victoria’s secret is out of touch with what women want now
Has there been a shift in what sexy means?
Underwear giant Victoria's Secret is suffering a massive decline in sales. This might be confusing to hear, especially if your memories from teenagehood include a visit to the store that felt akin to a religious experience. It was a glowing pink heaven full of satin teddies and dreams of growing up into a Tyra or a Candice.
It might have defined everything you thought you wanted as an awkward UGG-wearing 13-year-old, but the brand’s wings aren’t flapping like they used to. Last week, Victoria’s Secret endured a 25% drop in sales. Not only that, but a study found that it’s declining in popularity, with 68% of respondents saying they like Victoria's Secret less than they used to and more than half saying the brand feels “forced” or “fake”. “Brand imagery is now leaning toward more natural looks and relatable beauty,” analysts wrote. “However, given how fundamental the ‘sexy’ image is to the Victoria’s Secret brand, we believe a full-brand pivot to catch up with current trends may be challenging to execute.”
Many are attributing the decline of Victoria's Secret to its hyper-sexual imagery falling out favour as a result of the #MeToo movement and the subsequent push back against “the male gaze”. “Politics and style might seem like distant cousins, but they’re increasingly intertwined in a highly politicised world,” Ted Marzilli, CEO of data products for YouGov, told Forbes in April.
But this seems like a reductive view -- women still want to feel sexy, they just want to feel sexy on their own terms. We shouldn’t have to change the way we dress in an attempt to make ourselves invisible from the male gaze. Instead, the male gaze needs to have its eyes popped out of its sockets and stamped on.
The issue is not that Victoria's Secret is too “sexy”, but more that it portrays just one, narrow version of “sexy” which represents only a very small portion of women, and has been conjured up by men. The VS angels exemplify the idealised, impossible form of femininity society constantly tells women to strive towards. Most of them are clean eating ambassadors who nibble on flax seeds and do bikram yoga. The angel’s pre-show regimens are so intense they sound like something out of ancient Sparta: Adriana Lima doesn’t drink water for 12 hours before the show in order to appear slimmer, she works out twice a day for months in advance and avoids solid food, drinking protein shakes and juices for nine days before the show. It is a hyper-feminine, skinny version of beautiful -- an image that is undoubtedly attractive -- but there are many more types of beauty than the one Victoria's Secret displays.
"Women now hunger for more diverse representations of beauty. It’s time we realise you can have soft pillowy lips and cellulite flowing out of your thighs, you can have regally high cheekbones and have acne."
The pressure the brand inflicts on women’s bodies to slot into one very specific prototype continues into the actual store. In 2016, two women documented their experience of bra shopping in Victoria's Secret. They complained that the underwear did not cater to the dimensions of larger breasts: “The bra was cutting into my back and shoulders -- but the associate told me it was perfect. When I told her that it hurt, she tried to sell me extenders. And when I asked if they had a bra that maybe had more stretch, she walked away from my fitting room, and didn't come back."
Women now hunger for more diverse representations of beauty. It’s time we realise you can have soft pillowy lips and cellulite flowing out of your thighs, you can have regally high cheekbones and have acne. The “flaws” on our bodies, our scars, cleft lips, vitiligo and birthmarks, make us beautiful, they are the person details which set us apart from everyone else, preventing us from turning into this indistinguishable mass of bodies. What use is it for all clothes to be displayed by the same unrealistic mannequin body? How will anyone know what looks good on their figure?
I spoke to Mary of Mary Young, a small sustainable underwear brand based in Canada. Their advertising uses unretouched imagery and shows women in relaxed scenarios, smiling in bathrooms with damp towels on their head or stretching out on sofas drinking tea: “When it comes to the content we produce, we want everything to feel relatable,” Mary said. “We do this by showcasing a wider diversity of women and even the settings we shoot in. Lingerie is often portrayed as overly sexualised, when in reality it is a very practical part of the everyday life of its wearer.”
“Women are exhausted and outraged by the mediocrity and, quite frankly, bland interpretation of womanhood that’s largely been promoted to date,” said Rachel Jones of Jonesy, another small underwear brand based in New York. “What happens if you’re a size A like me? Or have lots of cellulite? (Also like me). The good news is that we’re entering a period where consumers are saying ‘this is no longer okay’, and it’s really kicking legacy brands’ into gear, forcing them to show something different.”
There’s also a sense that Victoria Secret’s iconic push up bras, with their intricate wiry frame, delicate diamontes and lacy straps, are no longer in tune with what women actually want. Smothering your boobs in some sort of foamy prison to shape them into two perfect concentric circles can be suffocating. Thin lacy bralettes or sporty cotton underwear has become the choice for most women, from Kim Kardashian taking endless selfies in cotton Calvin Kleins, to Azealia Banks’ voguing around a warehouse, nipples sharply outlined. This is fun, the less the padding, the more tit diversity. Women no longer cower when their nipple pokes through their top, but actually want them to be seen. As Rihanna states: "If I'm wearing a top, I don't wear a bra. If I'm wearing a bra, I just wear a bra."
“Personally, I see women challenging what they've been taught about what shape their body should be, and with padded bras that shape is very unrealistic” Mary says. “Not to mention padded bras can often become uncomfortable and frustrating to wear.”
"While it’s fun watching ferocious glamazons in Swarovski crystal encrusted bras flirt with Harry Styles, it is also nice to see women your size, or with your skin problem, being paid loads of shmoney to werk some sheer feather nightie for Rihanna."
It is unsurprising to hear that a study by the NPD Group found that the highest priority for bra wearers in 2016 was “comfort”, with 41% of the millennials they spoke to saying they wore a sports bra in the past seven days. Lingerie brand Only Hearts also reported a 40% increase in demand for the “barely there look” in the past two years, with founder Helena Stuart referring to it as “celebrating of the natural female silhouette”.
Another problem Victoria's Secret is facing is that their business model relies heavily on the mall or shopping centre system, with much of their appeal rooted in the experience of the store: the drunken flowery smell of their Eau So Sexy perfume and the thumping synth pop beaming out of speakers. But as we know, high streets are on the decline and if people want to experience a shopping brand, they are more likely to do it cuddled up on their sofa, scrolling through beautifully curated Instagram art of rainbow painted stretch marks or warm skin cooling in deep blue infinity pools.
While it’s fun watching ferocious glamazons in Swarovski crystal encrusted bras flirt with Harry Styles, it is also nice to see women your size, or with your skin problem, being paid loads of shmoney to werk some sheer feather nightie for Rihanna. Sometimes we want boobs to be pushed together so they have that perfect black shadow of cleavage, or wear a lime green latex BDSM harness. But it’s also nice to wear white ribbed granny knickers and know that they too can be sexy.