Contrary to popular understanding, feminism is not a synonym for all women, everywhere, agreeing about everything. It isn’t a belief system that means everything any woman ever thinks or does is positive, political or empowering. It doesn’t mean women have to like each other or be friends with each other. It does mean that when we’re considering the behaviour of women and the impact that their work has, we can’t judge them more stringently than men, or hold them to a different set of standards. This is what we need to remember on the eve of annual Victoria’s Secret show.
This year, most of us are united in agreement that it in 2018 it seems strange and archaic to watch very slender, very young women dance and blow kisses in their underwear. The plus size model Robyn Lawly set up a petition calling for a boycott of the show, drawing attention to its problematic lack of physical diversity.
Right at the centre of the rage, ennui and controversy are the Angels. Some of these women are so famous they don’t need a surname. Bella and Gigi, Kendall and Candice. These women inspire passion, rage and obsession in all of us. For some women, becoming an Angel is the fairy tale ending they secretly dream about. If you’re chosen to be an Angel, you’re officially Beautiful, and for women, beauty is one of the few ways to enjoy privilege, power and status. Others feel the Angels are devils, creating impossible standards for our bodies, raising the bar to a height that 99 per cent of us will ever reach and perpetuating the idea that a woman’s only value is sexual. I envy and resent the Angels. I believe the rhetorical claims that it’s ‘better’ for girls and women to want to be doctors and engineers, and to aspire to be an Angel is to undermine a woman’s worth. If I looked like an Angel, I would throw my laptop out of the window and be on a catwalk pouting and rubbing my nipples before you could say ‘Fantasy Bra’.
We’ve been leering at and longing for the Angels for years, but we have yet to see God. What kind of all knowing, all seeing, all powerful being surrounds Themselves with such sexy Seraphim? According to Google, the chairman and CEO of of L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret is an American billionaire called Leslie H. Wexner. He is 81. I haven’t heard anyone accusing Wexner of being a bad role model, or setting impossible standards for body image. Most importantly, if there’s money to be made from the annual show, Wexner is making most of it, and he doesn’t even have to take his jacket off if he doesn’t want to. He gets paid without ever having to worry about maintaining his posture while wearing an uncomfortable suspender belt. We can assume that he has become wealthier with age, and his prime money making days did not end with his twenties.
We live in a capitalist dystopia. Sexism is a horrible by product of that. Victoria’s Secret might be a failing brand, but it was set up simply to make money. It was not created to make women feel fat, or sad, or inadequate. The fact that the appetite for the product seems to be declining might be evidence that the world is changing. However, we can only be the change we want to see if we start to understand that we can’t criticise the Angels before we criticise the system. My response to the show has been one of pure emotion – but if we believe it’s problematic, we need to think practically. Instead of complaining about what the Angels are doing to the playing field, we need to ask who the rules are benefitting in the long term – and invent a different game.
As women, we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. We’ve all been born into a world where we’re told, very early on, that it’s better for everyone if we’re pretty and perky, smiley and compliant. The Angels are privileged. In some ways, to be born beautiful is a little like being the heir to a vast fortune, and comes with a freedom you never have to work to earn. Yet, these women have not come to piss us off, or rub our noses in their loveliness. They have reached their professional peak by following almost every rule that we’ve been told to abide by for the past thousand years. We know that their regiments are extremely tough. We must remember that it’s easy to blame them for setting an impossible standard, but it’s harder to realise that they’re not the gatekeepers of the patriarchy. They’re stuck in the system, just as we are.
The fetishisation of female beauty is an ingenious divide-and-conquer technique. If the system tells us we’re inadequate, and invites us to compare ourselves with other women, we’re never going to consolidate our power base. We’re going to waste all of our energy on tearing each other to pieces, while the patriarchy strips us for sellable parts, sometimes literally. The Angels sell knickers, but they also absorb a lot of flack, dealing with our rage and confusion while rich men count money in the dark. We can’t blame the Angels for the sexist state in the world. We can choose to spend our money in places that truly celebrate women. We can call for more nudity, fewer sexualised bodies, and a world where no-one would look out of place on a catwalk in a diamond bra. But we’ll never get there if we waste our energy by turning on each other.