In the fall of 2019, Victoria’s Secret, the iconic purveyor of scanty, lacy women’s underthings, announced that it was canceling its annual December fashion show, a staple of network television since 1995. The show, airing first on CBS and later on ABC, was famous for its bevy of top-earning supermodels—such famous names over the years as Gisela Bündchen, Tyra Banks, Candice Swanepoel, and Kendall Jenner—who pranced down catwalks clad in angels’ wings, stilettos, and, of course, Victoria’s Secret’s signature lingerie. Tall and gym-toned, they were all indisputably gorgeous.
They had also all been hand-picked by Ed Razek, the company’s longtime chief marketing director, who had created the fashion show and been with Victoria’s Secret practically since its acquisition by retail titan Leslie Wexner in 1982 as part of his L Brands empire. But the 2108 Victoria’s Secret show, which cost $12 million to produce, drew only 3 million U.S. viewers, a little more than half of the 5 million it had drawn in 2017 and drastically down from the 12 million it had attracted in its peak year, 2001. It was a mortifying finale.
Victoria’s Secret has been having other problems: dozens of closed stores amid the dying-mall phenomenon, fierce new competition in the women’s underwear business (its share of the U.S. lingerie market has dropped from one-third to one-fourth), and the unsavory fact that convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had been the financial advisor of Wexner, now age 82.
But something else happened in 2019: Victoria’s Secret did an ideological about-face. For at least the past two decades, the chain had been subjected to a barrage of criticism from feminist academia and the feminist press. The critics focused on the company’s lack of “diversity” and “inclusivity” (although it has essentially made the careers of Banks, Naomi Campbell, and other minority models), its insistence that its models be tall and slender, even as the average weight of American women continued to rise, its promotion of an “unattainable” standard of beauty said to make ordinary-looking women feel inferior and drive teenage girls to anorexia; its “androcentric” advertising catering to male ideas of what makes a female look sexy; and its refusal to hire transgenders, who starting in 2015 had become America’s most vocal sexual minority, to walk its runways.
Victoria’s Secret had been a holdout, increasingly the only holdout, in resisting those criticisms. After all, when Wexner took over Victoria’s Secret, it was a tiny chain that catered to men buying sexy birthday and Valentine’s Day gifts for their wives and girlfriends. Wexner had built the company into its dominant market position by catering to women, who today make up the overwhelming majority of its customers (70 percent of the audience for the televised fashion show was female). And he did so by marketing precisely the “unattainable” standard of beauty that his models represented. In an interview with Vogue magazine in November 2018, Rezak explained that the fashion show was a “fantasy”—that the Victoria’s Secret enterprise, understood that its customers knew that they would never look as lovely as Gisela Bündchen, but they could bask in the glamour radiated by Bündchen and her sparkly lace and hope that it would rub off onto them. Androcentric, yes, because most women are heterosexual and sexy unmentionables have boudoir appeal. Rezak told Vogue that Victoria’s Secret would never hire “transsexual models,” as he called them, or plus-size models, either.
Nonetheless, scholarly papers focused on the perceived failings of Victoria’s Secret have poured out from university gender-studies and related departments, bearing such titles as: “Victoria’s Dirty Secret: How Sociocultural Norms Influence Adolescent Girls and Women,” “From Objectification to Self-Subjectification: Victoria’s Secret as a Do-It-Yourself Guide,” and “Nothing She Needs”: Victoria’s Secret and the Gaze of ‘Post-Feminism.”
A just-published paper by researchers at Boston University studied the dimensions of Victoria’s Secret models during the fashion show’s 23-year lifespan and noted that they had become progressively thinner, collectively shaving two inches from their bustlines, an inch from their waists, and a half-inch from their hips. Meanwhile, the dress size of the average woman has climbed to somewhere between a size 16 and a size 18. The researchers concluded: “Our results represent a potentially changing weight ideal of beauty that is moving farther away from the characteristics of the average American woman.”
Furthermore, “fat studies”—or “weight studies,” as some call it–became an academic discipline during the 2000s, Fat studies courses and even degrees popped up on such disparate campuses as tax-supported Oregon State University and private, expensive George Washington University. The courses generated a baseline textbook, The Fat Studies Reader (New York University Press, 2010), in which essays by 40 different scholars decried obesity as a mere “social and moral construction” and declared that overweight people were an oppressed minority, stigmatized by the diet industry and discriminated against by the insurance industry.
The notions of “fat acceptance” and “body positivity” (the idea that all bodies must be regarded as equally beautiful) spread from academia to social media and thence to the professional media. Plus-size women who once hid their weight on the beach in coverups and one-piece swimsuits now flaunted photos of themselves in bikinis on Facebook and Instagram—and dared viewers to criticize their muffin tops. A 2012 article in Salon asked, “Is anti-obesity the new homophobia?” and compared weight-loss efforts to “conversion therapy” that tries to “cure” gay and lesbian sexual orientations.
Soon enough, retail America realized that there was money to be made from body-positivity ideology. In 2004 Unilever, the company that manufactures Dove soaps, shampoos, and other toiletries, launched a “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Its billboards and magazine ads featured attractive but not supermodel-quality women, some of them noticeably thick of waist and thigh and all wearing plain-Jane white bras and panties. It was a gauntlet thrown down to the long-legged, lace-clad Victoria’s Secret lineup. In 2017 fat-acceptance activists turned their sights onto Athleta, a manufacturer of women’s yoga wear, swimsuits, and outdoor attire that had always prided itself on the gorgeous real-life athletes—young women who were definitely not anorexic but who were distinctly sleek and slim—who modeled its wares. The activists demanded that Athleta, which sells its clothing in plus sizes, start hiring plus-size models. Athleta promptly complied, and soon enough, its catalog and website abounded with large ladies jockeying surfboards and posed in yoga positions.
So, conspicuously, did Victoria’s Secret’s upstart competitors in the lingerie market: Aerie, Third Love, and singer Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty line. Savage X Fenty’s edgy fashion shows, streamed on Amazon in 2019, have been celebrations of unusual body types: obvious transgenders, other performers of uncertain sex, and hefty females showing off their cellulite dimples. The fashion press’s response was ecstatic. “We’d say that makes for a perfect runway show,” Glamour’s Abby Gardner wrote.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Victoria’s Secret’s top executives panicked at Rihanna’s successes and its own apparent missteps. During the summer of 2019, it hired its first transgender model, 22-year-old Victoria Sampaio. It also accepted Rezak’s resignation. In October 2019, it announced a partnership with Bluebella, another small lingerie company, whose 2006 founder, Emily Bendell, is a feminist academic’s dream CEO. “I always felt that the imagery in the lingerie industry as it was didn’t speak to me,” Bendell told Into the Fold magazine. “It was often narrow, submissive, and focused on dressing up for someone else.”
Victoria’s Secret revamped the windows of its New York and London stores to feature an “inclusivity” campaign starring photographs of another trans model, May Simón Lifschitz, and body-positivity activist Ali Tate Cutler. The window display, featuring four models, including Lifschitz and Cutler, clad in embroidered black Bluebella dominatrix-wear, couldn’t be further from the exuberant spirit of the Victoria’s Secret of just one year ago. For one thing, Lifschitz, who towers over her three fellow models, is probably the only Victoria’s Secret model in history not to wear stilettoes.Victoria’s Secret now has plenty of what its academic critics have demanded: a dethroning of female beauty—which is not democratic or “inclusive”—and the enthronement of a more democratic ethos that enshrines beauty only if you happen to chant the mantra that everybody is beautiful. Women, presumably, no longer want to buy lingerie in order to look enticing to the menfolk they might love or marry but to “speak for” themselves, alone and unencumbered. Academic feminism has always rested on antagonism toward men, but now it seems to be celebrating antagonism toward anything that makes women feel particularly like women.
The model in the photo above is Victoria Secret’s first transgender model, Valentina Sampaio.