In 2001 the fashion show aired on television for the first time, and 12.4 million people tuned in. Though viewership has ebbed and flowed over the years (just under 5 million people watched last year), it remains the “most viewed fashion show on earth,” as its constant YouTube advertisements will remind you.
It is so widely viewed because it is the most accessible — and it is truly one of a kind. Sitting in my room at 11 years old, watching Gisele Bündchen and Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks walk the runway put me front-row at a real live fashion show. For someone who regularly stole their mom’s old fashion magazines and kept them stashed under the mattress, sitting front row, even in my own bedroom, felt like a big deal.
It’s always an incredibly ornate production. With fake snow falling from above, lingerie on display that costs more than $1 million and wings that can span twice the height of the “angels” walking the runway, it is no wonder many view the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show as the ultimate fashion fantasy.
Unfortunately, it seems Victoria’s Secret is happy to leave its fantasy world firmly rooted in the past, where beauty means tall, thin and predominantly white, rather than update it to include a fuller picture. After nearly two decades of watching, I’m done.
In a recent interview with Vogue, Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer for L Brands and “architect” of the VS Fashion Show, had this to say in response to a question about the way Victoria Secret views the shifting lingerie market: “If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have.” He later said that he doesn’t think they should include models from either category. “Why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.”
Razek later apologized for his comments on Twitter, noting that transgender models have come to castings for the show, they just haven’t been chosen. He failed to address his comments regarding the show’s lack of plus-size models.
While Victoria’s Secret hasn’t updated its vision of beauty, its competitors have. ThirdLove, a lingerie start-up, is all about embracing curves and all kinds of bodies. Heidi Zak, the founder, penned an open letter to Victoria’s Secret in response to Razek’s statements, noting that the company “market[s] to men and sell[s] a male fantasy to women.” This past year, Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty fall/winter 2018 collection closed New York Fashion Week and looked every bit like the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show should dream of looking. Model Slick Woods walked the runway while nine months pregnant and gave birth shortly after the show. This was just a fraction of the diversity on display that night, while also putting on a damn good show. Other brands, like Aerie, have taken a similar approach to selling lingerie, by showcasing and celebrating the bodies and lives of more than one type of woman. They look like the women you see every day and not just once a year on a runway: women with curves and rolls, women in wheelchairs, women with scars and wrinkles. Commenting on Victoria Secret’s Dec. 2 show, New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman said: “Its models have become more diverse in terms of skin tone, if not in gender definition or size.”
For years Victoria’s Secret has been criticized for presenting a harmful and unrealistic view of womanhood. In 2015, a Change.org petition asked for model and performer Carmen Carrera to be named the first transgender model to walk in the Victoria’s Secret show; it got almost 50,000 signatures. While Carrera was not invited to walk in the show, it has not stopped her or other trans models from speaking out about Razek’s recent comments. Out.com released a video titled “Dear Victoria” that invited trans models to respond to the brand. “Dear Victoria,” began model, actress and activist Jari Jones, “There is no secret. We are tired of your fatphobia, transphobia, and contribution to toxic, toxic beauty standards in this industry for years.”
These toxic standards affect all people. Even in the years I did watch the fashion show, I sort of hated myself for it. Having struggled through my own experience with an eating disorder in high school, the show often triggers a lapse into old thought patterns. Each year I watch it, and each year I concur with one of my friends that it might be best not to eat for two days preceding it, and at least two days after. The comments were made in jest, but watching it has felt simultaneously like an escape and a punishment.
Clearly Victoria’s Secret hasn’t been paying attention. When the company says that women with different kinds of bodies could not be integrated into its fashion show because that wouldn’t match its brand’s standards, it’s just laying bare the company’s clear lack of imagination and vision.
Should you find yourself in need of something to fill the 10 p.m. time slot on Sunday, I recommend FX’s “Pose.” A show that centers on the experiences of queer people of color, especially trans women, illustrates just how fierce a diverse runway can look. That’s my fantasy.