What is the perfect body?
Victoria’s Secret seems to have some ideas about this. The lingerie came under intense scrutiny this past week for their latest campaign, a lineup of models in their signature bra, with the tagline The Perfect "Body." Which suggests that the perfect body is very tall, very thin, and very airbrushed.
The ad, which promotes their Body lingerie line, has incited huge backlash for its tone-deaf messaging. In fact, more than 22,000 people have signed a UK petition asking Victoria’s Secret “to apologize and take responsibility for the unhealthy and damaging message” this campaign sends.
I’ve always fallen into the “tall and thin” body shape. I’m 5’9”, slender, and have even done a bit of (very) amateur modeling. So I’ve heard from plenty of people—men and women alike—who say I am the last person who should complain about the example set by uber-thin Victoria’s Secret models. Since I myself am tall and thin, who am I to speak out against the way supermodels look?
But it bothers me. A lot.
I struggled for years with body image and body confidence. I was the string bean, the skinny minnie, the late bloomer. And while I’m not blaming Victoria’s Secret or other advertisements for my body qualms, I will say they played a role. As I progressed through puberty, I felt like I had to maintain my slender figure in order to be beautiful. How do these newfound hips and thighs work into the equation?
Victoria's Secret's decision to show women who all have the same incredibly unrealistic body type and call them “perfect” is not only inaccurate, it’s irresponsible. In fact, this body type shown as ideal in advertising is possessed naturally by only 5 percent of American females. Yet we’re bombarded with images of toned tummies, perky breasts, and now thigh gaps on a day-to-day basis.
As Frances Black, Gabriella Kountourides, and Laura Ferris state in their petition:
“All this does is perpetuate low self-esteem among women who are made to feel that their bodies are inadequate and unattractive because they do not fit into a narrow standard of beauty. It contributes to a culture that encourages serious health problems such as negative body image and eating disorders.
Victoria’s Secret’s new advertisements play on women's insecurities, and send out a damaging message by positioning the words 'The Perfect Body' across models who have exactly the same, very slim body type.”
But these models are real women, too, aren't they? Sure, but let’s remember that looking like a supermodel is a full-time job. These women are paid based on their bodies. And when the Angels take the stage in the annual Victoria’s Secret Runway Show (the so-called Super Bowl of modeling), the stakes are even higher.
To give an idea of how unrealistic it is to maintain this level of thinness in real life, model Adriana Lima admitted to the Telegraph that she works out with a personal trainer every day in the four months leading up to the show—and twice a day for the final three weeks. Lima also meets with a nutritionist, who gives her protein shakes, vitamins, and supplements. She drinks a gallon of water a day. During the nine days before the show, she abstains from solid food. And 12 hours before the show, she stops drinking water entirely.
One of the stylists for the show likens this routine to training for a marathon. “It isn’t about being a waif [but] being empowered and you can achieve that,” she says.
To some women, this campaign may not seem like a big deal—the word body is in quotes after all. It may just seem like another provocative ad, and as adults, we may have the confidence and wisdom to see this ad and shake our heads in dismay.
But what about all the teenage and even preteen girls? What kind of message does it send to them?
I’m only a few years past being a teen, and I can tell you these sort of advertisements leave their mark—even on the smartest of girls. Teens today see nearly 5,000 advertisements a day. They see them as they walk through the mall, when the catalog (inevitably) comes in the mail, when their favorite websites feature the "top moments" from the VS Fashion Show. The more that young, impressionable girls see these kinds of ads, the more they learn to slowly equate beauty with supermodels and “perfect bodies.” It absolutely takes its toll.
To put this in perspective, up to 24 million Americans—of all ages and genders—suffer from an eating disorder. Twenty-four million. And eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Eating disorders and hospitalizations for eating disorders are on the rise. Another telling statistic: 69 percent of girls in fifth through twelfth grades said magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape. Part of that increase stems from social media and a constant stream of unhealthy imagery. And now we have Victoria's Secret outright telling us what perfection looks like.
The petition and surrounding scrutiny may not affect sales. Because, let’s face it, this is a multi-billion dollar company. But the fact that people everywhere are standing up to this campaign is a sign of progress. A few years ago, it may not have garnered much attention at all.
So I’m thrilled to see companies like Dear Kate, JD Williams, and Dove publicly responding with alternate campaigns. The difference between the VS ad (featuring supermodels) and the other ads (featuring real women) is striking. It’s so refreshing to see confident women of varying shapes, sizes, and ethnicities as models. It’s a reminder of the countless types of women out there—and just how gorgeous each unique woman is. Our little imperfections and unique qualities are what make us each beautiful.
Quite simply, the perfect body doesn’t exist. And that’s a good thing.