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Race, Colorism, and Body Misrepresentation: What Victoria’s Secret is Missing

Race, Colorism, and Body Misrepresentation: What Victoria’s Secret is Missing

Race, Colorism, and Body Misrepresentation: What Victoria’s Secret is Missing

Victoria’s Secret, the well-known and highly sought-after lingerie giant, is no stranger to backlash in campaigns and marketing. Over the years they have been highly criticized for their perpetuation of idealism in women. However, in 2016 they released their campaign titled “The Perfect ‘Body’”. The ads featured the Angels, their spokespeople and major models, in nude colored lingerie posing together. The idea behind the campaign was that there is a bra for everyone, a style to fit everybody and body type, however the campaign showcased the issues that Victoria’s Secret has been hiding from for years.

(Victoria’s Secret)

The company’s main models, known as Angels, include nine women who are meant to represent the brand and uphold its ideals. Every one of them has almost the exact same body type and beauty ideals. While in recent years the models have come to include several women of color including Lais Riberio and Jasmine Tookes, two black women, they still represent a Eurocentric ideal. This means that, while they may be racially diverse, they hold features that make them closer to a white and western beauty standard, such as straight hair, small features, big eyes, light skin, etc.

This representation of “The Perfect ‘Body’” caught many people’s attention because of the brand’s models body types. After initial backlash on the campaign’s title, because it sent the message that the models had the perfect body, the company shifted their tagline to “A Body for EveryBody.”

(Victoria’s Secret)

While this seems like a more appeasing and inclusive idea, the message that viewers received was not as intended. There was not everybody represented in the campaign images, therefore it wasn’t for everybody but instead still for that perfect body. There was no diversity in size and very limited diversity in the representation of people of color.

To continue the issues behind the brand’s unsuccessful attempt to market perfect fit bras and underwear, the backlash continues with the brands lack of representation in their largest event of the year: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Often called the “Superbowl of Modeling”, this event is a highly televised event and brings in massive amounts of revenue for the brand as well as attention for its models. Its intention has always been to be a “fantasy” according to their former CEO Jan Singer (George-Parkin). That was the justification behind why the brand would not include plus-size and transgender models in the 2018 show. While the brand did include a cast of racially diverse women, almost 50%, in the Shanghai 2017 show, that number dropped to 32% minorities in their 2018 show (George-Parkin). This only emphasized the brands lack of inclusion they brought up in previous campaigns.

While the brand’s shows do include a third of minorities, colorism begins to come into play here. Colorism is the idea that being lighter and closer to a Eurocentric ideal within a specific race can provide you with advantages and privileges, therefore you are less likely to experience the harsher realities of racism faced by darker skinned members of the same racial groups. Victoria’s Secret’s role in racial misrepresentation is mostly within their fashion show, although their advertisements also include a more white-washed ideal. This goes back to the previous point that black models Tookes and Riberio are highlighting Eurocentric features and not equally representing those of their race in the way their meant to. None of the Angels Victoria’s Secret markets are within a spectrum of darker skin and they do not have a member of the Angels who identifies as Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, or Native American. During the shows these groups are represented, however they are still perpetuating a trend of colorism, the Asian models featured in each show tend to be extremely light-skinned. The company didn’t represent this major demographic until 2009, 32 years after the company’s founding. Sui He, a Chinese model, has been featured in seven Victoria’s Secret shows to date but she is still a more Eurocentric ideal, sporting long black hair and pale skin. She started modeling for the company in 2011, becoming the second Asian model the company had hired for the show (George-Parkin). The first was Lui Wen in 2009(Piazza). That is grossly behind the times.

(Vogue) 2016 Asian models leave from Shanghai to Paris show.

While the misrepresentation of race is a major issue within the company and their advertisement, the representation of their models has a lot to do with societal standards impacting their female client base. The company’s “Perfect Body” and many other marketing campaigns highlight a societal phenomenon of emphasized femininity. Emphasized femininity is the cultural pressure for women to counter a hyper masculine ideal. Essentially, women are pressured to wear makeup, have perfect hair, maintain a feminine figure, wear sexual clothing, etc. Many lingerie companies run into exemplifying this however Victoria’s Secret does a strangely good job of giving little representation to marginalized femininity. Marginalized femininity is that which doesn’t conform to emphasized femininity, good examples of this in recent years are the nonbinary movements, non-gender conforming actors like Ruby Rose and Amandla Stenberg, and more masculine representations of the female figure in movies and media. This brings us back to the point on Victoria’s Secret’s lack of inclusion for transgender women. Their choice to not feature any models of transgender and plus size status is because they’re selling a “fantasy”, this fantasy is that of emphasized femininity and a standard unachievable by the majority of women.

Not only is this standard of emphasized femininity important in aspects of gender fluidity, it brings up again an ideal for women within that of a ‘white’ looking femininity. This emphasized femininity lacks the inclusion of racial and ethnic groups for Victoria’s Secret and therefore implies that these groups do not fit these standards. For example, one of the major aspects of emphasized femininity is how women act, do their makeup and hair, and generally perform their version of being a woman, which can change from culture to culture. Women who grow up in diverse backgrounds with different understandings of how women should act, dress, walk, style their hair, etc do not align with the box of expectations built upon white culture that Victoria’s Secret perpetuates.

The EVP of Public Relations at Victoria’s Secret told Glamour Magazine the following on their inclusion on the 2018 show:

“Scrutinizing women’s bodies of any size related to the Victoria’s Secret brand is unfortunate because it puts judgment on women of any body type… [The Show’s Models] represent so many important aspects of diversity that should be celebrated beyond solely focusing on their bodies (George-Parkin).”

While the point of this was to dismantle body criticism of the model’s it only highlights the brand’s lack of inclusion for size and ethnicity. The brand covers their exclusion by saying others are body shaming the current models for their body types, this is not the case, people are simply pointing out a lack of representation.

This idea of a “fantasy” is important because it is a marketing tactic catering to the male gaze: an idea of objectifying and oversexualizing women for male interest. VS isn’t making women fantasize about how they will look in their clothing but instead how a man will look at them in that clothing, creating an objectification of the women who buy their clothing. Models in their advertisements and shows are reduced to a fantasy for the male viewer and an unobtainable goal for the female to strive for.

This fantasy plays heavily into the issues with ethnic and racial representation. Victoria’s Secret is selling a fantasy and by not including women of color they are stating that those women are not the fantasy. Women of color become unincluded from the male gaze that Victoria’s Secret caters and reverts back to that as something more seemingly undesirable. This won’t change until Victoria’s Secret includes models who don’t fit a Eurocentric beauty standard, currently their black and Asian models have whiter features, whiter mannerisms, and conform to a white washed pageantry that Victoria’s Secret displays at each show and in each advertisement.

For Victoria’s Secret to remain a relevant and important brand they need to reevaluate their status as an inclusive brand both is size and areas of race/ethnicity. The brands value has been declining in recent years, shares falling an average of 11% per quarter(Safdar). Brands like Aerie, Fenty, and even Target have made it clear that they carry wide array of sizes, their models are not airbrushed or heavily retouched, and their ads represent not only women of color but a variety of sizes. Aerie is perhaps the best example of an inclusive lingerie brand as they even feature women with disabilities in their ads. These brands are building a following while VS loses theirs as customers seek a place they feel reflects their own image.

(Aerie)(Target)

Victoria’s Secret’s business model will have to face some large changes in coming years, “The Perfect Body” campaign would have been more effective with not only a variety of sizes but a variety of ethnicities represented and even some women who don’t exemplify emphasized femininity. While VS continues to attempt to create the ‘fantasy’ of the male gaze, other brands will attract the future customer base by creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for women.

 

Works Cited

Burney, Ellen. “Meet the Chinese Models Walking the Victoria’s Secret Runway.” Vogue. 6 November, 2018. https://www.vogue.com.au/fashion/news/meet-the-chinese-models-walking-the-victorias-secret-runway/image-gallery/8214cec8156a745f350b3d476376a435?pos=1. Accessed February 25, 2019.

George-Parkin, Hilary. “What’s Holding Victoria’s Secret Back From Diversity.” Glamour. November 9, 2018. https://www.glamour.com/story/victorias-secret-fashion-show-body-diversity. Accessed February 25, 2019.

Piazza, Jo. “First Asian Model of Victoria’s Secret Runway.” CNN Entertainment. December 2, 2009. http://edition.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/TV/11/25/victorias.secret.model/index.html. Accessed February 25, 2019.

Safdar, Khadeeja. “Victoria’s Secret Misses Out of Retailing’s Surge.” Wall Street Journal. August 23, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/victorias-secret-misses-out-on-retail-surge-1535047269. Accessed February 25, 2019.

Photos and Hyperlinks

Aerie. June 2018. Accessed March 1, 2019.

Burney, Ellen. “Meet the Chinese Models Walking the Victoria’s Secret Runway.” Vogue. 6 November, 2018. https://www.vogue.com.au/fashion/news/meet-the-chinese-models-walking-the-victorias-secret-runway/image-gallery/8214cec8156a745f350b3d476376a435?pos=1. Accessed February 25, 2019.

Harris, Angela. “From Color Line to Color Chart.” Hein Online. 2008. Accessed March 3, 2019.

“Sociology 101: Hegemonic Masculinity And Emphasized Femininity.” Sociology 101. Accessed March 3, 2019.

Tranchina, Gabriella. “Eurocentric Beauty Standards.” 2015. http://www.germmagazine.com/eurocentric-beauty-standards-a-global-disease/ Accessed March 3,2019.

“Yay For Every Body.” Target. August 2018. Accessed March 1,2019.

 

 

 

About The Author

tsahli

Tara Sahli is a junior musical theatre and communications major at the University of Tampa. She hopes to attend law school and eventually work in entertainment and sports law.

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