I’ve always loved the holidays, but since I was a teenager I have dreaded one December tradition that has spanned over two decades: the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
Last week, it was announced that Victoria’s Secret’s 2019 Fashion Show was officially cancelled. Although “cancel culture” has garnered some backlash, upon hearing the news of this cancellation, I felt relieved. The end of the Victoria’s Secret (VS) runway show provided closure for a source of anxiety I hadn’t realized I still carried.
Perceived as the “Super Bowl of Fashion” by CBS, the lingerie extravaganza began in 1995 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City and was first televised in 2001. Twenty of the top fashion models (a.k.a. the twenty “hottest” women in the world) were selected as “VS Angels” to strut down a catwalk in lavish lingerie, with cinched waists, perked-up breasts and delirious smiles plastered on their chiseled faces, while famous performers crooned and audiences ogled in the background.
The message was clear: the VS woman—sexy and sweet with smooth skin, silky strands and impossibly slender limbs—was the archetype of female beauty, perfectly packaged like a Christmas gift with a bow (sometimes literally) for the male gaze to unwrap.
The downfall of Victoria’s Secret wasn’t exactly surprising, as the lingerie brand has been slow to catch up in our increasingly inclusive, post-#MeToo world. After years of leaving out entire segments of the population, the 2018 Vogue interview where Ed Razek, then-Chief Marketing Officer of L Brands (VS’s parent company), denounced the inclusion of plus-sized and trans women in the show, saying it would “ruin the fantasy,” was the final nail in the coffin. The stock, $100 in 2015, has dropped to $19 at the time of this publication. For nearly two decades, the VS Fashion Show was a majority stakeholder in my diminishing self-esteem.
I was twelve years old when the broadcast first aired—an impressionable time in any pre-teen girl’s life—on the precipice of years of confusing messaging about body image. It was during those years that I went from being an equal with the boys in class to being reprimanded for wearing spaghetti straps. I came to understand that beauty (and a specific type of beauty) determined a female’s self-worth. Suddenly, girls were lauded more for their bodies than their brains or gym class brawn. Beauty expectations themselves have shape-shifted so much throughout the decades, from the idealized Kate Moss slimness of the ’90s to the Kardashian curves of today, women have been tasked with the unobtainable—stick-thin and flat-chested is sexy! No wait, now you need a tiny waist but a big butt to be attractive!—like chasing a mirage in the desert.
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As I grew older, I began to recognize my privilege as a white, blonde woman; externally embodying many of the superficial traits held by the classic VS prototype, while internally the brand’s messaging was slowly chipping away at my confidence nonetheless. Before I began to be bombarded with the impossibly filtered and face-tuned beauty standards set forth via Instagram in my late teens, the VS Fashion Show was a pageant of the early 2000s version of the idealized woman.
By definition, an “angel” is a spiritual messenger represented by exemplary conduct and virtue. In that sense, I looked at VS Angels as quite literally role models of not only external beauty, but internal beauty as well. I thought if I could just look like them, the halo effect would radiate through my soul and I would transform into the epitome of perfection. Even their names sounded like a merry band of forest fairies: Elsa, Lily, Stella, Bella, Heidi, Behati and Gigi. I would have changed my own moniker to Lulu in a heartbeat.
The coveted angel wings were one of the most iconic parts of the spectacle. From butterfly wings to peacock feathers, the elaborate costumes were exquisite on the exterior (when they weren’t toeing the line of cultural appropriation, that is), but beneath the gilded plumes and bedazzled crystals the contraptions were akin to a medieval straight-jacket.
Albeit beautiful, the torture devices were heavy and uncomfortable, requiring a team of people to lift and put them on—and then, a near-naked model in vertiginous stilettos, who had spent the past several weeks dieting and exercising to the extreme, was expected to smile through the pain in a grand finale of fantasy. It was considered a rite of passage, a high honour, for the models chosen to wear them. Reinforcing the old adage “pain is beauty,” it took me a long time to question: whose fantasy was it?
Only in retrospect would I come to think of the weighted wings as a metaphor for the burdens women have carried on their backs for centuries.
Women have long been manipulated by media and the fashion and fitness industries to fear “bikini season” in the summer, but for me, the shame and self-destruction started in the winter. During the darkest, coldest days, filled with Thanksgiving turkeys and holiday gluttony, all I wanted to do was hibernate like a bear, not shave my legs and pack on enough winter weight to keep warm throughout the chilly months. But the VS Fashion Show reminded me like an annual alarm that my body, with its curves and naturally large breasts, was not good enough. It was the beginning of a marathon of obsessive, unhealthy habits: counting calories, daily weigh-ins, juice cleanses, “two-a-days” on the treadmill, replacing alcohol with water in red solo cups at university so no one would ask why I wasn’t drinking and, in the pre-Pinterest days, cutting out VS models from magazines to pin onto my bulletin board as “fitspo.”
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The fashion industry has a history of all but ignoring breasts in their designs, creating styles that fall flatteringly on flat-chested figures and awkwardly on any protruding mounds. Fashion brands have long referred to anything above a C cup as “plus sized,” despite the average bra size in America being a 34DD. Why, I began to wonder, if there was plenty of demand for “larger” (a.k.a. normal) sizes like mine, did companies cater to the minority?
Even a brand like Victoria’s Secret—a lingerie company whose hero product is bras, no less—was not built for boobs. Following fashionable trends, their products were designed for sample-sized models with tiny busts to showcase their padded push-ups, creating the illusion of cleavage.
And “normal” people aren’t the only ones who have been excluded over the years. Model Kate Upton was rejected by Victoria’s Secret as her curves were “too obvious,” while Jourdan Dunn was cut from a Dior show because her boobs were too big.
In November 2016, Vogue even declared, “cleavage was out,” perpetuating the damaging narrative that having big breasts was a choice rather than a result of genetics. Victoria’s Secret, the gold standard for mainstream lingerie, and Vogue, the holy grail of female fashion, not only preyed on female insecurities, they often created them in the first place. And growing up in a world where appearance-based pressure on women was so deeply entrenched meant their marketing tactics often worked, even when I was smart enough to know better.
After the holiday broadcast, I would go into the store and try to buy the same bras I’d seen on the VS Angels. But they never worked. The problem was that they were either so padded that my boobs poured out of my shirt like a jiggly muffin top, or made of lace so delicate that it provided zero support for DDs. My only options were lumpy, matronly slings in beige or black, or, my boulder-holder of choice—a sports bra. In high school, the guy who sat behind me in biology pulled the thick racer-back straps and asked why I didn’t wear a “real” bra like a “normal” girl. He wouldn’t understand even if I explained, so I shrugged and turned around to hide my face flushed red with embarrassment.
In university, I attended “VS Fashion Show viewing parties,” where girls sat around in cozy sweatpants, sipping wine, scarfing charcuterie boards and bowls of chips and then immediately, like clockwork, spent the next several months “training like an angel” at the gym and “intermittent fasting” (a.k.a. starving) to whittle our bodies down to emulate those projected on our TV screens.
Bridget Malcolm, a Victoria Secret model, wrote in a blog post, “I starved myself so effectively…[it] was not an honest representation of a woman.” Adriana Lima, who won “Most Valuable Victoria’s Secret Angel” in 2017, publicly stated she trained twice a day and had a “no solids” rule leading up to the show. If the world’s top models (and bona fide Angels) struggled to live up to unrealistic body standards, what did that mean for the rest of us?
The VS Fashion Show made a profit fulfilling male fantasies and lining the pockets of (mostly) male executives while, perhaps worst of all, making women think it was our fantasy being fulfilled.
Watching my two younger sisters come of age (particularly with the added pressures of social media) made me re-evaluate my priorities. I realized how strange it was that a bra brand was making me feel ashamed of my natural breasts at the same time they were trying to sell me product. No matter how much I worked out, I would never be able to shrink myself down to what VS had deemed was a suitable size. Eventually, it became more important for my sisters to see me as a positive, healthy role model—someone who could help guide them through the subliminal sewage of “not good enough,” and avoid the comparison trap completely.
As I’ve matured and grown more confident in my skin, I’m happy to have slowly shed the self-doubt that shadowed the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The end of the broadcast, with its antiquated, one-size-fits-all standards, gives me hope we are entering a new era of inclusivity. Companies like Aerie and Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line, with campaigns featuring non-retouched women of every ethnicity and size, are demonstrative of the diverse spectrum of beauty that exists. Rihanna’s September 2019 fashion show was so successful she sold out her 40-piece debut collection in a month. Since the 2018 Savage x Fenty launch, retailers have increased their offering of size-inclusive lingerie styles by 34% and padded push-up bras (VS’s bread and butter) are no longer the driver of the market, forming only 6% of the assortment while supportive triangle bras comprise 42%, according to market analysts.
Maybe next year we can cancel Facetune?