As many as 500 million people around the world are expected to tune into the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, a spectacle that's been estimated to cost more than $12 million, where one bra is worth $3 million. The show will be the same as ever: Tall, thin women the brand calls “angels” wearing pushup bras and giant wings, walking down the runway to hawk not only lingerie but a narrow ideal of female beauty.
Writing about corporate displays of female beauty ideals, whether it’s a fashion show or a beauty pageant, is always fraught. There’s nothing wrong, immoral, or anti-feminist about women appearing in public in their underwear. There’s nothing anti-feminist about appreciating female beauty. There’s nothing anti-feminist about liking fashion, and watching fashion shows, and getting caught up in the fantasy and consumer pageant of it all. And if it were anti-feminist to appreciate, buy, and wear sexy lingerie, then I would have been kicked out of the movement years ago.
But putting conventionally attractive women onstage—even if those women are more racially diverse than in past years—and using them as physical representations of sex in order to sell bras isn’t exactly a manifestation of the feminist dream. More disturbing is seeing the show billed as “empowering,” even in contexts that make little sense. “Plenty of women (present party included) find it pretty empowering,” wrote one Glamour writer about, of all things, not the show itself but the bouncy hair ubiquitous in the show (to be fair to the writer, her point was that including women with natural hair in the show is a step forward; I agree, but still, we have gone so far down the “empowerment” rabbit hole that women are now declaring their blowouts a source of female power). After the show, which was pretaped, model and Victoria’s Secret Angel Bella Hadid posted on Instagram, “Thank you for this opportunity to walk next to some of the most inspiring and incredible women in the world!”
The Victoria’s Secret Angels are all very beautiful, and surely many of them are nice and smart, and some of them probably do interesting and important work when they aren’t walking on a runway.
But let’s be real: Being professionally beautiful does not make you one “of the most inspiring and incredible women in the world.” It may make you rich, or enviable, but of all of the things we should admire as inspiring and incredible, the simple accident of being born with the genes that grew you to six feet tall with razor-sharp cheekbones shouldn’t make the list. That’s not a dig at models—most of us, myself included, don’t qualify as the most inspiring and incredible women in the world, and if I looked like Bella Hadid, I might decide to monetize that too. But that wouldn’t make me inspiring or incredible; it would make me genetically blessed and rich. Billing models as the height of female aspiration sends a pretty poor message not only to girls and women, but to men and boys: that still, the most important characteristic women bring to the table is physical beauty.
One feminist-ish defense of the Victoria’s Secret show is that it’s a celebration of female sexuality. “Guys love to look at a woman in lingerie, sure—but women love to be that person (and not just for dudes), strutting powerfully, confidently and seductively; totally in charge of our gorgeous goddess selves,” wrote one writer at Bustle, adding that most women fantasize about being princesses or magic forest fairies, and “[t]he show loudly and clearly communicates that this is a dream come true for us women.” Another blogger at The Fairy Princess Diaries writes that the show “normalizes female sexuality” in that “it helps normalize a feeling we all have ‘I want to be sexy.’” Notice a theme (other than fairies and princesses)? For both writers, female sexuality is presented as identical to women being admired for being sexy—but these are two different things.
Feminist cultural critics have long pointed out that women’s bodies are objects representing sex itself—sexy things for men to look at and enjoy. In his famous BBC series and book Ways of Seeing, film critic John Berger pointed out that while men watch—while they are subjects—women are the objects that are watched, and women eventually begin to see ourselves as objects too. That means we live in a state of hyperawareness, watching ourselves being watched instead of just acting and enjoying. This is the exact dynamic many Victoria’s Secret show proponents have internalized: that female sexuality is about being perceived as sexy (“I want to be sexy,” as the Fairy Princess Diaries writer puts it), instead of actually enjoying the physical pleasure of sex itself. I haven’t seen this year’s Victoria’s Secret show yet, but I would bet that no component of it will involve or even recognize female sexual pleasure—cleavage will be on display, not clitorises.
This is an old-as-ever idea: that women are supposed to be sexy but not actually sexual. Women should be physically appealing to men, but if we actually have sex—at least outside of certain socially prescribed situations—we’re sluts, or we don’t respect ourselves. That Victoria’s Secret calls its nearly naked models “angels” hammers in this virgin/whore dichotomy: Don’t worry, the brand seems to be saying, yes, they’re walking around in sexy lingerie, but it’s only for your aesthetic enjoyment—they’re good girls.
This matters even to women who aren’t Victoria’s Secret models. A comprehensive review of studies on sexuality and adolescent development by a task force of the American Psychological Association found that sexualization, for girls and young women, is endemic—and girls begin to self-sexualize at a young age. That is, girls begin to see their worth attached to looking sexy, and that kind of aesthetic self-examination inevitably decreases their self-esteem and even lowers their academic performance. In one study, young women who took a math test while wearing swimsuits did significantly poorer than those who took the test while wearing sweaters. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with a swimsuit or that women should cover up; it is to say that women and girls are raised with the knowledge that our value is tied up in our physical appearance, and when our physical appearance is turned into a focal point, we tend to become more self-conscious, and our mental energies are directed toward that self-surveillance rather than other tasks at hand. And trying to be sexy isn’t actually tied to better sex; young women who self-sexualize tend to engage in riskier sex and show less interest in their own physical enjoyment of sex. This shouldn’t be surprising; when you’re primarily concerned with how sexy you look, it’s harder to let go and really enjoy sex in all of its fleshy, messy, imperfect, ridiculous humanness.
Most women (and most men) want to be perceived as attractive, at least to their sexual partners. Wanting to be seen as sexy is pretty normal. But it’s a problem when sexiness is an expectation laid primarily on women, and when “look sexy” is seen as the whole of female sexuality—often at the expense of our sexual enjoyment. Victoria’s Secret is making a whole lot of money off of this packaged, plasticized and fundamentally inauthentic female sexuality, where there is one way to be sexy and one narrow vision of womanhood for women to aspire.
None of this started with Victoria’s Secret, even if the brand has expanded and exploited an existing dynamic. And if feminists only read, watched, and listened to things that met the Good Feminist litmus test, we’d be stuck with a few women’s studies textbooks and some Ani DiFranco jams. We live in a sexist culture; of course our most visible cultural artifacts, especially the ones that are marketed with multimillion-dollar budgets, will be pretty sexist too. Of course corporations, latching on to the current feminist trend, will bill everything they’re trying to sell as “empowering” for women, whether that’s cellulite cream or a pushup bra. And in a culture fundamentally hostile to female pleasure, I’m the last person who will tell women not to partake in things that bring them joy, even if those things are politically complicated—you can and should still enjoy your pushup bra, and you can still enjoy the lingerie catwalk spectacle Monday. But let’s at least have the good sense not to do the advertisers’ jobs for them and pretend any of this is feminist, inspiring, or about female sexuality. It is, alas, about money—and how much of it can be made with an expensive and aspirational display of female sexiness.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.