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Diversity & Sexuality: Talking About the Way We Talk About Victoria’s Secret

Excerpt from The Lingerie Addict:

Sexuality

Very often, at least from my perspective, conversations about Victoria’s Secret and sexuality drift off into the “deep end.” Either you hate everything they’re doing and believe they should be shut down immediately, or you hate women (or some other, equally hyperbolic nonsense). The conversation on sex and sexuality and lingerie and Victoria’s Secret is, like a lot of other things, much more complex and subtle than all that. This year, Victoria’s Secret made headlines for their “Bright Young Things” collection, which elicited several allegations of “sexualizing” young women, in particular, teenagers. However these conversations sometimes have the unfortunate side effect of tipping over into body snark and sexuality shaming, where women are not only ridiculed for having insufficiently feminine bodies but also for wanting to express their sexuality through their lingerie.

This article isn’t about the “healthiness” or “unhealthiness” of Victoria’s Secret’s particular brand of sexuality (and I’m being very deliberate when I use the word “brand”). There are a number of issues with the way VS portrays women (submissive, passive), and I’d love to see a more active, self-aware, self-possessed version of sexuality in lingerie advertising…not just from Victoria’s Secret but from almost every other lingerie brand in the industry. If nothing else, women’s come-hither glances and parted lips have turned into a tired trope – it’s boring. There’s more to sexuality than the formula of pretty girl + lingerie.

That said, I am incredibly uncomfortable with how a conversation on sexuality, at least in America, disregards the role of lingerie (or clothing in general, for that matter) as a way of feeling “sexy.” There are a lot of memes and self-esteem posters insisting that sexuality (especially a “real” or “healthy” sexuality) all takes place on the inside, and I understand what those messages are trying to do. In a world where so much emphasis is placed on a woman’s external appearance, these notices are trying to remind women, especially young women, that there’s more to who they are than their appearance. That’s a wonderful thing, and it shouldn’t stop.

However, there’s also nothing wrong with saying that people can express their sexuality (which, let’s face it, is a big part of your identity) through dress, including lingerie and “sexy lingerie.” While my personal interest in lingerie tends towards the fashion side of things, no one should get to tell anyone else that an expression of their sexuality is “healthy” or “unhealthy” because it involves push-up bras, garter belts, or knickers with words on the backside. Women can wear sexy, titillating, provocative, naughty, dirty, trashy, cheap, or even slutty lingerie and still have a “healthy sexuality.” Women can buy this kind of lingerie for one partner, no partners, or many partners and still have a “healthy sexuality.” One’s underwear choices are not a shortcut for determining sexual health.

I’d much rather see a message reminding young women that exploring their sexuality is okay, and that self-respect shouldn’t be determined by one’s undergarments. Learning what you like, playing around with what you see other people do, and keeping or discarding as necessary is part and parcel of discovering your own sexual identity. Every “healthy” sexual encounter does not have to occur in the context of a relationship with lots of conversation and people being appreciated for their stellar personalities.  And being physically attracted to the person you want to sleep with isn’t “shallow.” There is no need for a false dichotomy here. You can quite literally have it all.

The word “empowerment” gets thrown around a lot, so much so that it’s meaning has become watered down and lost. However, I believe empowerment, at least in this context, comes through taking ownership of your appearance, whatever that may be. Empowerment doesn’t come from creating more rules of what’s appropriate, healthy, or socially acceptable. It comes from letting women, including young women, go through that entirely natural process of self-discovery and exploration. Fun, flippance, naughtiness…it’s all okay. And we can both encourage Victoria’s Secret to expand their notion of sexuality without completely decoupling lingerie from sexuality (at least for people who express aspects of their sexual identity through lingerie). No woman’s self-esteem should be dependent on the underwear she chooses, and that goes both ways.

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Diversity & Sexuality: Talking About the Way We Talk About Victoria’s Secret

Excerpt from The Lingerie Addict:

Diversity

Every year, the bodies of the Victoria’s Secrets models make headlines, namely because the brand doesn’t use any full bust or plus size models. That’s definitely an issue as size diversity is an important kind of diversity, but it’s not the only kind of diversity. Unfortunately, in many of the articles I read this year about the show, the only body image critiques made were about size/body shape.  Beauty standards encompass much more than just the number on a dress tag. Regular readers of this blog know that we often use lingerie as a lens to discuss social issues, and I found myself doubly disappointed this year. One, because Victoria’s Secret has no ‘Angels’ of color right now and two, because no major media outlets thought that was worth discussing.

While there were both Asian and black models featured in the fashion show (a record high number, in fact, which should be acknowledged), the team of Victoria’s Secret Angels are the most visible and famous models for the brand. The models chosen for this marketing campaign also garner some of the most lucrative advertising contracts in the entire fashion industry (not to mention all that priceless exposure; VS practically launched Candice Swanepoel’s career single-handedly). There’s been a lot of much-needed conversation in recent seasons about the lack of models of color in ad campaigns…which is where fashion models make the big bucks and get the major recognition. It would have been nice to see this development touched on in the larger fashion and body image blogging communities.

I would also love if conversations on body image made more frequent notice of age. At 32, both Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio are the oldest Victoria’s Secret Angels. Lindsay Ellingson is the next oldest at 29, while Doutzen Kroes and Lily Aldridge are the third oldest at 28. In addition, Heidi Klum modeled for the brand until she was 37, and Tyra Banks modeled for them until she was 32. Now I’m not calling 28, 29, 32, or 37 “old,”but in an industry that recruits models as young as 14, 15, and 16 for the runway (or 18 in Victoria’s Secret’s case), it’s nice to know that models my age are still around and popular. I hope that Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, and the other women are Victoria’s Secret models for years to come, as there is definite value in showing women in their 30s, 40s, and beyond as attractive and desirable.

To be perfectly honest,  it’d be wonderful if Victoria’s Secret took this concept further and brought back some of their classic supermodels like Stephanie Seymour, Daniela Pestova, Helena Christensen (who’s currently working and modeling for Triumph Lingerie), and Laetitia Casta. Being able to identify with a model goes beyond sharing the same dress or bra size, it can also involve being the same age or reaching the same stage in life (such as marriage or motherhood).

Finally, Carmen Carrera made a lot of headlines in the leadup to the taping of the show due to a Change.org petition that tried to get her on the runway. Unsurprisingly, Victoria’s Secret had no comment on the petition (they rarely comment on anything the least bit controversial), but if we’re talking diversity and representation and body image, then gender identity should absolutely be a part of that conversation. Lea T. and Ines Rau have appeared in several recent editorials and ad campaigns, and it’s a really great thing to see models who are also trans* becoming more visible in the fashion industry. While I don’t expect Victoria’s Secret to hire Carmen Carrera anytime soon, I am glad that the beginnings of this conversation are happening right now, and I hope it keeps going.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but I would genuinely like to see conversation on diversity expand beyond size again. It’s disconcerting to me that many major media outlets, bloggers, and other voices in the industry use the singular word “diversity,” without any modifiers or caveats, to only refer to size. Doing so not only prioritizes size above all these other body image concerns, it also renders these other issues invisible…as though they’re not even worthy of being mentioned.

If one is making the argument that an absence of diversity is harmful to young women, then it stands to reason that there are multiple ways of doing such harm. Any discussion on body image and beauty standards is lacking and flawed when it’s tied to only a single aspect of beauty. While a conversation on size addresses one element of the diversity problem, that’s not enough. Whether the subject of the discussion is Victoria’s Secret or some other lingerie company, all aspects of diversity deserve attention and consideration.

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Diversity & Sexuality: Talking About the Way We Talk About Victoria's Secret | The Lingerie Addict | Lingerie For Who You Are

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