Profitable Objectification: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

On Tuesday, 10.3 million people were united in a common cause, wrapped in attention around one very important event.  Were 10.3 million in the streets in an #Occupy or Tea Party show of people power?  Were they watching Obama give a speech about the progress of a 10-year debacle in Afghanistan?  Were they participating in a national debate about the financial crisis and its effect on the average family?

No.  They were watching this:

I hadn’t actually realized that this event was taking place until I logged into Twitter and saw the following tweet posted by my young cousin:

Though the young women who tweeted this are clearly being sarcastic, what caught my eye is that they are very much paying attention.  And how can anyone (but particularly young women) pay attention to this and not be affected by it!?


In the words of Victoria’s Secret Casting Director John Pfeiffer, “There is a very clear Victoria’s Secret woman. They all have the self-confidence, expressiveness, joy, and womanliness.”  Wait . . . what?  Womanliness?  What women does he know!? Well, it’s clear what women he knows.

But that show is in no way reflective of the “womanliness” I know and value.  The women in my life don’t look like the women in this parade.  The women in this parade project, by in large, unhealthy body standards, and they project onto women everywhere a tiny box of beauty into which the show says, “You must fit.”

To quote my friend Yasmine, ” I feel for all the women watching who now question their beauty, and all the men who now have unrealistic expectations of what a woman should look like.”  Her concerns are very much my own, and they are two-fold.

First, this show does not happen in isolation.  It happens within the wider context of a media assault on women and their bodies.

– Twenty years ago, models weighed 8% less than the average woman. Today, they weigh 23% less than the average woman.
– The average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds.
– One out of every four college aged women has an eating disorder.
– In 2007, there were about 11.7 million cosmetic procedures performed in the U.S. Ninety one percent of these were performed on women.
– A study found that 53% of thirteen-year-old American girls are unhappy with their bodies. This number grows to 78% by the time girls reach seventeen.
Source: Do Something – 11 Facts About Body Image

Second, this show does not just affect women.  I appreciated what my friend Dolan, who watched the show, pointed out: “[Note] the camera shots of the men in the audience (celebrities) looking up and staring at the women on the runway. Some nice messaging that if as a women you look like this men will admire you. Very rarely they showed women in the audience looking at the models.”

He points out something vital to remember: the effect programming like this has on the male gaze.  I, for one, have had to actively struggle to understand the way in which I have been affected by the constant portrayal of women as sexual objects in our culture.  I have had to work to unlearn much of what I was taught about beauty to see beauty in a more inclusive way.  I have had to unlearn what I was taught about healthy sex and sexual desire to understand sex in a sex-positive light.  And I have had to do all this as I work to humanize the women in my life who are dehumanized into nothing more than a sexual object by our media on a daily basis.

To show men in the audience staring at the women on display send a clear message about power.  Men control the gaze, and women are the object of the gaze.  It’s notable that the only woman with any real voice in the entire production was Nicki Minaj (who I generally consider a fairly-empowered and powerful woman).  But look at the lyrics to the song, “Super Bass,” that she performed.

He ain’t even gotta try to put the mac on
He just gotta give me that look, when he give me that look
Then the panties comin’ off, off, uhh

Gaze, again, controlled by the man, and the woman submits to him sexually.

And there’s a tremendous profit in that gaze.  In he week prior to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the brand sold approximately 10.6 million units.  In the week of the show, the brand has sold 16.6 million units.  That’s a 50% increase!

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is an innocent affair.  It’s about profit, and making women believe that wearing certain things will make them more desirable is profitable.

I recognize, though, that not everyone (and particularly not all women) agree with my take on the event, as voiced by my friend Ashton, “I don’t think seeing skinny, beautiful women in skimpy clothes should make women with different body shapes feel bad about themselves. Women should be confident and comfortable enough in their own skin to not be bothered by the VS fashion show.”

However, I very much relate to my friend Yasmine’s response, “I don’t think that beautiful women in skimpy clothes SHOULD make women feel insecure… but I think it often does.  Even the most secure women will sometimes be a little rattled.

In the midst of this, people (but particularly women) are thirsting for a different portrayal of beauty, as noted by the folks at Glamour magazine when they included this image in the September 2009 print issue:

After publishing the photo, the editor was overwhelmed with positive feedback, and it sparked some amazing discussion and other posts!

Perhaps it’s time for those controlling the images we see to realize that there can also be profit in curves.

But I suppose that would involve putting women in control of the media’s gaze . . . and we can’t afford that.


25 thoughts on “Profitable Objectification: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

  1. The girls in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show are not unhealthy. They have TONED bodies, which is easy to maintain if you eat healthy and work out regularly. Any girl who looks like this would not have made the show if she didn’t have confidence in herself and respect for her body. I think the show promotes good health and gives girls a great foundation and goal to look forward to.
    Just because some women don’t have muffin tops doesn’t really mean they are unhealthy and projecting negative messages to society.

    • actually, not everyone can look like that. the women we see in magazines and in the vs runway show represent 5% of women’s body types. no matter how much some women (most women) diet or exercise, they will never look like that, and that should be ok! I agree with you that just because someone is thin does not mean they are unhealthy, i know plenty of people who are healthy and just naturally very thin. the sad truth, however, is that there is a shocking amount of women and especially women in this industry, with serious eating disorders. its just something that should be pointed out.

  2. Jonathan Becker

    “In (t)he week prior to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the brand sold approximately 10.6 million units. In the week of the show, the brand has sold 16.6 million units. That’s a 150% increase!” Might want to rethink that math…

    I gotta concur with Ashton too.

  3. Very well written, Jamie. As a student on a college campus I spent the day leading up to the show surrounded by young men who spoke of how they couldn’t wait to go home after class and spend their evening watching it. While I didn’t spend any time watching the show itself, I still have images in my mind of the commercials leading up to and after the show of these extremely thin women with “perfect parts” that young, horny men drool over. Part of me was, and is, absolutely disgusted in this show and all it stands for. I find it all superficial and obviously objectifying women. What saddens me the most is just how many people were watching it and their mindset affected in one way or another.

    I am not so proud as to deny that I did find myself looking in the mirror after I showered that night and begin pointing out things that weren’t “perfect” when compared to what these men apparently desired so much. I am, however, fortunate enough that my boyfriend reminds me constantly that I am perfect TO HIM just as I am. Anytime I will complain about weight or how much I want to change something about myself he will stop me and ask “Why? I love you how you are right now, you don’t HAVE to change. While I will support you if you’re trying to be healthy, don’t think you need to be something else.” Oh, how I wish every girl was as lucky as me!

    The men of our lives have a strong affect on our self-image as women, and it is through my boyfriend’s support and reassurance that I am becoming more confident in the body I have and blowing off the superficial things that media is telling us that we should be as young girls. I hope that one day all men can start thinking with the head on their shoulders and start sending the message to women and the media that this image of “perfection” is not real; that it is reality these men want to see and expect.

  4. Thanks for writing this Jaime. May I repost? I agree that in an ideal world, images of extremely thin women wouldn’t affect our personal feelings about our own body. I have female friends of all shapes and sizes and know they are all gorgeous! However, speaking from personal experience, I have struggled with body image most of my life, and seeing women’s bodies like this used to send me into a dark place with the knowledge that I would never be valued unless I looked like that. I say used to because it has taken me several years to realize I am beautiful, in the face of how our society defines it. I like what you said at the end about people “thirsting for a different portrayal of beauty.” Although I feel comfortable and good in my skin, and seeing extremely thin women in victorias secret lingerie evokes more of a sense of sadness, I yearn for the day when women of all different sizes are portrayed proportionately in the media. Let’s face it, the impact of the media isn’t going away. But when will it use it’s power for good? God forbid we lived in a world where women were taught to feel empowered, regardless of appearance! What then?

  5. Oh and in response to Mika Kay, I read an article in People a few weeks ago that one of the models in the show went on a strictly liquid diet for weeks before the show. hmmmm

    I think the conversation about how healthy these women are is less important than the one about how women are portrayed and how our culture defines being feminine. Basically, everything Jamie wrote in the blog : )

  6. Jamie, love the post! While I don’t think the fashion show is simply a “profitable objectification” of women, I do believe you are on to something that it does portray an unrealistic body image for the average woman…

    Okay, stop. I already hate that I called the rest of society “average.” What? Now my beauty is just “average”? Anyone not on the show is just “average”? While I didn’t actually watch the show, I watched some clips on youtube and at one point I heard the announcer say, “We have all the most beautiful women in the world here tonight!” That’s a pretty bold statement if you ask me. I realize that’s just show business for you, but I find it both offensive and oppressive.

    I’m offended that in their eyes women with curves are not the ideal woman. While at one point in my life I probably would have sided with Mika Kay – that if you work hard enough you can look just as good, but anymore, I don’t agree. I think Mika is right to an extent: A lot of people could work out and eat a little healthier allowing them to shed a few unnecessary pounds and possibly gain a little confidence. Okay, I’ll give you that. But what I don’t agree with is that they could live up to the expectations put upon them by the media, because the girls portrayed there are lies.

    Many pictures any more are so over photoshopped that no woman – unless she’s sick – would look that small. It’s unrealistic. No diet or exercise routine will get you to that size. None of them. As for the models strutting down the fashion show – their body size is not a healthy goal for most girls either. Whether or not they’re just toned, MOST girls in the world do not have that body type. I, myself, along with many other girls in the world, will always have curves no matter how many runs I go on or number of lunges I do. No diet will make me look like them. So why should I idolize them? Why should they be my “goal”? They shouldn’t.

    And yet, I still find myself thinking I need to look like that. That if I don’t, I wont be considered attractive or desirable and it’s a tough thing to overcome. What makes me more upset about my mindset is that I’m a healthy weight – I don’t have a “muffin top” or anything that I really should be ashamed of, but if you’d ask me, I’d be able to find something I’m not happy with.

    Even girls without weight problems are going to be oppressed by the media and their image of the perfect woman. I whole-heartily believe that. Even girls with that desired body type are. It’s just a fact. So to ignore it, or say girls should just simply have enough confidence in themselves to look past it is simplifying the issue far too much and belittling those who are affected.

    I think our society needs to discuss this issue in full and the talk is just beginning. Thank you, Jamie, for posting on it. Eye’s need to be opened to what beauty actually is.

  7. Jamie! I love this. It is so true, I too watched the fashion show and was disgusted the entire time by the size of these women. The “gaze” you also mentioned was extremely noticeable. All you could see the entire time were men looking at the women as if they were objects.
    As Shiloh said, I also find myself guilty of looking myself in mirror and thinking I’m not “perfect.” But really what is perfection? Symmetry and perfection has been proven to be ugly?
    In response to Mike Kay, toned bodies are the furthest thing from being 5″11 and 117 pounds. Yes, those girls may have all the self confidence in the world and eat healthy but don’t I, and many other girls?
    This obsession with fitting into this mold society has formed that defines beauty is repulsive in my eyes and has many teen girls and adults feeling incompetent.

  8. First of all, I have to say that I’m very proud of my girls Shiloh and Sigrid for recognizing that they are beautiful as they are… Love you ladies.

    As for myself, I didn’t pay attention to the VS show. Why should I? As someone who has always been overweight, I’ve never been able to buy anything from VS because they don’t carry my size. Apparently I don’t have the “womanliness” that they’re looking for.

    When it comes to the models, yes, it’s possible that some of them are naturally that tall and skinny. I remember a girl I knew when I was a teenager who was built that way… As hard as she tried, she couldn’t gain weight. She struggled with that just as much as I struggled with being overweight. However, it is unreasonable to hold that body type as the standard when the vast majority of women would never be able to maintain that look without drastic, unhealthy lifestyle choices.

    Maybe it’s some sort of recently-turned-30-epiphany, but I’m finally getting to the point where I’m seeing my body as the greatest tool I have. It has carried me this far and it deserves to be treated with respect, not criticized for everything I see as an imperfection. I’m still working on that. 🙂

  9. As a young male reader, I enjoy the read because it’s biased.

    Here is a quote from the only male in article:
    “[Note] the camera shots of the men in the audience (celebrities) looking up and starring at the women on the runway. Some nice messaging that if as a women you look like this men will admire you. Very rarely they showed women in the audience looking at the models.”

    “He points out something vital to remember: the effect programming like this has on the male gaze.”

    What the heck is this “male gaze” you keep speaking of? Do you mean to say male mind? A gaze is a look of admiration, not perversion. The way you portray men as perverts is blown out of proportion. I observed the VSFS or “gazed” as you like to call it, at the woman because thats what you do at a fashion show!! You go to look at fashionable clothing. If I were to put on a fashion show, I would want a girl that looks good in a bikini and has a consistent body type to show off how good my underwear product can be. It’s a business strategy not a perverted strategy from “the man”.

    More Quotes!
    “Perhaps it’s time for those controlling the images we see to realize that there can also be profit in curves.

    But I suppose that would involve putting women in control of the media’s gaze . . . and we can’t afford that.”

    If you want to appeal to men, slandering them isn’t very helpful to you. Find a voice that lets you appeal to men and women. I like that you are trying to spread awareness on the issue though. I know my response is slightly rude but not nearly as offensive as your article.

    • **I didn’t enjoy the read

    • Hey, Erik, and thank you for your response! You pointed out a few things that are important for me to be clear about, so thanks!

      First, let me say that yes, the post is biased. It is meant to be. The reality is that most media is controlled by and argued from the dominant male perspective, so my goal (which is clearly biased) is to present the counter-narrative, the other side. I do so as a man who hopes to encourage men to reconsider how they look at media.

      I was quite silly to talk about the concept of the “male gaze” without explaining what I mean by that. In referring to “the male gaze,” I was actually referring to a concept common in much feminist theory and writing. It refers to an unequal power relationship present when men (those with power in society and power over women) view women as objects of sexual desire. On the other hand, the female gaze is without the powerful weight of society behind it.

      Within this theory, which I very much agree with, the way that men look at women (their gaze) is not simply an innocent act of admiration, as you suggest. It is an expression of power through sexual objectification. For example, when a man stares at a woman’s body (which is why, to my understanding, most men watch the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show), it treats that woman as less than a person. She is dehumanized as a body rather than a person.

      I encourage you to check out this wiki entry about it. It explains the concept of the male gaze well:

      You’re right that the goal of a fashion show is for people to “gaze” at the women who are objectified, but that is the very problem with the show’s existence at all. It is created for nothing more than to use clothes (and in this case lingerie and swimsuits) as an excuse to objectify women. I mean, let’s consider who controls the way the gaze is presented in this fashion show. The two main players in constructing the gaze are CBS (who hosts the show) and Victoria’s Secret. The controlling staff at CBS are primarily men – the CEO is a white man names Leslie Moonves. The CEO of Victoria’s Secret is a woman, but when you look at the video above about who was doing the casting for the show, it was 6 men and 2 women. Again, men control the gaze.

      Again, you’re right in the sense that the designer of the bikini in the show is choosing the model that will best “show off” the design, but who is deciding what body type looks best in that underwear? And for what body type is the design created? Why not hire designers who are designing for women that reflect the average woman? Again, it comes down to who is in control of the gaze. Todd Thomas, Larry Vrba, Nick Verreos – My google searches provide mostly male names of deisngers (with the exception of Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou). The decisions being made about what type of model is displayed, what type of lingerie is displayed, and how it is portrayed are not innocent decisions.

      Lastly, I would love to hear more about how you feel I am slandering men. I definitely think that the way we are taught to look at women is problematic. I have written on it extensively (see the “Gender,” “Sexual Violence,” and “Weight and Body Image” category links to the right above), but my perspective is as a man who is trying to change the way I view women and who hopes to encourage other men to do the same. I suppose I just need further clarification on how you think I am slandering men in this post.

      Again, I am super appreciative of your willingness to comment!

  10. It is really interesting to look at how the concept of beauty changes with time and the social conditions of the era.

    In the past women with a reasonable level of excess weight were the most desirable. Why? Because food was more scarce and a woman with curves was harder to find.

    Now we live an age of abundance but most of our cheap food is chemically contaminated, processed and genetically modified. These are foods that promote weight gain even in body types that would normally have been naturally skinny.

    The value in ‘skinny’ today is that they are not the norm. They are rare, so they are remarkable.

    It’s like diamonds. Diamonds are only expensive because they restrict market availability – in terms of what comes out of the ground many other stones are more rare. By controlling availability diamonds are made more desirable.

    The point is, if you don’t look like a VS model, don’t let it get you down. If everyone looked like that something else would become the fashion.

    Just look after yourself, be confident and express your sexuality in the way that feels right for you.

  11. […] I’d be lying if I said this commercial didn’t pique my interest. As a heterosexual male, I’m predisposed to be entranced by beautiful women (and yes, in my eyes, they are quite beautiful) wearing next to nothing. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore what it’s doing, or most of all, who’s it harming. Change From Within’s Profitable Objectification: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show […]

    • “There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for the beauty myth; what it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted than the need of today’s power structure, economy, and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women.” – Naomi Wolf

      It’s debatable in the society we live in to say that heterosexual men are predisposed to be entranced by “beautiful” women. First, that beauty is an idea (or myth, as Ms. Wolf put it so well) and it is completely subjective. We are *told* what is considered beautiful in our society. Other societies have completely different concepts of beauty.

      Second, there have been studies done that show men can rather easily be trained to get a sexual response from an inanimate object. This is called paraphilia and this is what I propose has happened to men at large in the Western world. The women presented in our media are more or less objects, as stated by Jamie in his well written article. Men have been trained from an early age to get a sexual response from this singular idea of beauty. I’m sure most if not all men can attest to hearing older brothers, dads, friends, etc. point “beautiful” women out or make comments about a woman’s parts. The critical male gaze in action.

      I believe men are captivated or turned on by ideal beauty, as presented by the media, because it’s a trained response. Sexuality does not develop in a vacuum nor is it something that is predisposed to develop in fixed ways. There are many other female qualities that a man can be attracted to besides her appearance. What do you supposed a blind man feels when he’s close to a woman whose energy engages him?

      What it comes down to is that our brains are very malleable. There isn’t a lot about our so called “hard wiring” that isn’t adaptable. A straight man is not born with a predisposition to be aroused by a Victoria’s Secret model. He’s predisposed to desire a woman – and the distinctly womanly qualities she possesses. She represents unconditional love, warmth, happiness, etc. It’s all rather Oedipal actually, but Freud was off when he assumed it was all about sex.

      Men are also trained from an early age to not be like women – or to even relate to them in healthy ways – for fear of being a momma’s boy, a wuss, or a sissy. And those are the tamer labels. This desire to genuinely connect with the feminine makes it extremely easy for a man to learn how to covet ideal female images. It’s the only acceptable way he can explore the feminine. So instead of love and connection – which let’s face it, are far harder to work at – he becomes obsessed with sex and women who excite his learned sexuality. It’s easier than being rejected or having to work on a relationship.

      Sexual excitement is a cheap substitute for the things a man feels he lacks ie. love, success, big muscles, or what ever else makes him feel insecure. Find me a man who has nothing but meaningless sex (or watches porn, ogles women endlessly, etc) and I’ll show you a miserable man.

  12. […] the 1st of December, and it holds the record for the most single-day hits on Change From Within.  Profitable Objectification: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show problematizes the perspective from which the “fashion show” is presented and how this […]

  13. It is so interesting to me how clear our societal constructs are sometimes. I agree with all points here, but I would add:

    1. This also tells us what the desirable woman *should* look like. I have to wonder, once again, if we were not steeped in such messages, what would we not only aspire to, but what would we also seek out? Does this tell people (anyone who likes the ladies) which ladies they should like that is acceptable by society?

    2. But, even as #1 points out, it makes it once again about physical beauty. Nothing further.

    3. “Womanliness”? WTF is that? And why are we aligning it with body image?

    4. What do these things (male gaze, etc – ps nice how well that aligns with conventional porn…) say about how men and women approach sex? See, I am one woman who takes sex really seriously, but let’s be honest – I’m a First Date F*ck, when I want to be. I’m always safe, and there is always enthusiastic consent. And, yeah, sometimes I make the decision about who I want to sleep with pretty damn quick. But it’s not because I’m under someone else’s control – I always make that decision myself based on what I want. However, if we couch my decisions in the context here, it looks as if I’m under male control, and the only way to change that is if I *don’t* go home with him (or whatev). In which case, I’m bowing to the Gender God of Good Girls Don’t and not to what I actually want, which it totes not fair. (… does that make sense?)

    Anyhoo – great blog!

  14. Hey Jamie! I can’t believe I haven’t read your blog before. I have a quick comment about this topic, as weight and body image are a very important topic in my own life. First off, one of the previous reviewers mentioned how these models are healthy. We can agree that they don’t represent a statistical average for height and weight, and they may well be healthy. However, looking at a person and determining their level of health based on how toned their muscles are and how much they look to weight is a dangerous slippery slope. Health is not directly proportionate to weight. The current rabid claim is that it is, if you are “overweight” you are therefore unhealthy, and deserve some sort of judgement about you or your life. The same goes for women who are by our standards “skinny.” Incredibly thin women are often maligned as well as being unhealthy, or jokes are made that they need to eat a hamburger. I personally struggle with not commenting that models or really thin women need to gain weight, but the truth is we can’t know the health of a person by looking at their body mass. I know many women who are alarmingly skinny, but remain unable to gain weight. They are perfectly healthy, and they are hurt just as much by comments that they are unhealthy or too skinny as I myself am when I am reproached about my own “overweight” body!
    The modeling world is slowly moving towards a more inclusive scale of body images, there are more plus size models outside the plus size industry then ever before, and the number of clothing companies that are offering sizes bigger than a 16 is growing fast.

    I also think that when we look at modeling in general in the context of the male gaze, that is all we see. We see how women are being objectified, and decry it as women losing power. I think that many women in career fields such as this would argue that while they may be objectified, it was their choice to do so, and at it’s core that is in fact a facet of feminism that we don’t like to talk about as much. These women are not unwilling participants of some freak show meat market, they have empowered themselves to put their bodies (of which they themselves are probably not entirely confident of) on display. There could definitely be elements that the industry as a whole runs on the male gaze, as it is argued that we buy the things we buy and do the things we do with our makeup and leg hair for the pleasure of men – yet for the life of me I can’t help but feel that if this is the case we are either incredibly brainwashed or we are not giving ourselves enough credit. I enjoy enhancing my assets with clothing or makeup – it is not an effort to garner approval merely I put together a look that is esthetically pleasing to me personally. Some of the reasons why it is pleasing to me may be influenced by our culture as a whole, but we do exist within it and contribute to it growing, changing, stagnating, or whatever culture is going to do.

    • “I think that many women in career fields such as this would argue that while they may be objectified, it was their choice to do so, and at it’s core that is in fact a facet of feminism that we don’t like to talk about as much. These women are not unwilling participants of some freak show meat market, they have empowered themselves to put their bodies (of which they themselves are probably not entirely confident of) on display.”

      In a society based on a patriarchal model, these women don’t know any better than to use their bodies to gain whatever power they can. They are programmed from youth to believe their *only* value is in their appearance. That’s not empowerment. That’s being brainwashed by a system that enslaves both genders and perpetuating the cycle of male-female separation and the subsequent power struggles that are the inevitable result.

  15. […] extravagance of the entire show that downplays the fact that something might actually be wrong with publicizing this. But, it is a fashion show. It is about the beautiful lingerie they have designed, not the […]

  16. I agree with the article! And something that is also very annoying about VS is that not only are the models very skinny, they have big boobs too. So unrealistic. Thats why theese models are making women feel worse than regular models who are just skinny and flat chested… The size of the boobs normally go together with the body size. If you’re very skinny then you’re very likely to have small boobs. If you’re bigger then you probably have bigger boobs. I have not in my entire life seen a skinny girl with big boobs. I know they exist some where, but it is very rare. So as a skinny person (though not at all as skinny as the VS models!!!) I will have to get a boob-fricken-job to look “perfect” 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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