How Victoria’s Secret Reinforced What I Already Hated About My Body
Hulu’s new docuseries “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons” is an elaborate exposé of not just the underbelly of the brand itself, but of the sordid history of Les Wexner, founder and CEO of L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, and his relationship with the late, convicted sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein.
According to the documentary, Epstein, who was made Wexner’s power of attorney from 1991 to 2007, utilized his access to Wexner’s fortune as a means of financing his criminal activities and Victoria’s Secret as a ruse to lure girls into relationships with him under the guise of becoming a model.
While this is a fascinating and extremely complex aspect of the documentary, the more relevant theme explored, at least relevant to me personally, is how toxic the environment of Victoria’s Secret was not just for the models, but for consumers of the brand. Models cite a culture of pervasive harassment and abuse, predominantly by Chief Marketing Officer Ed Racek, and pressure to maintain unnatural body standards. And while the messaging of the brand purported to reflect sexually empowered women, behind the scenes the look was very much designed for the male gaze.
Female employees consistently reported presenting data-driven trends about the current views of women toward sex and sexuality, but were trumped at every turn by high ranking male executives, favoring increasingly exploitative marketing that pushed the boundaries of soft core porn, modeled after the images in Playboy magazine. The women featured in the catalogs, on the runway, and eventually in online marketing for the brand were selected because of their “perfect” looks, which lacked any kind of diversity or inclusion. Their images were highly curated and severely photoshopped, presenting an unattainable ideal that no average woman could possibly achieve without a severely restricted diet, extreme fitness regime, and plastic surgery. And they were made even more unrealistic through the use of padding and push-up bras, which created the illusion of proportions that simply don’t exist in nature.
The rigid physical standards represented by the models translated to the available inventory at their stores. And this is where my ongoing battle with anorexia and body dysmorphia come in. My fixation on my body began at a very young age. I was freakishly young when I began developing boobs. By sixth grade I was a solid “C” cup and continued to grow from there. While most of my peers weren’t even thinking about a training bra, I was already struggling to find a bra that fit my proportions. Kids in my class started calling me Dolly Parton and would snap my bra, humiliating me and reinforcing the fact that something was very wrong with me.
The bullying continued outside the classroom and in the dance studio where the constant message was “you need to lose weight” but the subtext was “your boobs are too big.” I’d be subjected to constant weight shaming and comments about how my bouncing boobs were a distraction when I jumped. At one point I even had to wear three Ace bandages to bind myself so I’d appear to be younger than my ample bosom would suggest. It was utterly soul crushing.
As you can imagine, bra shopping became a constant source of angst. My ever expanding cup size seemed to defy the laws of nature. My weight continued to dwindle and yet I couldn’t get my breasts to cooperate with the starvation and exercise/bingeing regimen I had adopted. So when I’d attempt to find a bra that fit, it was like searching for a needle in a haystack. I couldn’t just go to Victoria’s Secret like all my friends did and find a cute, lacy push-up bra. They didn’t make them in my cup size. Or if they did have even one bra on hand in my cup size, which was almost never, the bra was padded. The last thing I wanted to do was make my breasts appear even larger than they already were.
Going to Victoria’s Secret felt so invalidating. Not only could I not participate in the social ritual of going to the mall and shopping with friends… the store itself and its teeny tiny inventory seemed to sneer at me, rubbing salt into a gaping wound that kept filling up with more and more breast tissue. I was inadequate as a dancer, inadequate as a woman, and felt like a complete freak of nature. I hated my breasts and I hated Victoria’s Secret for making me feel so disgusting. If sexy was what they embodied, I must have been gross. This sense of being a misfit became embedded in my psyche.
My weight — and breasts — have fluctuated wildly over the years as my anorexia has come and gone. What hasn’t changed is my disdain for my breasts. If I could have a breast reduction I would. Looking at them in the mirror is like looking in a fun house mirror. Two huge orbs attached to matchstick limbs. I hate them. I’m uncomfortable having them attached to my body.
Even with current, more diverse lingerie options, the idea of bra shopping has forever been tainted for me by my early experiences at Victoria’s Secret. I’ve had numerous bra fittings and have spent so much money buying bras that are supposed to fit me perfectly, but no matter how miraculous they say the bra is, it sucks. It’s uncomfortable and I won’t wear it. And I’m embarrassed at how much time I’ve spent in therapy talking about my boobs, bras and my constant dilemma of wanting to learn to love my body as it is while simultaneously feeling betrayed by it.
I don’t know what the ultimate solution is, but this documentary certainly triggered this long term-trauma that is embodied by my boobs. I wonder how many other women are out there who suffered from the toxic objectification that Victoria’s Secret represented. I’m sure there are many, as is evidenced by the pressure on the company now to evolve. They have attempted to save face by incorporating models, mannequins, and inventory reflecting humans with breasts of all shapes, sizes, genders, and abilities. But is it too little too late? Maybe. As for me, I suppose I can take some solace in the knowledge that I never financially contributed to a corporation that aided and abetted the sexual exploitation of women and children. I’ll have to settle for that.
Lead Image via “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons” trailer