First published by Independent Voices, 29th October 2014

I’m so glad that Victoria’s Secret have set me straight on what constitutes the “perfect body”. There I was, blithely believing that all bodies are equally valuable and their differences make them equally perfect, but the US lingerie company has come to the rescue and corrected my ignorance.

The Victoria’s Secret campaign for its new range of ‘body’ lingerie shows ten VS models (or ‘Angels’ as they are known) with the words THE PERFECT ‘BODY’ emblazoned over their bra-and-knicker-clad forms. Clearly, the joke is meant to be that the bra (‘body’) is the ‘perfect’ fit, but rather than this very clever play on words, the first thing that struck me about this ad was that the ‘perfect bodies’ on display were a row of identical scantily-clad woman that are all the same. Identical. They are the same height and the same brand of super-skinny. Their legs and stomachs are interchangeable. Save for variations in hair and skin colour, they could be clones. Every single model (apart from the woman who has turned to show the racer-back of her bra) has visible ribs, and a couple show clearly visible hip-bones. Very clever, VS.I consider myself recovered from an eight-year eating disorder, but I blanched at the ad. It wouldn’t look out of place on a pro-anorexic site, and if the creators of the ad had done even a cursory search, they would’ve found that VS Angels have been used as ‘thinspiration’ and ‘fitspiration’ by users of online forums that discuss eating disorders as lifestyle choices. This connection serves to make their ‘perfect “body’” message even more distasteful.

There is already a petition, started by a Leeds student, calling for Victoria’s Secret to “apologise and take responsibility for the unhealthy and damaging message that their ‘Perfect Body’ campaign is sending out about women’s bodies and how they should be judged”. At the time of writing, it has reached over 2,200 signatures.

But why should we care about yet another cynically controversial ad campaign? We see enough of them already, and the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency has banned promotional material from many brands and designers.

It’s important because the Victoria’s Secret campaign follows the release of new research from the 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey. It found that almost 10 million women in the UK ‘feel depressed’ because of the way they look. The issue of body image in Britain is clearly one of epidemic proportions, and adverts like this do little to help.

According to a 2014 global study compiled by the Children’s Society, one in seven 10-13 year olds in Britain are worried about they look, and their concerns only increase with age. There is a marked gender divide, with girls twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies as their male counterparts. The government-backed Be Real initiative, designed to tackle bad body image, has found that a third of children say that they often worry about the way they look and appearance is the largest cause of bullying in schools.

In an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace, brands seem to work on the assumption that any publicity is good publicity. Just as American Apparel must surely be fully aware of the value of the press generated by their highly sexualized advertisements, one wonders if it’s possible that Victoria’s Secret’s ad team designed the campaign to attract attention by sparking controversy.

If so, they’ve succeeded in their aim, but at what cost? Their campaign doesn’t take account of the experiences of women and young girls who are already struggling with harmful, rigid and often conflicting messages about what their bodies should look like and the value than society places on appearance.

For their next campaign, I’d like to see Victoria’s Secret drawing inspiration from the existing variety of female bodies and throw the weight of their popular and successful brand behind sending out positive and healthy messages to their target market.

Victoria’s Secret can keep their idea of what the ‘perfect body’ looks like, resplendent in its exclusive, poisonous homogeny. I’ll be buying my lingerie elsewhere.

Posted by:harrietpwilliamson