Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 9 minutes 2,184 words)

The most popular Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show picture on Instagram last year was of Bella Hadid. I burst out laughing when I saw it. It reminded me of that stereotypical image of the old-school flasher — beige trench, black trilby — ripping his coat open to reveal his anxious dick. Of course, Bella Hadid does not have a dick, but she’s posing like she does. The 5 foot 9 inch angel (if not capital-A Angel) stands legs akimbo in a room full of people minding their own business, splaying her petal pink robe to reveal hips jutting out of high-riding briefs and boobs pushed up so far they’re practically floating above her head.

How is she not laughing? How is she not mugging like Rodney Dangerfield? Instead she looks pretty serious about the whole thing — stained pout, eyes narrowed, hair tousled, like she’s just woken up from 10 days of sex (or ten days of three-hour workouts). My favorite part is the guy to her right balancing an oversized camera over his shoulder, emerging from behind her big reveal and looking completely over his life. That’s how I feel when I think of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show; like, why the fuck is this still happening?

The past few years have exhaled a thinly-veiled breath of schadenfreude as each subsequent VS fashion show — it returns this year on Dec. 2 at 10 pm on ABC  — has produced “the worst ratings on record.” Last year’s only summoned 5 million viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter, a navel-grazing plunge of 32 percent from the one before. “CBS’ annual repeat airing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer actually bested Victoria’s Secret,” THR added, shifting the ridicule from subtext to text. A few years before that, in 2012, The Onion ran a faux newscast in which the anchor announced, “Last night’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was a true ratings winner. Particularly with men who don’t know that actual pornography exists.” The stereotype of the VS fashion show peeper has, since its ’90’s entrée, been a cis hetero adolescent male who has no access to the internet or cable. He watches it, presumably with a tube sock in hand, because he has to. In fact, this is as much a fantasy as Bella Hadid’s anti-gravity tits.

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Over the past three years, according to sources, the audience for the VS fashion show has been 61 percent women, 39 percent men (the numbers vary only slightly in the decade prior). That means that on November 28, 2017, three million women simultaneously felt the need to risk feeling bad about themselves. Some of them watched for particular faces, like Hadid, who has 21.3 million followers on Instagram. “There’s a personal connection since I follow them on social media,” one woman told the website Spoon University (a food community for students), referring specifically to Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid (Bella’s sister). A cursory tweet search revealed these fans mixed with women who looked like Angels themselves. Indian student and aspiring model Malosri Basu, 19, has been watching since she was 11. “Victoria’s Secret is like my dream runway show,” she says. Basu believes this one promotes a healthier body image than other catwalks — in fact, the opposite appears to be true, with VS models admitting to particularly punishing regimens including fasting and overly-strenuous workouts — though it did “bug” her that the show was predominantly white (Ujjwala Raut is the rare Indian to model for VS).

Satoria Ray, a 22-year-old student at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina, has turned the VS fashion show into a yearly tradition. She watches for the new models and costumes, which Courtney Mina refers to as “fashion crack.” Similarly, a 31-year-old designer told MEL Magazine that she appreciated the show’s artistry. “Those wings can weigh up to 80 pounds,” she said. “It’s fucking hard. So why can’t women flaunt all that hard work?” Adriana Alexandra, a 23-year-old Californian web designer and social media manager, looks out for the cracks: “I watch for the outfits and I like to see if they live up to how stellar they look in photos.” While Ray thinks VS could use more trans and plus-size models, she believes they have “done a great job” of diversifying ethnicity. “I love seeing black models on the runway,” she says. “Not because I think that could one day be me but because it shows that people who look like me are getting the opportunity to enter spaces that they weren’t able to before, on a platform as big as the VS Fashion Show.”

The original 1995 runway — unbroadcasted at New York’s Plaza Hotel — included only two black models, Veronica Webb and Beverly Peele. They strutted against a low-key monotone backdrop in utilitarian undies that were positively vestal: T-shirts, skirts, rompers, pants. Some models wore sunglasses and carried purses, which played mutely discordant; what would necessitate carrying a handbag while in your underwear? But since 2001, its first television airing on ABC, the VS fashion show has landed pre-Christmas, indicating its widening appeal. Its first year on ABC attracted 12 million viewers and the show, which moved to CBS in 2002 (it’s back on ABC this year), has launched the careers of supermodels like Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, and Alessandra Ambrosio. Over the years, deeper tans, thinner bodies, higher blowouts and more extravagant accoutrements — 2017’s Fantasy Bra was $2 million — have only underscored the homogenized retrograde reverie of the whole affair (last year almost half the cast included women of color, but it’s kind of hard to tell when everyone is toasted to within an inch of their lives). As Vanessa Friedman wrote in The New York Times last year, “in the current cultural climate, where powerful men are tumbling like bowling pins because of bad behavior that has its roots in the objectification of women, what about the moral imperative? What fantasy, exactly, is all this feeding?”

The answer dates back to the 19th century. Mass-market lingerie has been a thing since the Victorian era, a thing which is decidedly male oriented — fetishistic corsets made damsels swoon; heavy bustles and petticoats kept them from straying too far. This was underwear that imprisoned women. Victoria’s Secret, which was founded in 1977, claimed to emancipate their clients but continued the tradition by encasing them in ill-fitting underwire and constrictive bustiers paired with easy-access thongs in various shades of pink frosted with “feminine” flair — rhinestones, lace, satin, florals.

This was a clueless retailer’s idea of a classy dame, made for the man buying it rather than the woman wearing it. “Part of the game was to make it more comfortable to men,” VS founder Roy Raymond told Susan Faludi in her 1991 book Backlash. “I aimed it, I guess, at myself.” He was savvy (manipulative) though, turning his wife into the face of the brand and aligning with the growing movement towards female empowerment, all to profit off of what amounted to a white male fantasy figure no real human being could ever embody. “We had this whole pitch that the woman bought this very romantic and sexy lingerie to feel good about herself, and the effect it had on a man was secondary,” Raymond told Faludi. “It allowed us to sell these garments without seeming sexist.”

Victoria’s Secret’s subtle act of discrimination has gotten more pronounced as the culture has progressed. In 2014, the company received a major ribbing for a campaign in which skinny mostly-white models formed a lineup in their underwear under the words “The Perfect ‘Body’” (the message was subsequently changed to “A Body for Every Body,” though the models remained). A year later, plus-size clothing line Lane Bryant launched its “I’m No Angel” campaign, in which curvy models like Ashley Graham appeared in lingerie under the hashtag #ImNoAngel. VS didn’t get the hint. In early November, Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer of L Brands, parent company of VS, had to apologize after getting defensive about comparisons to Savage x Fenty, Rihanna’s lingerie company, which is celebrated for its diverse representation, including models of different heights, shapes, ethnicities — even models who are expecting. “Do I think about diversity? Yes. Does the brand think about diversity? Yes. Do we offer larger sizes? Yes,” Razek told Vogue. “It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.”

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This narrow-minded response was ironic considering the VS fashion show’s expansion to Shanghai last year (the first time the event was located in Asia, which allegedly boosted viewership 45 percent, to a billion people worldwide) and its sagging business. Including less-homogeneous models would almost certainly improve VS’s dwindling sales. Racked reported earlier this year that the majority of American women, 68 percent, wear a size 14 or above. Sales of plus-size women’s clothing in 2016 was a $21.4 billion business, growing at twice the rate of the overall apparel market. Designer Christian Siriano, who dressed actor Leslie Jones when no one else would, saw his orders double when he featured twice as many larger models in his runway show. “Even if the customer was just a size 10,” he told Women’s Wear Daily, “they were more interested in seeing the clothes on different bodies.”

Studies around how women see each other’s bodies are patchy at best. The general, predictable consensus seems to be that those who are confident about their own appearance are less inclined to dwell on the way others look, while the rest of us focus on the body parts we are dissatisfied with ourselves. In a 2003 study entitled “Men Are Much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images,” Beth A. Eck exposed 23 men and 22 women, mostly white and heterosexual, to female nudes. While the women were as evaluative as the men, the difference was they were also evaluative about themselves. “Women both view the image and respond as if the image represents a part of themselves being viewed,” Eck wrote. “Women judge other women based on what they have learned makes the female form pleasing to men.” Women watching the VS show bear this out: last year, I noticed a number of them making the same joke on social media, which basically amounted to how much they didn’t measure up (my favorite was the photo of the blobfish). Still, Eck noted that women were more comfortable with seeing their own gender nude, which squares with a later study in which women responded more quickly to nudes of their own gender. (Of course this could just be habit — our culture is inundated with nude women, not nude men.)

“I think that part of what gets us going as women, parts of our pleasure from a sexual point of view, is to be considered objects of desire. So I thought hmmm, does it always have to be negative?” This is Alessia Glaviano, the senior photo editor at Vogue Italia, who launched the PhotoVogue Festival in 2016 with an exhibit of female fashion photographers entitled “Female Gaze.” Glaviano told The New York Times’ Lens blog she considers women photographing women to be a subversive act, “like a revolution.” But simply making women the subjects does not dismantle an industry in which they are packaged alongside objects for sale. A 2016 New Yorker profile of It girl Petra Collins, whose creamy muslin portraits of wan willowy girlhood are held up as feminist benchmarks, included one very telling line: “She’s taken care to include women of diverse shapes and backgrounds among her ‘muses,’ to the extent that that’s possible while also pleasing corporate clients.”

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The root of fantasy is phantasia, the Greek term for apparition, an entity without a body, a ghost. So when you give a fantasy a form, in a sense it ceases to be one. When Ed Razek calls the Victoria’s Secret fashion show a fantasy, he is selling us a lie — what fashion critic Robin Givhan referred to earlier this week as a “beautiful lie” — because its models have a form, they are flesh and blood. The 3 million women who know these “fantasies” are sprayed and plucked and pummeled and starved also know there are real women beneath all that. Within the confines of this parading flesh, these spectators see possibility, because when women see other women they also see themselves. Bella Hadid, her robe spread open — two arms, two legs, a stomach, breasts, just like the rest of us — is who we can be, all we need is to be just a little whiter, a little thinner, a little taller, a little curvier. But the realest thing about that photo of Hadid during the VS fashion show is her face. With no hint of a smile, no hint of enjoyment, this is the face of a woman embodying a fantasy that not even she herself can achieve.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.