As soon as we finish our Thanksgiving dinners, all eyes turn toward Christmas preparations …or toward the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (which took place in New York on November 8th, and aired on ABC last night). I was shocked to see it marketed recently as a “staple in holiday television programming.” Now that’s a stretch. The VS Angels are quite the opposite of those referenced in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” (Does anyone else find it ironic that we focus on VS Angels’ bodies when real angels have no bodies?)
“But everyone cares about the VS Fashion Show,” I was informed as a young teenager, when I told a co-worker I wasn’t interested in watching it. Well, I guess not everyone, because I didn’t care to watch it then, and I don’t care to watch it now.
It appears that I’m not alone. While it may still be the most-watched (and most expensive) fashion event of the year, it has earned steadily declining ratings since 2015. Why is this?
In recent years, I’ve witnessed a firm cry from the public suggesting that the cause of this ratings decline (and obvious coinciding drop in viewers) stems from the fashion show’s failure to represent women of all colors, shapes, ages, and sizes (not to mention showing women with a disability, blemish, or imperfection of any kind).
This is, absolutely, a very real problem. Our society, as a whole, has made great strides in recent years in recognizing and celebrating women of all backgrounds, sizes, and abilities; meanwhile the homogeneity of the Victoria’s Secret models seems to be prescribing a very narrow view of what constitutes as beautiful.
While the models for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show may be more diverse now in terms of skin tone, the represented body image has remained the same as when the show first aired in 2001. Chief marketing officer for Victoria’s Secret, Ed Razek, received plenty of backlash for his recent comments on plus-sized models when he stated, "We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still don’t.”
One plus-sized model, Robyn Lawley, even called for a boycott of the fashion show this year, entreating women in an Instagram post to sign a petition and to encourage their friends not to tune in this year either. She writes, “It’s time Victoria’s Secret recognized the buying power and influence of women of ALL ages, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities.”
And yet, I’m not sure this gets to the heart of the problem. The real problem, in my view, is not a lack of diversity in Victoria’s Secret models. Even if the Victoria’s Secret fashion show turns into a showcase of beautiful, plus-sized, diverse, and disabled women, the problem would not be solved. This is because the main problem with Victoria Secret’s fashion show is not how the women look but how they are shown to the public.
If all range of diverse women were dressed as the signature VS “Angels,” that doesn’t translate to respecting them for who they really are, because the fashion show will beg us to view them as sex objects. Plus-sized women are just as capable of being objectified as women who are a size 00.
As New York Times writer Vanessa Friedman describes the spectacle, “Its essential vocabulary—its approach to the world—is still dedicated to an idea of sexy rooted in the pinup era, when women and their bodies were defined by the eye and imagination of a male beholder; when they were at the mercy of the moguls . . . And that era is on its way to extinction.”
It appears we are still very much experiencing the fallout of the sexual revolution and the women-for-sexual-consumption thinking along with it. All of the “Angels” modeling in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show are deserving of the same respect and dignity owed to every woman. However, as Friedman continues, “To think that presenting women as presents to be unwrapped does not shape social expectations is to fool yourself.”
This past year, we’ve witnessed women bravely cry out against the objectification and sexual abuse of women by participating in campaigns such as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. And yet, I feel that too many of us have not yet drawn the connection between objectification in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and the sexual commodification and mistreatment of women.
If someone asked me honestly if I were able to watch the show without objectifying the women or comparing their brazen, toned, long, and lean bodies to myself, I would have to admit that I would fail. Truthfully, I would be stunned to find anyone, male or female, who could do so successfully. This is not to place blame on ourselves, nor to condemn and judge the models, for it is quite possible, if not probable, that the supermodels sincerely believe that they are doing something truly good—that they are celebrating their bodies. Our bodies are good, after all, so shouldn’t they be celebrated? Isn’t this a great example of the female “empowerment” we’ve been chasing after?
As much as I wish the answer were yes, I have to concede that the opposite is true. The purpose of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is about more than simply selling sexy lingerie—it’s about selling a narrow view of sexiness that makes people believe they need to buy their products to reach it. This, quite frankly, is the crux of so much of our overly sexualized culture. I think Razek’s recent words about plus-sized models confirms this, and I think that simply watching two minutes of the fashion show confirms this. By making a worldwide spectacle out of the lithe-limbed Angels, reducing them to sexual objects, Victoria’s Secret not only reduces the full worth of the Angels, it reduces the self worth of the women watching who compare themselves to the Angels, and reduces the men lusting after the Angels into people who have unrealistic expectations of women. (One man, John Pfeiffer, has the final say on who does and does not walk down the runway, and he admitted to Vogue before the 2015 show, "At this level of casting, we're nitpicking physically because they're all gorgeous.”)
Let’s Get Real
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show does not celebrate or empower women. Yes, it shows off their bodies, which are good, but our bodies alone do not reveal our full identity, especially when diminished to objectifying standards.
The truth is, justifying or attempting to ignore objectification won’t somehow make it magically go away. The solution comes only in understanding and celebrating every aspect of our authentic selves, something that simply can’t be done in programming like the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. We are more than just our bodies, and we are more than just the way in which society views our bodies.
The declining ratings of the VS fashion show would suggest more and more women are not buying these limiting scripts. While that has no tenable connection to the holidays, in my view that’s something worth celebrating.