A Victoria’s Secret branding overhaul replacing angel-winged supermodels with women of varying shapes and sizes is a necessary and overdue step towards body inclusivity, says applied psychology professor Rachel Rodgers—but the lingerie giant has a long way to go.
Rodgers studies body confidence and the corrosive impact of unrealistic, idealized images at Northeastern’s Applied Psychology Program for Eating and Appearance Research.
Although Victoria’s Secret hired star soccer player Megan Rapinoe, size 14 model Paloma Elesser, and actor Priyanka Chopra to serve as inspirational figureheads, Rodgers says the brand still perpetuates misogynistic and harmful standards.
“These women are still horrendously attractive,” says Rodgers after reviewing several images from the new inclusive campaign.
The reboot comes after Victoria’s Secret faced plummeting sales and profits in 2019 and 2020 as the company’s hypersexualized models and lack of plus sizing became outdated in the #MeToo era. Meanwhile, lingerie competitors like Aerie saw a boost in sales after featuring body-positive messages and models of various sizes without airbrushing.
“The change they’re making is what people have been calling ‘empowerment advertising.’ There’s been this shift from advertising through a deficit lens, where you’re trying to persuade somebody that buying your product is going to fix their life and make them look the way your model does, towards a focus on values,” Rodgers says.
Rodgers has worked on multiple studies indicating that digitally altered and enhanced photos featuring thin body ideals directly hurts self-esteem and self-image, particularly in adolescents and women. Initiatives like Aerie’s, Rodgers found, at least blunted the detrimental comparisons that can lead to depression and eating disorders.
Also troubling are images of Victoria’s Secret models flaunting a new maternity line, says Rodgers.
“Most pregnant bodies don’t look like this. The image has been sexualized and stylized and made to look that way,” Rodgers says.
“That’s playing into these new pressures that we know are occurring around women during the pregnancy period. That used to be a protected time in terms of pressures around appearance, a time when women could focus on functionality and growing a human. And now that’s no longer the case,” she says.
Rodgers’ isn’t the brand’s only critic. Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands scored 17 out of 100 in a 2021 Gender Benchmark Index released June 29. The World Benchmarking Alliance, an organization founded in part by the U.N. Foundation to boost sustainability and inclusivity in business, evaluated 35 of the world’s largest apparel companies on gender equality and empowering women. Companies like Gap and The North Face topped the list at a little over 50 points.
One of the more successful body-positive campaigns came from CVS pharmacy in 2018, Rodgers says. They required beauty brands on their shelves to feature unaltered photos in their in-store advertising by the year 2020.
“Their hope was that this would provide brands with an opportunity to stop photoshopping—and they were largely successful,” said Rodgers.
Whether Victoria’s Secret is successful depends on several factors, says Yakov Bart, an associate professor of marketing.
“I guess better late than never,” Bart says. “The problem is, how do they gain the consumer’s trust that they’re making genuine changes and that these new values aren’t just window dressing.”
It helps that the rebranding includes hiring a predominantly female board of directors and launching initiatives focused on women’s issues like breast cancer research, says Bart.
Rodgers hopes the changes are just the beginning when it comes to reducing society’s emphasis on an idealized female image.
“Some really good things have come from this. There’s slightly more appearance diversity. We’re seeing people who are diverse in a number of dimensions and it’s increasing representation,” Rodgers says. “That needs to continue.”
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