Victoria’s Secret inclusive rebranding faces body image backlash

Victoria’s Secret brand overhaul replacing angel-winged models with women of varying shapes and sizes is a necessary and expected step towards bodily inclusion, says professor of applied psychology Rachel Rodgers-but the lingerie giant still has a long way to go.

Rodgers studies body confidence and the corrosive impact of unrealistic and idealized images at Northeastern’s Applied Psychology Program for Food and Appearance Research.

Left to right: Associate Professor Yakov Bart, Research Professor Joseph J. Riesman of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business in Northeastern and Associate Professor Rachel Rodgers of Bouvé College of Health Sciences in Northeastern. Photos by Matthew Modoono and Adam Glanzman / Northeastern University

Although Victoria’s Secret has hired football star Megan Rapinoe, size 14 model Paloma Elesser and actress Priyanka Chopra to serve as inspiring figureheads, Rodgers says the brand still perpetuates misogynistic and harmful standards.

“These women are always horribly attractive,” says Rodgers after reviewing several images of the new inclusive campaign.

The reboot comes after Victoria’s Secret faced off plummeting sales and profits in 2019 and 2020, as the company’s hypersexualized models and lack of plus size have become obsolete in the #MeToo era. Meanwhile, lingerie competitors like Aerie saw their sales increase after presenting positive body messages and models of varying sizes without an airbrush.

“The change they’re making is what people call ’empowerment advertising.’ There was this shift from advertising through a deficit lens, where you try to persuade someone that buying your product is going to fix their life and make them look like your role model, towards a focus on values ​​”, explains Rodgers.

Rodgers worked on several studies indicating that digitally altered and enhanced photos featuring slim body ideals directly harm self-esteem and self-image, especially among teens and women. Initiatives like Aerie’s, Rodgers found, at least blunt nefarious comparisons which can lead to depression and eating disorders.

Images of Victoria’s Secret models flaunting a new maternity line are also disturbing, Rodgers says.

“Most pregnant women’s bodies don’t look like this. The image has been sexualized and stylized and designed to look like that, ”Rodgers says.

“It plays on these new pressures that we know are happening around women during pregnancy. It was a protected period in terms of the pressures around appearance, a period when women could focus on functionality and the growth of a human being. And now that’s no longer the case, ”she said.

Rodgers isn’t the brand’s only critic. Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands scored 17 out of 100 points in a Gender benchmark 2021 published June 29. The World Benchmarking Alliance, an organization founded in part by the United Nations Foundation to drive sustainability and inclusion in business, assessed 35 of the world’s largest apparel companies on gender equality and empowerment of people. women. Companies like Gap and The North Face lead the list with just over 50 points.

One of the most successful positive body campaigns came from CVS Pharmacy in 2018, Rodgers says. They have asked beauty brands on their shelves to feature unmodified photos in their in-store advertising by 2020.

“Their hope was that it would give brands a chance to stop photoshop, and they were largely successful,” said Rodgers.

The success of Victoria’s Secret depends on several factors, says Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing.

“I guess it’s better late than never,” Bart said. “The problem is how to gain the consumer’s confidence that he is making real changes and that these new values ​​are not just a facade? “

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, Bart says.

Rodgers hopes the changes are just the start when it comes to reducing the company’s focus on an idealized female image.

“Very good things came out of it. There is a little more diversity in appearance. We see people who are diverse in a number of dimensions and that increases representation, ”says Rodgers. “This must continue. “

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