By Jennifer Weiner
Ms. Weiner is the author, most recently, of the novel “That Summer.”
For as long as I’ve been a woman, I’ve been haunted by Angels.
In ads and on billboards, in Victoria’s Secret’s prime-time runway show and every time I went to a mall in the 1990s, I saw them: the flat bellies, narrow hips, toned thighs and improbably full bosoms of the elite models chosen to represent the lingerie brand as Victoria’s Secret Angels. In their bras, panties and elaborately feathered wings, they set a standard that the 99.99 percent of women not gifted with supermodel genetics could never meet.
It was a standard that even the Angels themselves struggled to attain. Whispers about disordered eating and starvation-level pre-runway-show diets would occasionally trickle down from the heavens. But what American girls and women heard or read or knew paled in comparison to what we saw: on the billboards, on the runway, in the catalogs that would arrive at our houses on what felt like a weekly basis. You couldn’t get away from the Angels any more than you, a mortal, could hope to attain their bodies.
This didn’t stop mere mortals from trying: For years, fashion magazines ran stories of reporters attempting any one of several Angel diets (the nutritionist for the veteran Angel Adriana Lima reportedly calls for 1,500 calories and two liters of water a day) and exercise regimens (ballet workouts are apparently popular). Their bodies were the bodies all of us were supposed to want.
Times have changed. Brands work to be more inclusive, to carry sizes above 12 or 14 and colors in a less narrow range of pinkish “flesh” tones. Victoria’s Secret hasn’t kept up, and as a result, it has started to look out of touch. The fashion show is off the air, after ratings dropped from 10 million in 2010 to 3 million in 2018. And as L Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, explored a sale last year, it shuttered hundreds of stores. (It is now reportedly spinning off Victoria’s Secret into its own company.)
L Brands has also had to scramble its crisis communications teams after several foot-in-mouth moments: In a 2018 interview with Vogue, Ed Razek, then the chief marketing officer, bluntly asserted that Victoria’s Secret had no plans to include plus-size or trans models in its shows. His explanation didn’t help: “Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.”
There have been reports of a toxic workplace and male executives treating models like their personal playthings. And in 2019, it emerged that the financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was a longtime friend of L Brands chairman Leslie Wexner. For years, Mr. Epstein managed Mr. Wexner’s billions and represented himself as a Victoria’s Secret modeling scout in order to lure women into hotel rooms. According to the women and court filings, at least two of those “auditions” ended in assault.
Meanwhile, competitors have emerged from all quarters, perhaps none as fierce as Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty brand, which debuted in 2018 and proudly showcased the kinds of bodies Victoria’s Secret had deemed outside its margins. While V.S. was ignoring plus-size women and casting Angels who were always thin and almost always white, Savage x Fenty offered size 3X panties and 44DDD bras. In Savage x Fenty’s inaugural show in 2018, the model Slick Woods, who was pregnant at the time, took to the runway in heels and lingerie, then gave birth later that evening.
Rocked by scandals and blasted by critics, Victoria’s Secret announced this week that its Angels will be replaced by a group of seven accomplished women called “The VS Collective,” including soccer star Megan Rapinoe, skier Eileen Gu, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Paloma Elsesser, a biracial model and inclusivity advocate who wears a size 14 (and has walked in Savage x Fenty shows).
“When the world was changing, we were too slow to respond,” said Martin Waters, the former head of Victoria’s Secret’s international business, who became its chief executive in February.
The belated about-face is cynical and calculated — a move that stinks of desperation. It’s also important.
As tempting as it is to want to burn it all down, Victoria and her secrets are likely to endure. This might be a brand in decline, but it’s still one of the biggest players in the game. In the United States, Victoria’s Secret had a 19 percent share of the women’s intimates apparel market in December of 2020, according to WWD. That’s down significantly from its 2015 heyday, when the company held a 32 percent market share. It’s also up from its 16 percent market share in the spring of 2020, an improvement that WWD hailed as a sign of a comeback. In any case, with more than $5 billion in annual sales and 32,000 people employed in a global retail network of about 1,400 stores, Victoria’s Secret still dwarfs Savage x Fenty's $150 million in annual revenue.
Yes, there are plenty of genuinely inclusive lingerie brands, some of which have been that way from the beginning. But those companies are not necessarily at your local mall. Their ads are not running during the Super Bowl. Their billboards are not in your face — or in your daughter’s face.
The VS Collective is far too little, and it comes way too late. These are baby steps, especially when you compare Victoria’s Secret to other apparel brands that have made far more significant leaps forward, such as Athleta’s showcasing of older, white-haired models and Universal Standard’s range of sizes up to 4XL.
But representation still matters. Seeing ourselves — and especially seeing ourselves as beautiful and desirable — matters. If Victoria’s Secret’s new additions mean that even one girl feels a little more worthy, then those are steps in the right direction.
Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) is the author, most recently, of the novel “That Summer.”
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