinley & Hyde, 1996; Tiggemann, 2005), experience body hatred (for recent reviews, see Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002; Holmstrom, 2004), and positively endorse sexually objectifying images (Zurbriggen & Morgan, 2006).
 
**See Steer & Tiggemann (2008) and Fredrickson & Roberts (1997)
 

  1. Stupid Bloggers
    Stupid Bloggers12-10-2013

    Comodify isn’t a word. Neither is baloney (the correct spelling is bologna). Are you sure you have a PhD? Maybe you should take 5th grade refresher course.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined12-10-2013

      You are adorable, Stupid Bloggers! A quick Google search will teach you everything you need to know about what “commodify” means — it has 2 m’s, so make sure you spell it right in your search. And baloney is a perfectly acceptable variant of “bologna” that means “foolish or deceptive talk; nonsense.” You’ll learn someday, cutie! Sounds like you could stand to “take fifth grade refresher course” yourself.

      • Tracey
        Tracey12-12-2013

        Beauty Redefined – checkmate.great answer!!!

  2. Lindsay
    Lindsay12-11-2013

    I’ve heard your presentation twice and LoVe reading your posts! I have 4 young kids (3 girls) and I’m so grateful for the knowledge and empowerment you guys have shared with the world and me so I can have the tools I need to help my kids grow up in this overly sexualized society. I feel more educated and prepared to handle the challenges that lie ahead for my family and I’m able to recognize the twisted conceptions I have always had about my own God-given body. Thank you, BR!! (I don’t know why I haven’t subscribed to you yet!). Please never stop this fight!! The world DESPERATELY needs you and your empowering messages!!!!!

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined12-11-2013

      Thank you so much, Lindsay! We soooo appreciate your support! It means more to us than you know. Really. I actually just took a screen shot of your comment and the one above you and posted on our BR Facebook page because it is the PERFECT juxtaposition of our commenters. Yours is so eloquent and thoughtful. Thank you!

  3. Tiffany
    Tiffany12-11-2013

    I love what y’all are doing and the message y’all are trying to spread. I have a 6 year old daughter that I am trying to raise on a world that doesn’t understand modesty. I for one have vowed never to shop VS simply because a few years ago, my husband and I went into one of there stores so I could get fitted for a bra, not only where they rude to me, but they refused to help me because I wax plus size and didn’t fit what the manger explained as the physical type that VS want to see on there customers. I’m not saying all VS stores are that way, but the one I went to was. Thank you beauty redefined for trying to shed light on the problems that the media and different company’s try to project as what a women should look like.

  4. Linda
    Linda12-11-2013

    Thank you for the work you do! I knew that there was some photoshopping going on in advertising, but until I read your posts, I didn’t realize how pervasive and horrifyingly dehumanizing it really is. (I don’t read most of those type of magazines.)

    Time to get to the point. I had been telling myself that I USED to be beautiful, because I am now a plus-size and over fifty, and that must mean that I’m not beautiful anymore. After reading your posts and examining my thought processes, I realized where some of that nonsense came from. I can now look in the mirror and love myself again. I am STILL beautiful!

  5. Erin
    Erin12-12-2013

    Amazing article. I myself am a Women’s Studies student at the University of Ottawa and I’m writing my research on rape culture in the lingerie industry. This article is exactly what I’m talking about in my thesis. I’d love to get in touch with you further for a possible interview? Amazing work! :)

  6. Jerilyn
    Jerilyn12-17-2013

    I love you guys! I made a joke on FB saying “Victoria’s Secret commercials are so true to life. My friends and I always hang out in our underwear” And somebody asked me: “Why do you hate Victoria’s Secret models so much?? Just curious” To which I responded ” Just to make it clear, I don’t dislike nor am I jealous of Victoria’s Secret models. THE OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN DISGUSTS ME TO MY CORE!!!! This is amplified by the fact that I have 2 little girls. Body shaming, sexualization, and objectification starts with children younger and younger. A&F selling padded bras for 1st graders? Justice selling string bikini underwear that could fit my 6 year old? People are so desensitized to this BS!! It’s disgusting.” and of course I added a link to this blog ;-)

  7. Michelle
    Michelle05-02-2014

    I am glad to know that there are other people out there who do not feel what Victoria Secret does is right. I have shopped at Victoria Secret now for a long time because I like the way their products fit on me, but the way their advertising really is getting to me. What I don’t get is that people will still shop there whether or not there is a giant half naked woman on billboards/commercials, so why waste the money, time, or effort to do that.. I understand catalogs or maybe some in the store, but what they are doing is extremely objectifying to women. So many people talk trash about the idea of modesty these days, though, and it is really kind of scary, because all I can think of is that it probably will get worse in the future if nothing is done. I’m not ugly by any means and I’m really quite skinny and I’m not jealous of those models but it’s bad when I feel so uncomfortable about these pictures that I do not like going to the mall with my boyfriend, let alone into the store. I really think people should not be flaunting off their bodies for the whole world and giving a false idea of what true beauty is. I actually am trying to be doing some modeling myself, but more and more companies are following along Victoria secrets way of doing business that I am afraid I might not be able to do anything major because I am not going to stoop to their level. I think my body should not be exploited to people who I do not love let alone know. I have grown up around kids my whole life because my mom runs a daycare out of her house and it is really discouraging when the elementary school kids are talking about sexual things that they shouldn’t be at that age. But who can blame them from talking about it? I mean the sexual references are everywhere! The music they listen to, the tv at home, they can’t even go to the mall without seeing the “beauty” of the Victoria secret models or the American Eagle models. Girls and boys are becoming younger and younger when learning about sex and what “hot” people should look like. I do not have kids yet, one day probably (I am only 21) but I do not want to raise them in a place where surface values are what are praised and glorified over who they truly are in their soul. I wish more girls and guys my age felt this way as strongly as I do, because it is definitely hard feeling this way when not many people support this view. But I stand by what and how I feel about these excessive uses of nudity in the public and media, even if everyone else around me says otherwise. I would really appreciate suggestions on where to get good fitting bras and thongs, because I really would not like to support these stores any more than I have to.

    • Merissa
      Merissa05-10-2014

      @Michelle – I feel much the same way as you do, and I also happen to be 21. It’s nice to know there are other young women out there who care a lot about this issue. It’s hard not to feel upset when many shows, movies and advertisements attempt to seduce men with unrealistic images and portrayals of women while telling women how to improve their appearance. I avoid watching more mainstream movies and TV shows with my boyfriend because they consistently contain female sexual objectification; this usually makes me feel like I’m watching a movie/show/soft-porno directed by a horny, 15-year-old boy … not really what I’m into. The inequality makes me angry and sad, and what makes it harder is that as respectful and loving and reassuring as my boyfriend is, he will never understand what it is like to be the victim of these ridiculous messages.

      Also, the store Aerie has a nice selection of bras/underwear AND recently they’ve stopped photoshopping their models. I feel much better about seeing a model with a realistic body than seeing a starving, photoshopped VS model!!!

  8. Hillary
    Hillary06-03-2014

    My friend brought up an excellent point. I’m embarrased to say that I didn’t realize it myself. In the above post about VS which I shared on Facebook, why were their images even shown? Whether for good or bad, sex sells. I appreciate the images showing ridiculous air brushing and altered bodies which points out the industry’s lies, but there was no need to show the VS models images with the FB meme. The more we even see the images the more normal they become, and more effort is needed to mentally fight that I do not need to look like the perceived norm. Perhaps consider more seriously the images which you use to spread your very important message.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined06-03-2014

      Hi Hillary! Thanks for your comment. We are verrrry careful about the images we show on social media and our site (as you’re probably aware). With this one, we decided to show their faces and a small amount of their shoulders to allude to the fact that they are one of many examples where females are regularly naked and men aren’t. We made the deliberate choice to show their faces, but nothing sexually objectifying – which we’re highly against. Thanks for your input, and believe me, we almost never show actual bodies and never anything sexually objectifying, but when we do show faces/shoulders or anything else, it’s on purpose! It’s all in the name of media literacy.

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