I have to admit, I’m usually not thinking about my underwear. Every couple of years, I splurge on a week’s worth of Victoria’s Secret panties to renew my supply. I know that they’ll fit, I like the prints available, and their cotton bikinis will be comfy and cute. What’s not to love?
But while I’m used to my Victoria’s Secret underwear, I’m starting to have second thoughts about the company itself.
Recently, my suitcase was damaged, fortunately, the only thing I lost was a weeks worth of laundry… including my Victoria’s Secret undies. And I’ve been hesitating at replenishing them.
I know I’m going to like their product, but do I want to give my money to this company?
Victoria’s Secret: Targeting Young Women?
Victoria’s Secret is certainly not the only member of the fashion industry that contributes to the limited and harmful definition of beauty. But they’re certainly not doing much to change that definition.
Take, for instance, their 2014 ad campaign, which centered around the idea of “the perfect body.” This idea that a singular “perfect body” exists is ludicrous and contributes to all sort of issues—eating disorders and self esteem issues in women, distorted ideas of the female body to men, and the marginalization of all other body types.
But even more disturbing is that Victoria’s Secret is consistently marketing to younger and younger girls. Their Pink line, ostensibly marketed to college-age women, typically skews much younger. It’s a smart marketing strategy—establish brand loyalty while they’re preteens, to keep women coming back. But to what end?
I’ve been shopping at Victoria’s Secret since I was an insecure teenager with an eating disorder. One of their bras was a full day’s pay at my weekend minimum wage job. I distinctly remember spending hours looking through the catalog and comparing myself to the impossibly perfect models. I didn’t know anything about Photoshop then, but I’m not sure it would have even mattered.
Is that the sort of message that we want advertising to be sending to young girls and women—that underwear is only valued if it’s sexy, and that “sexy” must mean thin, white, toned, and tall, with straight hair? There’s got to be a better way.
Body Positive Alternatives
It occurs to me that, other than taking advantage of sales here and there, I’ve been shopping at Victoria’s Secret for the last 18 years. By all accounts, I’m a loyal customer to a company I don’t agree with. And that’s primarily arisen out of laziness—if I’m not interested in Target’s underwear offerings, then Victoria’s Secret is my go-to store.
Victoria’s Secret has the most prominent marketing of any underwear line, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty to choose from besides VS. So if I’m going to buy some new undies, I’m going to at least look for some that use body-positive advertising with a range of different women. My search turned up a few companies I wasn’t expecting:
OK, I admit, I really didn’t know that American Eagle was still a thing, or that they had an underwear/loungewear store. But ever since 2014, they’ve promised not to airbrush their models, with the tagline:
“The girl in this photo has not been retouched
. The real you is sexy.”
While the women in Aerie ads are still professional models, they’re a far cry from the Photoshopped supermodels that grace the pages of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Aerie’s making regular models into underwear models, and the decision has paid off: when the store made the switch to non-retouched photos, sales jumped 9%.
The Aerie website is designed so that when you search a specific bra size, you can view a model wearing that size. (Oh, if all online shopping retailers had that option, so many returns could be avoided!) They also prominently feature different races of models in all their print and online ads.
Dear Kate is another underwear company that’s fighting back against Victoria’s Secret. The store recently conducted a response to Victoria’s Secret’s Perfect ‘Body’ campaign, showcasing a line of women of all heights, builds and colors.
In 2014, the company chose also to feature female tech executives from Silicon Valley in their underwear ads. The execs were posed in office settings, leading meetings with other women, to fight the notion that professional women were defined by their clothing. Although critics called the campaign a major setback for women’s rights, founder and CEO of Dear Kate Julie Sygiel had this to say:
“If someone views our campaign as perpetuating sexism, it’s because they have certain expectations of women. Women can be just as powerful in underwear as they are in a power suit. It’s not fair for women in tech to be singled out and confined to more conservative behavior simply because they work in a male-dominated field.”
The downside: The ads I saw on Dear Kate still held true to a certain body standard. Only thin women were pictured showing their stomachs. Any woman that, at my best guess, was over a size 8 was pictured in t-shirts or tanks. That could have been the models’ preference, but it does still weaken their message of empowerment. (Also, their stuff is way out of my price range!)
This Canadian company features “plus-size” model Elly Mayday, who was one of their top models before her battle with cancer. Since Mayday’s diagnosis, however, Forever Yours has shown Mayday with her bald head and surgery scars in frequent ads, which has inspired cancer patients around the world. Mayday had this to say in an interview with ABC about her newfound role:
“I hope people are inspired to go outside with their scars… to go outside without their hair on…
Not everyone in the industry is going to want to work with a person that’s scarred. But I have a good story, and I’m trying to start something.“
I think any decent company should stand by their employees through illnesses, but I love that Forever Yours has made a unique statement with their advertising. In real life, the most beautiful women I know are ones who have met life’s challenges with grace and courage, but you don’t often see ads that confirm that message.
Your underwear doesn’t need to be sexy. This company is taking that thought a step further, to help support young women, who are just learning to wear bras.
I love the story behind this company! 18-year old Megan Grassell launched a Kickstarter campaign to start Yellowberry after bra shopping with her 13-year old sister turned up only push-up, padded options. Instead, she worked with designers to create fresh, fun designs that encourage girls to feel good being themselves. The bras look comfortable, adjustable, and sporty.
I hate that advertising has made it impossible for women (and frankly, all consumers) not to compare themselves to models. But I’m thankful for companies like these, that are working to change the conversation around underwear, lingerie, and bras.
I don’t blame Victoria’s Secret isn’t responsible for my body image issues. But it is important to me that the next generation of young women sees more images of themselves in advertising that celebrate diversity in size, shape, and ethnicity. That’s why I’m taking a step away from Victoria’s Secret—I don’t need to support companies that aren’t at least trying to change the status quo.
Emily Rabbitt is a freelance and fiction writer in the Washington, D.C. area. She is a Massachusetts native, iced coffee enthusiast, and marathon runner, and tries to be a good citizen of the planet. Follow her on Twitter: @rabbitterun.