After years of seeing Victoria’s Secret lace panties and dainty bikinis in the catalog that used to come in the mail for my mom, I finally set foot into a real store when I was 12 and visiting New York City for the first time. Inside, the hot pink walls and floor-to-ceiling cabinets resembled the fantasy closets all girls my age used to dream of. I touched everything — corseted bodysuits, fruity-scented splash bottles, comfy boxer briefs, and silk bath robes — and could easily envision the kind of woman that I hoped to grow up to be. Sensual, long-haired, confident, and stylish, the future me would conquer the world while wearing Victoria's Secret perfume and a push-up bra.
I was 17 when my hometown of San Juan got its first Victoria’s Secret store. Thanks to a journalism internship I had at the time, I scored interviews with the legendary Victoria's Secret Angels Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, and Erin Heatherton. The trio arrived inside a hot-pink helicopter, literally descending from the heavens onto the top floor of the Caribbean’s biggest mall, Plaza Las Américas. Stepping out of their carriage, the Angels were dressed in matching little black dresses and sky-high stilettos. The photographers around me, most of them middle-aged men, marveled at their beauty, discussing how hard it’d be to score a date with one of them: “Es que son otra cosa.” They’re in another league.
To me, the Angels seemed human. Yes, they were taller than the average person (I can still feel my neck get sore from looking up to their faces during our interviews), but these women were flesh and blood, unlike the images I had seen for years on ads and catalogs. And if they were made of the same things I was, what was the difference between them, these Angels, and me?
Since its launch in 1977, Victoria’s Secret's lore was built on a set of fantastical narratives about young models from remote areas of Brazil and South Africa who became supermodels with a simple push-up bra. It was Victoria's Secret that catapulted the careers of people like Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, Adriana Lima, and Candice Swanepoel. The company operated under the guise that their products, which included lingerie, everyday undergarments, loungewear, swimwear, and beauty items, would empower women to be their best selves. However, the reality is that many didn’t feel that way.
Sources contacted through a Refinery29 social media survey recall bubbling insecurities and body image issues resulting from Victoria’s Secret’s branding and campaigns. “I did not feel empowered at all by any of its models, shows, or campaigns because I knew I was never going to be that skinny,” said Chanel Zapata, a media coordinator in the sports field, who’s been using Victoria’s Secret products since she was 13. For Gabriela, a student at Georgia State University, who preferred to keep her last name private, the story was similar: “The images made me feel insecure about my body.”
Both Zapata and Gabriela were also first introduced to Victoria’s Secret through women in their family who subscribed to its famous catalog from which they placed actual orders (I know, what a time!). Bit by bit, the VS world jumped from the catalog to their everyday lives, transforming the push-up bras and cheeky panties into pieces they sought to buy for their underwear drawers.
Like me, Zapata grew up in Puerto Rico. Immediately after the Victoria’s Secret store opened, it became the place to be. Zapata remembers that the long lines to check out would reach the store’s front entrance and that carrying a Victoria’s Secret bag instantly made you a cool girl. “Buying VS meant that you no longer had to shop at JCPenney or Kmart. You were becoming a woman and wearing real undergarments,” she said.
That association between beauty and class was so strong that, even when Victoria’s Secret shoppers became aware that the company’s messaging promoted toxic standards of beauty, it was hard to shake off the idea that it all should be empowering. Freelance journalist Elsa Cavazos felt Victoria’s Secret’s products allowed her to see a sexier, more confident side of her that other brands didn’t. Still, her sense of empowerment was limited by the brand’s narrow representation of beauty. “Most models’ [bodies] were not necessarily similar to my own body,” she said.
After decades of cultural dominance, Victoria’s Secret’s authority began to crumble in the late 2010s. Following the #MeToo movement and calls for gender, racial, and body diversity in the fashion industry, Victoria’s Secret found itself at the center of a few controversies. In 2018, former chief marketing officer Ed Razek told Vogue the brand was not interested in hiring transgender or plus-size models for its annual fashion show. Later, the brand attempted to diversify its lineup, hiring transgender model Valentina Sampaio and curve model Ali Tate Cutler. Still, its moves failed to catch up with the rest of cultural changes occurring in the industry. In 2019, Victoria’s Secret canceled its fashion show, which many blamed on the popularity of Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty show, which features a much wider range of models and entertainers who model the clothing during an immersive pre-recorded performance. A year later, a New York Times investigation revealed widespread bullying and harassment of models and employees throughout the company, in large part from Razek, who later resigned. Since then, the company has been at a standstill, plotting how it'll step out of the shadow of brands like Savage x Fenty and Aerie, whose inclusive sizing and branding have earned them a loyal following.
Now, the company is trying to win back women by rebranding as a company that prioritizes comfort and body positivity over male attention and hourglass figures. In June, the brand announced that it was relaunching with new ambassadors. Named the “Victoria’s Secret Collective,” the set of models, activists, athletes, and entertainers, which include women like Paloma Elsesser, Megan Rapinoe, and Priyanka Chopra, will collaborate with the company to design collections that fit women’s needs and tailor them to a more diverse customer base. “We got it wrong, we lost relevance with the modern woman, and she told us very clearly to change our focus from how people look, to how people feel, from being about what he wants to being about what she wants and to support her in her narrative, in whatever way that she chooses,” said Martin Waters, CEO of VS&Co, Victoria’s Secret new parent company, in a statement provided to Refinery29. “So to win her back, we'll celebrate and inspire her, and we'll support her desire to show up however it is that she chooses.” Waters shared a similar statement during an investor meeting in July of 2021.
Now, campaign imagery from the company is world’s away from the highly sexualized ads filled with the thin, specifically proportioned models it once used to lionize. Take, for example, the images from its Bare Infinity Bra relaunch in July 2021 that featured Elsesser, Mayowa Nicholas, and Aamito Lagum embracing each other in a friendly, intimate hug, rather than a faux-titillating embrace for a man’s attention. “We are committed to creating lifelong relationships with customers by reflecting them, their stories and their journey in everything we do. You are starting to see these changes come to life,” read Waters’ statement. Still, this year, L Brands — Victoria’s Secret former parent company before this year’s rebrand — scored a 17 out of 100 in the 2021 Gender Benchmark report, which evaluates the world’s largest companies on gender equality and women’s empowerment.hat.
For all the attempts Victoria’s Secret has made to regain women’s trust, former fans are still skeptical. “I think VS is going to have to do a big part in undoing this damage if they’re truly committed to this rebranding,” said Gabriela. For Zapata, the recent rebranding is too opportunistic: “I love that they are finally trying to pivot and have an evolution, but it looks very disingenuous.” Both agree that, even when the brand has attempted to make shifts in its imagery and message, but consumers are still waiting for more. Gabriela said it’d take hiring models of color, disabled models, fat models, and trans models for her to trust VS again. She also wants the brand to learn a lesson from companies like Aerie that has pledged to reduce or eliminate retouching on its images, as well as partnering with organizations that empower and service women. Even then, for Zapata, it’d be hard to ever go back: “I wouldn’t feel as comfortable as shopping at Aerie.”
Nearly 10 years after meeting the Angels in person, I don’t own a single Victoria’s Secret item — not the lip gloss I used to wear to school every day or the cheeky 5-for-$25 panties from its PINK section. Most of my underwear is now from Savage x Fenty, whose ad campaigns feature women who make me feel less ashamed about the cellulite on my thighs. While Gabriela still owns some pieces from Victoria’s Secret, she only plans to give the company her money on one condition. No longer caring about the status Victoria’s Secret’s pink bags used to hold, she said: “I will probably continue buying its bras when they’re on sale.”