On Tuesday night, CBS aired yet another edition of the famed Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Yes, I watched it. I tuned in because I love Harry Styles (which I’ve written about before), and he was performing on the runway. This was the first time I’ve ever watched the show, and it’s safe to say it will also be my last.
I didn’t expect much going into it. After all, this is 2017. Watching size-0, genetically blessed women peacock down a stage in panties is not exactly de rigueur in our current cultural climate of unprecedented sexual assault allegations and stark uncertainty regarding gender equality and women’s rights. But when I watched it, I didn’t feel upset over the absurdity of the whole thing (reportedly more than $26 million was spent on the Shanghai spectacle). Rather, I felt it was sort of laughable. Honestly, that this much hype is still created around a glorified beauty pageant is beyond me (not to mention the zany feathers and pom-poms or half-witted attempts to celebrate the Chinese culture). But then I heard how others were reacting, and I realized that it’s not funny at all—it’s an all-too-clear sign that the so-called “body positivity” about which we endlessly speak is an idea not yet realized.
At different times during the show, my roommates passed through our living room, eying the TV for just a few moments at a time. “Do their legs look unrealistically long to you?” one asked me. The other strolled past with a cutting laugh: “Guess I’m not eating bread for a month,” she snickered. As much as I’d like to think we’re all so well beyond this objectifying culture, the truth is, we’re not as evolved as we think. Sure, things have changed. More runways than ever featured plus-size models during 2017’s fashion weeks. And many mainstream media companies have made concerted efforts to diversify their models and enact missions that go deeper than “Look sexy at all costs.” But in those small moments, hearing what my girlfriends said after catching mere glimpses of these models, I could see how quickly our minds still race right back to that painfully unrealistic standard of beauty that’s so deeply ingrained in us all—including the models themselves. Several of the “Angels” spoke in between struts about what a dream walking for Victoria’s Secret is to them. At least one woman teared up talking about it. When young girls are brought up to believe that having their bedazzled, half-naked bodies idolized on a global stage is a mark of tear-inducing pride, Houston, we have a problem. But this I think we all know. The question is: What are we doing about it?
This year one of the Angels, Lais Ribeiro, was praised for having visible stretch marks on her otherwise perfectly toned tush. Is it commendable that she didn’t hide this completely normal part of herself? Sure. But to pick out a few small stretch marks from a sea of creaseless, hairless, poreless, dimple-free, wafer-thin bodies and go proclaiming that we should all feel so empowered by this act of radical bravery isn’t really cutting it for me.
Less than fifty women graced the catwalk last night. On average they’re 5’10” with 23- to 25-inch waists. In contrast, the CDC lists the roughly 125 million average American adult women as being about 5’4” with waists measuring 38 inches. Sure, in hindsight only a handful of those women (and some men) tuned into the show, but chances are high that the overwhelming majority who did saw on their TV screens not a vision of empowerment but rather a woman they deemed more beautiful and more worthy than themselves.
Victoria’s Secret is selling underwear with this show. But much more so, it’s selling a lifestyle. That lifestyle includes wealth, happiness, self-confidence, and a shiny set of wings with which to fly. What’s not for sale: rogue pimples, cellulite, stubble from not shaving our legs for a week because we’re busy living, and all the other little imperfections that 99 percent of us see in the mirror every day. I wish this fashion show were utterly inconsequential, that we could go on dismissing it as just another pop culture cash cow. But far from it, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is an annual reminder that women’s bodies are trophies fit to be shined—and now more than ever, that’s nothing to laugh at.