Victoria’s Secret Has a Mean-Girl Problem

For generations, fashion brands were free to set strict standards for feminine appearance. Then social media happened.

A Victoria's Secret model poses during the brand's annual runway show. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

When Victoria’s Secret deigns to speak at all, it does so in a British accent. The lingerie store, the largest division of the retail giant L Brands, is based in Ohio, but in its commercials and videos, an unseen-woman’s voice always speaks the Queen’s as models pose in incongruous settings, strutting in thigh-highs and silk robes through Roman ruins or a remote Colorado ranch.

Victoria’s Secret doesn’t say much of anything out loud, though, which is sort of the point. It looms instead of verbalizes. The models are seen but not heard in most of their official duties, performing a silent, stylized perfection so invariable that it’s hard to interpret it as anything other than a judgment: This is the way to look. We shouldn’t have to elaborate.

Similarly stereotypical ideals have long been found not just in advertising, but in commerce at large: For most of American consumer history, makeup brands made few dark shades, and most clothing brands didn’t make any adjustments in their designs for different body sizes, gender presentations, or disabilities, among other things. Hemmed in by limited mall options, women had little choice but to make their best effort to work within whatever physical standards brands set, and brands were free to be as strict with their expectations as they wanted to be.

The internet, and particularly social media, has changed that. Suddenly, the hierarchy of who speaks and to whom in the brand-consumer relationship has shifted beneath the feet of corporate behemoths such as L Brands, and now frustrated women can launch negative mainstream press cycles on their own. For generations, clothing and personal-care marketing could dictate how American women should look without any pretense of kindness. Now, faced with the unfiltered reactions of their customers for the first time, most of those same brands have decided to make nice. Where they could once profit by making women feel worse, the money now is in promising them a way to feel better.

Victoria’s Secret took the old strategy to its logical extreme. It made superstars out of an army of wing-clad Angels, all perfectly thin, busty, and long-legged in the same impossible way. For years, Victoria’s Secret has been the brand equivalent of the stereotypical cool-girls’ table in a high-school cafeteria: hot, unfriendly, and definitely not interested in bolstering your self-worth. And as in a teen movie, the less popular brands took as many cues as possible from the queen bee.

Victoria’s Secret is still doing things much as it did in the 2000s, and the approach is showing its age. Last month, its CEO, Jan Singer, resigned. The company also announced that it was reducing its annual dividend by 50 percent, and L Brands stock has lost more than half its value from its peak in early 2016. In addition, the brand has weathered a series of public controversies over the past few years, including those centered on the use of white models wearing traditional indigenous headdresses to sell lingerie, its ad campaign about the “perfect body,” and executives’ offensive comments about women who don’t fit the brand’s aesthetic ideal.

Victoria’s Secret’s narrow vision of femininity is certainly part of its problem, as are the decline of American malls and the burgeoning popularity of online competitors such as Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty and ThirdLove. But lots of people still think the brand’s look is sexy and aspirational, and many still want to try on bras in person. The bigger problem for the brand might be that now, companies clamor to be women’s friends. They post memes on Instagram, they expand their size ranges ever so slightly, they associate themselves with a more comfortable, livable idea of beauty. That so many of Victoria’s Secret’s direct and indirect competitors have abandoned the tone they cribbed from the company makes its unfriendliness all the more clear. Victoria’s Secret is among the last of the mean girls.

The most recent spate of negative attention for the company came after an interview that Victoria’s Secret’s longtime chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, and the executive vice president for public relations, Monica Mitro, gave to Vogue magazine. When asked about those who press Victoria’s Secret on body diversity, Razek said, “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.” As recently as a few years ago, those remarks probably wouldn’t have made it into mainstream news cycles for a variety of reasons, not least of which because for most of modern consumer history, it was perfectly fine for brands to declare their intent to serve only a certain subset of women that they had deemed arbitrarily superior.

The traditional retail brands that have weathered this shift with the most success, such as American Eagle’s Aerie, have acclimated to the new reality by embracing some form of marketing-focused body positivity. Lingerie brands now celebrate cellulite in their ads, and clothing brands now cast plus-size models, whether or not they make clothing for larger shoppers. Marketers go to great lengths to get people to associate a brand with an opportunity to feel better, as an antidote to years of brands (and often, that very same brand) trying to make them feel bad. The approach at least feels fresher than what came before it, and unfortunately for Victoria’s Secret, sparking at least a little bit of self-loathing has long been an element of its public image, even if the brand itself doesn’t see it that way.

Which isn’t to say that the marketing of today is any less manipulative than the marketing of 10 years ago. It’s just different, because many of the people in charge of selling things realized that women wanted them to do it differently. Corporate body positivity is gallingly empty and passive-aggressive. I don’t necessarily find Victoria’s Secret’s refusal to make bras that fit my plus-size body any more offensive than other brands’ mealymouthed excuses about why they just can’t make pants in my size, even if they’re packaged with assurances that they value me as a human. Politeness isn’t progress.

To retain its place atop the industry in the long term, Victoria’s Secret might have to change its tone. With a new CEO arriving in 2019, it’s certainly possible that it will. When reached for comment, the brand referred me to its November earnings call, in which it promised to reconnect with customers “by traveling, spending more time in stores, and getting to know [them] like we’d know our best friend.” Still, even though it’s popular right now, a corporation that wants to be your friend can be just as dangerous as one that wants to be an arbiter of your sexual worth, no matter the accent with which it speaks to you.