I was 17-years-old when I bought my first Victoria’s Secret bra. The year was 2001: Britney Spears and a python made pop culture history, Sex and the City swept the Emmys, and I dove head-first into an eating disorder that would claim the better part of my next two decades. But back to that bra. It was shiny, black, and padded to such a comically cushioned point, my quickly diminishing breasts almost created the illusion of cleavage. But the straps were really the main attraction with every millimeter bedazzled in gaudy, era-appropriate rhinestones. I was obsessed with it. It represented everything I wanted to be at that point of time: sparkling, seductive, and—as the retailer assured me I would be if I kept investing in their products—very sexy.
No seriously, that was the name of the bra: the Victoria’s Secret Very Sexy™ Push-Up Bra. But even with that absurd level of in-your-face co-opting and marketing of female sexuality, I never connected any dots between my own lifelong struggle with body image to the largest lingerie retailer in the United States. That is, until Hulu released the three-part docuseries Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons this summer.
In all honesty, from the perspective of an obsessive pop culture analyst and women’s health advocate, the series was somewhat disappointing in that its main focus was on the misdeeds of the rich, white men behind the scenes—an important story to tell of course, but it felt like adding insult to injury to see the likes of Jeffrey Epstein stealing the spotlight from the victims in this re-telling. And while I’m referring to the literal victims of Epstein’s horrific crimes here, I’m also talking about others who suffered as a direct result of Victoria’s Secret's booming success: its female executives, its models, and the millions of consumers who bought into the dangerous fantasy it perpetuated.
Even though the villainization of Victoria’s Secret is well-deserved in so many ways, it’s imperative to understand that the company was not the first to equate thinness, whiteness, and a very specific allowance of curves to the notion of beauty. It is true that the retailer has been hawking that extremely narrow definition of sexiness since it launched in 1977 (doubling and tripling down on these efforts in 1982 and onward when controversial businessman Les Wexner took the helm). But Playboy had been peddling a similar image since 1953, and Barbie’s unfathomable measurements debuted in 1959. And long before that, women had been bombarded with weight, size, and shape ideals that were largely unattainable for the majority of bodies. Victoria’s Secret is not solely responsible for the creation of an impossible-to-most ideal, but the company is without a doubt one of the main contributors to the proliferation of body dysmorphia that has afflicted generations of women in record numbers. And it’s the culmination of all those images and messages over time that has played a part in the unprecedented prevalence of eating disorders.
There’s another important truth to keep in mind here, however: eating disorders are not the inevitable by-product of an adolescence spent absorbing unrealistic, altered, and airbrushed bodies in the media. These potentially fatal brain diseases are rooted in biological, psychological, and social risk factors and triggers. In other words, to point a finger at a corporation like Victoria’s Secret, suggesting that the images it perpetuated are the single cause of these potentially fatal illnesses is ridiculously simplistic and just plain wrong. But media images and messages can and do contribute to the development of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and more. The bodies we see glorified in movies, television shows, and advertisements inevitably serve as our default standard, whether we consciously make that choice or not. And as beneficial as observing body diversity in our real lives can be for our mental and emotional well-being, it’s impossible to ignore the profound impact repeated, daily exposure to media images portraying one specific body type can and does have.
“Research shows that exposure to media images of ideal bodies is related to depression, stress, insecurity, and body dissatisfaction, which in turn is also related to eating disorder symptoms. While it's certainly not a direct and universal link that seeing these images will cause an eating disorder (if it were, everyone would have one), they are a clear part of a common cascade of risk factors setting someone on the path. If someone has genetic and brain-based risk factors, frequent media exposure of ideal bodies can be the extra push,” says Cara Bohon, PhD, VP of Clinical Programs at Equip.
If the oft-used phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see” implies a lack of opportunity and self-actualization afforded to those who don’t see themselves represented, 40-plus years of Victoria’s Secret marketing would suggest the only characteristics worth pursuing are six-pack abs, voluptuous breasts, and able-bodiedness. The fact that only a sliver of the human population will ever embody those attributes has allowed Victoria’s Secret and other retailers to maintain a customer base all these years; by feeding consumers an incredibly limited notion of “beauty” defined by features they’ve deemed beautiful (“they,” by the way, being mostly those aforementioned rich, white men who openly balked at hiring transgender or plus-size models), then they’ve ensured shoppers will keep coming back, shelling out money in hopes of getting a little closer to that seemingly successful supermodel smiling back at them from the pages of a magazine. But an unknown, incalculable number of individuals won’t just pursue that beauty ideal through their credit card; those predisposed to developing eating disorders due to genetics, health history, stress, or any number of risk factors will sacrifice their lives in hopes of achieving that fantasy.
"I spent countless hours planning what I would do with my life once I finally achieved the thinner version of me. ‘Thinner Ally’ would graduate college, get married, love her job and finally feel confident—all things I was told wouldn't be possible until I stopped eating and exercised constantly,” says Ally Duvall, Body Image Program Manager at Equip.
"Except, ‘thinner Ally’ was just a fantasy created by people in power hoping to make more of a profit from my body distress. I did graduate college, I am getting married and love my job—and none of that has anything to do with how my body looks or what brand of bra I wear,” she says.
And that airbrushed, glossy image of the Victoria’s Secret “Angel” really was fantasy—so much so that even the supermodels themselves weren’t “perfect” enough to fulfill it. In 2011, Angel Adriana Lima told reporters she abstained from solid food in the nine days leading up to the brand’s annual fashion show. Last year, model Erin Heatherton opened up about using diet pills during her days as an Angel, and her former colleague Bridget Malcolm has been open about her recovery from anorexia. Add to all these extreme and life-threatening measures the fact that most catalog and advertising images are doctored anyway, and the result is a maddening, impossible-to-attain standard that no human could possibly meet—but many might die trying.
Mercifully, the Victoria’s Secret “Angel” concept has been scrapped, and with new leadership in place, the company has finally evolved past its myopic vision of beauty and brought in a group of diverse women including inclusivity advocate Paloma Elsesser and gender equity campaigner and soccer star, Megan Rapinoe. It remains to be seen whether this rebranding effort can save the company’s tarnished reputation, but one thing’s for sure: it can’t undo the decades of damage it’s inflicted on countless women. Had I known at 17 what I know now, I may have reconsidered buying that bedazzled black bra circa 2001—or I would have at least known that abusing my body wasn’t a prerequisite to wear it and feel worthy.
If you or a loved one are struggling with body image distress, disordered eating, or other eating disorder symptoms, it's important to get prompt help. Talk to your medical provider or schedule a consultation call with our team.