“I don’t think we can be all things to all customers. It is a specialty business; it is not a department store” (Voss 2018, 1) Victoria’s Secret Chief Marketing Officer Edward Razek told Vogue in an interview that this chain of lingerie stores is not designed for women of plus sizes; instead they “market who they sell to” (Voss 2018, 1). This is not surprising, because although Victoria’s Secret is ostensibly a lingerie brand worn by women, its products are always designed according to male expectations. The concept of Victoria’s Secret emerged in the 1970s, after its founder, Roy Raymond, walked into a store looking for lingerie for his wife (Smith 2002, 39). However, he characterized the choices as unsexy and limited. So, Ray Raymond decided to create a new lingerie brand for women stocked with lingerie that appealed to him and catered to male expectations (Smith 2002, 39). Using concepts from Laura Mulvey, this essay will criticize Victoria’s Secret’s objectification of the female image, its determinations of female sexiness and beauty from a male perspective, its commodification of sexiness in advertising, and its overall negative influences on sociocultural body image norms.
Film critic Laura Mulvey invented the “male gaze”, describing the concept of women as sexual objects for the pleasure of male spectators (Mulvey 1991, 58). Mulvey believes that the classic Hollywood film puts the audience in a “masculine subject position” with women on the screen acting as the objects of desire and the “male gaze” (Mulvey 1991, 58). This concept can be equally applied to other cultural industries as well. The New York Times describes the 1999 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show webcast as a “provocation” given its “unpredictability”, and “furtive flickers of something hidden”, and therefore ,“gazing at this webcast was like watching a striptease through a keyhole, catching glimpses of a fuller world that one squints at imagining in fleshy glory” (Smith 2002, 41). Unlike other fashion shows, partners and children do not accompany the Victoria Secret models to indicate that they may be wives or mothers, so the fact that these female models are almost always featured alone in a private place increases the allure and potential accessibility to the invisible male spectators (Smith 2002, 42). During the show, the visual perspective of the male gaze is the sightline of the camera as a spectator’s perspective and that sightline is placed on the curves of the female body. This visualization establishes the dominant male role, with females as passive objects of the male gaze.
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Female self-image depends to a large extent on the male perspective of female beauty (Szymanski, Lauren and Erika 2010, 21). Victoria’s Secret advertisements featuring females are designed to appeal to males but are primarily sold to female customers, presumably to persuade them to determine heterosexual men’s needs or expectations for women (Smith 2002, 42). Renee Redd, the director of the Women’s Center at Northwestern University, asserted that Victoria Secret’s models “are not the anorexic type that women tend to idealize but, the image of the curvaceous woman” (Smith 2002, 42), and the underlying reason for this is that female customers sense that a healthy and sexy body is what men desire (Smith 2002, 43). The views of heterosexual men are accepted as norms while the views of women themselves are largely ignored, which leads to the objectification of women. The gaze of men transforms women from people into objects, so much so that they are valued simply for their beauty and sexiness.
The Commodification of Sexiness
The body is a medium for culture and is able to express certain ideas (Hearn 2019). For example, women’s bodies are often exploited to emphasize sexiness as a medium to sell various products. Victoria’s Secret commodified female sexiness in the marketing of its Dream Angel Series of perfumes and lotions in 2015 (Smith 2002, 46). The models’ “sultry and provocative” facial expressions and body postures were in stark contrast to the pink and white background and to the pure angel wings (Smith 2002, 46). Their arms cleverly covered the “forbidden” parts of the breasts while fixing luxurious wings to the “pubic area” (Smith 2002, 46). A large part of Victoria’s Secret’s marketing success has been achieved through sexiness and consistent glamorization of the female body. However, the commodification of sexiness transforms females into mere objects to be looked at. In live webcasts for example, a certain lens commonly is used to focus on capturing parts of the female body, but not the whole (Victoria’s Secret 2013). Those female bodies are broken down into parts, with each part packaged as an attractive and alluring good. Images of eyes, lips, legs, and breasts show women as fragmented creatures with each part conveying sexual appeal to attract male customers (Victoria’s Secret 2013). This is problematic for society because women are becoming objectified, and in this process of being objectified, females turn into things upon which males project their desires. All of the models in the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show deserve the same respect owed to every woman; however, as Friedman argues “to think that presenting women as presents to be unwrapped does not shape social expectations is to fool yourself” (Thibodeaux 2018, 1).
Sociocultural Body Image Norms
The theory of body objectification by Frederickson and Roberts argues that women have learned that appearance is valued by most people; therefore, women are socialized to take a third-person observer perspective on their own bodies (Szymanski, Lauren and Erika 2010, 8). In other words, social and cultural norms imply to women that self-worth is determined by appearances. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show’s stringent requirements for weight and body fat far exceed the capabilities of most adult women; in fact, these are far beyond the reach of most models. Victoria’s Secret’s longest-serving model, Adriana Lima, told the Telegraph that she had cut out all solid food nine days before her appearance (Stevens 2018, 1). Many models were even more extreme in not drinking liquids (Stevens 2018, 1). However, this show, or this competition of anorexia, is broadcast, streamed and applauded every year. Publishing details of these regimes without warnings from medical experts about long-term effects could lead to a culture in which women are rewarded for limiting and denying themselves. This culture legitimizes a worldview in which food is divided into good and bad: greens are clean, yet desserts are dirty. Any time without exercise is a waste of time, while thinness means control and success. Through Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows and commercials, these messages are sent to female viewers and further spread the belief that Victoria’s Secret models are the standard for beauty. This means that women are comparing themselves to a highly unrealistic standard that is perpetuated by the media. Victoria’s Secret supermodels reflect a body image norm that is misleading to females who base their self-worth more strongly on appearance, which in turn reduces their body satisfaction and confirms their concerns with others’ opinions.
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In early March, Victoria’s Secret announced nearly 5,000 retail store closures (Thomas 2019, 1). The company claims that the closures were caused because the brand was outdated (Thomas 2019, 1). Indeed, Victoria’s Secret became outdated the minute it created unrealistic standards of body images for females. Victoria’s Secret represents limited ideas of what female sexiness could and should look like. Neither their images of females nor their clothing reflects the bodies or desires of their customers but rely on fantasy and the spending power of the male gaze. Victoria’s Secret seems like a store that sells lingerie to females, but they are built for the pleasure of males, for commodifying female sexiness and for selling a constructed image of femininity.
- Hearn, Alison. 2019. “Gender and Sexuality.” Lecture. Western University, London, ON.
- Mulvey, Laura.1991."Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminisms, 432-42. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-22098-4_25.
- Smith, Marie D. 2002. "Decoding Victoria's Secret: The Marketing of Sexual Beauty and Ambivalence." Studies in Popular Culture 25 (1): 39-47.
- Stevens, Jenny. 2018. "Victoria's Secret's Models: In One Diet Even Cauliflower and Broccoli Are out." The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/fashion/victoria-s-secret-s-models-in-one-diet-even-cauliflower-and-broccoli-are-out-1.3708003.
- Szymanski, Dawn M., Lauren B. Moffitt, and Erika R. Carr. 2010. "Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research." The Counseling Psychologist 39, no. 1: 6-38. doi:10.1177/0011000010378402.
- Thomas, Lauren. 2019. "Gap, Tesla and Victoria's Secret Are among the Nearly 5,000 Store Closings Already in 2019." CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/08/these-retailers-have-announced-store-closures-in-2019.html.
- Thibodeaux, Wanda. 2018. "What You Can Learn from the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show No One Watched." Inc.com. https://www.inc.com/wanda-thibodeaux/what-you-can-learn-from-victorias-secret-fashion-show-no-one-watched.html.
- Voss, Brandon. 2018. "Victoria's Secret Exec Says He Won't Put "Transsexuals" in Fashion Shows." LOGO News. http://www.newnownext.com/victorias-secret-transgender-models-ed-razek/11/2018/.
- Victoria’s Secret. 2013. “Video Highlights from the 2013 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” YouTube video, 13:25.
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