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Saturday, 21 June 2014

Victoria's Secret - a Feminist's Nightmare or a Source of Empowerment?

As a long-term lover of everything Victoria's Secret, I am always quick to jump to the brand's defence. Although I was only seven years old when my family was living in the States, I remember gazing into the Victoria's Secret at the mall and thinking just how glamourous it looked. The first time I went in with my Mum, it didn't cross my mind that the 'angels' were hyper-sexualised. I just thought they were beautiful and glamourous - having been exposed to these images all my life, this seemed normal to me at the age of seven. All the women in the spotlight had perfect bodies and were stunning. I came out of the trip with the body mist, Love Spell, and was thrilled. I was already experimenting with beauty products at that age! When we moved back to UK, however, I largely forgot about the brand. It was only when we returned to America on holiday that I would stock up on my favourite scents. Naturally, I soon began buying their underwear too. I loved the stores' atmosphere; everything was so feminine and pretty. Exiting the store with their gorgeous big shopping bags, I always feel chuffed with myself - like I had a secret. For me, shopping at Victoria's Secret is about feeling confident and comfortable in your body. Their bras are feminine and sweet - its about making women feel good rather than inspiring desire in men.
The New Bond Street branch.
So when Victoria's Secret arrived in the UK in 2012, just in the time for the London Olympics (those clever Americans), I was pretty excited. I dutifully waited for the media storm to die down a bit and then headed over to New Bond Street. I was so excited when I approached the store - it was bigger than any other one I'd ever been in. I hastily waltzed through the grand entrance... and was hugely disappointed. There stood a long, ill lit corridor that was jammed back with tourists. Eurgh. I explored a bit, in the hope that it would improve. It didn't. The underwear on the first floor was profoundly tacky - crazily padded, sparkly, neon-coloured bras are not my idea of 'sexy'. All this merchandise screamed male fantasy to me and I felt incredibly uncomfortable, especially with all the guys hanging round with their girlfriends. This wasn't the chic, classy store I remembered from my childhood - this was like a La Senza on crack!
Luckily, the underwear improved as I progressed through the store. The first floor is where they hide the more classic, feminine pieces. But all the while, there are images plastered everywhere of the 'angels' posing seductively on beds with 'come hither' eyes. I couldn't help but wonder, who is this for? Miranda Kerr lying on a bed in red satin underwear certainly isn't for my benefit. Is it supposed to inspire me? Am I supposed to emulate her? Or is this all for the guys' sake? I felt like I was being reduced to a sex object when all I really wanted was some pretty, comfortable underwear that made me feel good about myself. Their downstair's Pink collection is the same story (I do, however, live in their boyfriend-style tracksuit bottoms - they are so comfortable but still look great in the way them skim the legs). Despite being aimed at 'college-aged women', this floor was full of pre-teen girls picking out sequinned bras and neon thongs. Although Pink supposedly targets an older demographic, the brand is hugely popular with the tweenage generation. I find this problematic, this range is somewhat tacky, in my opinion, but still suitable for older women - but thirteen year old girls? Call me conservative, but this seems far too young to be shopping in a lingerie store - even one that sells casual clothes.
Their feminine, classic underwear is perfect.
Yet that experience hasn't stopped me from shopping there again - I now know what to expect. One of the things I love about the brand, which I think isn't portrayed in the New Bond Street branch, is that empowers women. Undeniably, their aim is to make every customer feel sexy. But then female sexuality is empowering, right? We're not buying underwear for men, we're buying it for ourselves - to make us feel confident. It sounds silly - but if I'm wearing a nice bra and it makes me feel confident then that is definitely empowering. But there lies the conflict in the Victoria's Secret brand. They aim to make their customers feel happy in themselves but cover their store in images of their elite team of 'angels' who all conform to the media's presentation of the female body. I know this isn't a ground-breaking thought, but where are the real women? Victoria's Secret is absolutely not alone in this. Their typical customer does not have the perfect 'angel' figure - only a tiny minority of women do. If normal-sized women of all shapes and sizes are the main consumers of this brand, then shouldn't the women who front it reflect their customers' figures? Yet, the team of 'angels' are the key behind the brand's success. Western culture idolises that one particular female body and it's considered universally 'beautiful'. We buy Victoria's Secret not only because it produces an array of feminine, pretty products but because we want to look like the 'angels'. This is capitalised in the annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. The irony of this show is that the 'angels' hardly even model the underwear that's available in store - instead they take on avant-garde designs and strut down the runway to a music mega-star. The whole show is about the 'angels' - not about the brand. To me it looks like a fulfillment of some strange male sexual fantasy - it is completely unrelated to the women who invest in the Victoria's Secret brand.
I shop in Victoria's Secret because I love their feminine, classic designs that are comfortable and good quality. I still adore their beauty range 12 years down the line! However, I have found the brand's image deeply problematic of recent - believe it or not, I don't shop in VS to get the 'angel' look. I don't enjoy their hyper-sexualised advertisements because I feel like it gives their customers a bad name - it reduces us all to sex objects when all we want is a couple sturdy bras that make us feel happy in ourselves. Sometimes when I visit the New Bond Street store, I feel like that same seven year old girl looking in on a glamourous shop - although it's not as glam I once thought and I would actually prefer to remain an outsider.

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