By Zoe Boothby
I hate this time of year. Yes, the darkness and the cold are bad enough. Add looming university deadlines and Christmas feeling just a little too far out of reach and November can seem almost unbearable. But then on top of all that, this time every year we are bombarded with pictures from possibly the most heinous event in the A-list social calendar: the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
Right now, it is impossible for me to leisurely scroll through a glossy’s website as a means of procrastination without feeling personally targeted: ‘What 12 Victoria’s Secret Models Look Like Without Their Makeup’; ‘How to be a Victoria’s Secret model (by the Angels themselves)’; or, if you were already feeling a bit down about your winter bod, ‘Eat Like An Angel: The Diet That the Victoria’s Secret Models Swear By’. As if society doesn’t already tell me that I’m not hard-working enough, or smart enough, or rich enough, now I’m definitely not beautiful enough either. Like I didn’t already know that.
The thing is that, yes, these women are undoubtedly beautiful. Each is blessed with gorgeous hair, pearly teeth, glowing skin, endless limbs, and washboard abs to boot. Beautiful, yes. But also completely identical.
Maybe I would kill to have their bodies. Maybe I am just jealous and bitter, as people who criticise the Fashion Show are often accused of being. But to me, there is something insidious about the media plastering this image of thirty women looking like clones of each other – besides perhaps differences in hair or skin tone (though the group is still overwhelmingly white) – across the internet, proclaiming them to be the most beautiful women in the world.
As someone whose body is ‘abnormal’ (though there is, really, no such thing as ‘normal’), images like this have provoked a variety of reactions in me. Being rather, shall we say, top-heavy, has had its difficulties over the years. Now I love my body and I wouldn’t (I don’t think) swap it for any other – it is the primary means through which I experience the world and I appreciate what it does for me. But it has been a long and arduous process to get to this place.
When I first started to develop earlier than my friends, I felt like my whole identity had been compromised: as a kid, I was a sporty, tomboyish girl who loved nothing more than climbing trees and playing football. But now I struggled to run without extra help from high-tech sports bras, and even then it was still sore and uncomfortable. I felt like a child in a body that belonged to an adult, and I was very aware of the way that my body was sexualised from an early age.
During those tentative first years of puberty, I failed to see anyone in the public eye with a body similar to my own. I think a lot of people struggle to understand how important identification is during those impressionable years. But when you are constantly bombarded with images of one specific ‘desirable’ body type – like the one favoured by the organisers of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show – it changes the way you think about and view your own body.
My identity became even more confused: ‘Well, I can’t be sporty anymore, and apparently, I can’t be beautiful either.’ And so I swamped my body in baggy jumpers and unflattering oversized shirts, embarrassed by what I considered to be my disproportionate and anomalous figure. I couldn’t go bra shopping without bursting into hysterical tears until I was 16.
The problem with representations of women in the media is that, for far too long, they have been completely one-dimensional, and this fact goes beyond Victoria’s Secret. In film, historically women have been reduced to stock characters: the ‘femme fatale’, the ‘Disney princess’, the ‘action chick’ (although tough as nuts, still as terrible as all the other cinematic stereotypes out there).
In television, we have fared slightly better, but it was still far from ideal. It feels like it is only now that we are finally getting representations of the messy, complicated female characters that we deserve, the ones that actually look like our friends, our sisters, our mothers and even ourselves. I wonder why it is, then, that we are still subjected to this archaic ritual which seems to set all Western beauty standards – or at least in the media.
So where does that leave the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show? I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to such an event, should the ‘Angels’ actually be representative of the women I see all around me (and should Victoria’s Secret actually stock a bra that might fit me). But I highly doubt either of these things will happen anytime soon.
Instead, I challenge the media to stop glorifying this event, and mythologising the strict diet and exercise regimens these models are forced to adhere to – is it not bad enough that we are forced to tolerate this celestial hierarchy of beauty in the first place? As for myself, I have now realised what I should have realised when I was 15: that I can be smart, funny, sexy, or whatever else, regardless of my body type. If only the world had taught me the same thing, I wouldn’t have had to spend so long figuring it out by myself.
Photograph: Cyril Attias via Flickr