Victoria’s Secret recently made headlines for deciding to reverse its feminist makeover and “bring back sexiness” in response to falling sales.
Back in 2018 the lingerie brand, once celebrated for its glamorous catwalks and bombshell models, underwent a significant transformation. They retired their iconic ‘Angels’, moved away from their signature runways, and announced their ambition to be “the world’s leading advocate for women”. The shift came in response to mounting criticism that the company perpetuated patriarchal beauty standards and encouraged extreme diets and training among models. Prominent figures like American soccer star and gender equity campaigner Megan Rapinoe, for example, criticised the company for sending a “really harmful” message to young women that was “patriarchal, sexist” and viewed women “through a male lens and through what men desired”.
To make matters worse, in 2020 a New York Times investigation also exposed a “culture of misogyny” at Victoria’s Secret, as well as “widespread bullying and harassment of employees and models”. High-ranking individuals such as Ed Razek and Leslie Wexner, both chief executives at L. Brands, the former parent company of Victoria’s Secret, faced allegations of misconduct. Wexner was also connected to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.
In the years that followed, the company’s marketing campaigns shifted towards inclusivity and body-positivity, featuring a much more diverse range of models including Rapinoe, plus-sized models Paloma Elsesser and Ali Tate Cutler, as well as Brazilian transgender model Valentina Sampaio. The company also announced a new board of directors comprising six women and one man, along with the ‘VS Collective’, a group of seven women set up to advise and represent the company, including Rapinoe and the actress and UNICEF ambassador Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Together they aimed to redefine the brand’s old version of ‘sexy’, swapping the Angels for “what women want”.
But is that what women wanted?
Recent sales figures suggest otherwise. Victoria’s Secret’s projected revenue for 2023 is now $6.2 billion, a 5% drop from the previous year and even lower than their $7.5 billion in 2020 when most of its shops were closed for months at a time during the pandemic. Their latest fashion documentary, Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ’23, also received poor ratings, scoring only 2.9 out of 10 on IMDb and just 1.7 stars on Amazon. Victoria’s Secret’s CEO, Martin Waters, has now acknowledged that the company’s inclusivity initiatives have not been profitable. “Despite everyone’s best endeavors,” he admitted, “it’s not been enough to carry the day.”
In my view, Victoria’s Secret shift toward inclusivity was an unnecessary over-correction. Of course models shouldn’t be starving themselves on extreme diets, but the brand has now swung too far in the opposite direction. What began as introducing some plus-size models became a complete departure from the brand’s signature style. Some Victoria’s Secret models have even revealed that they were encouraged not only to seem more realistic but to intentionally look less attractive: the brand allegedly used unflattering lighting and instructed models to slouch and make their stomachs seem bigger.
To me, this perfectly represents the prevailing feminist narrative today. It is a message that often seems less about representation and inclusivity, and more about denigrating beauty and femininity. It tells young women that there is something inherently wrong with wanting to be attractive to men, and that dressing in a way that appeals to men is a form of patriarchal oppression.
Young women are inundated with this kind of messaging. For example, Rihanna’s lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty — which also features trans, disabled and plus-sized models — frames lingerie as a form of self-love, and not about pleasing men. Rihanna herself stated that “women should be wearing lingerie for their damn selves”, while American actress Halle Berry, when launching her lingerie line Scandale Paris, declared: “Women don’t wear lingerie for men. We wear it for ourselves.” And in an article about “lingerie that subverts the male gaze”, the founder of another new brand Lonely Lingerie said: “We really wanted to celebrate female relationships. I’m sure boyfriends would love to see this beautiful lingerie, but it’s too often the focus. It’s really about giving the power back to women.”
But these are lingerie brands! Isn’t the entire point of lingerie to appeal to the male gaze? (Who is really wearing a thong for themselves?)
I don’t believe we need to pretend that we’re wearing lingerie for ourselves, nor do brands need to ditch conventionally beautiful models, for women to feel empowered. For many of us the allure of Victoria’s Secret was the sensuality, the glamour and the impossibly beautiful models.
There is also nothing wrong with women wanting to look good for men. It isn’t ‘the patriarchy conditioning us’; it’s a powerful biological drive. We can deny this all we want, but I think Victoria’s Secret plummeting sales speak for themselves.
What’s most revealing in all of this, though, is Victoria’s Secret back-pedalling. What it demonstrates to me is that, ultimately, what these woke brands really care about is not progressivism but profit. Their main focus is not ‘diversity’, ‘representation’ or ‘female empowerment’; it’s money. If Victoria’s Secret does indeed revert back to bombshell models and glamorous catwalks it will reveal that their woke feminist message wasn’t only misguided but was, from the beginning, just a marketing strategy — and one that has massively backfired.
Freya India is the author of the Substack, GIRLS. You can subscribe here.