As an adult, I associate Victoria’s Secret with a litany of things: ill-fitting and inexplicably expensive bras. Offensively saccharine body sprays. Deep-seated self-loathing and a sense of never quite belonging, both stubborn holdovers from growing up queer and femme and fat in wealthy, appearance-obsessed suburbia.
Inclusion of women like me, whose bodies don’t fit the prescribed norms for a Victoria’s Secret Angel—tall, lithe, and tanned, with disproportionately large and perky breasts—has never been a checkmark on that list. I don’t think it ever will be. And, if I’m being totally honest, I’m kind of OK with that.
This weekend, Victoria’s Secret exec Ed Razek—you guessed it, a 70-year-old cisgender white man—told Vogue that he wouldn’t put plus-size women or “transsexuals” on a Victoria’s Secret runway show. “It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this?” he told the magazine. “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special.”
Razek’s reasoning is blatant fatphobia and transphobia, cushioned in a disturbingly reductive and, frankly, untrue summation of what the American public actually wants to see. There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s a beautiful, sunny fall day, and I don’t want to give this crusty old white guy too much of my emotional energy. For the sake of this piece, I’m going to ignore Razek’s use of outdated and offensive terminology to refer to trans women. I’m going to ignore the fact that trans women are actually fetishized all the freaking time, often by—again, you guessed it—older cis, heterosexual men. I’m also going to ignore the fact that Razek and VS issued a vague non-apology in response to the entirely justified backlash and calls for a boycott.
Whether or not we want to admit it, the symbolic approval of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show does matter. Shoddy bras and gross perfumes aside, the brand’s annual fashion show has long been viewed as the pinnacle of female sensuality. The shows have been held since 1995 and aired on primetime television since 2001, showcasing a sampling of the world’s top models to sport the brand’s runway-ready looks. The TV premieres reportedly draw some 800 million viewers annually from around the world. The show is an immensely profitable spectacle that panders explicitly and unapologetically to the male gaze: Models are thin, tall, and perfectly curvy, with not a trace of body hair nor a blemish in sight.
They’re also majority white, although fellow VS exec Monica Mitro notes that the brand was “one of the first to tell women to wear their natural hair, and that was a huge headline [two] years ago. That’s one thing we’ve been really proud of about the show; it’s not just women who are hangers carrying clothing.”
If that’s truly the case, then plus-size women and trans women should absolutely be included. I want to make that crystal clear: Inclusion of this level and scope is vital for women whose bodies are constantly scrutinized and marginalized. Of course, representation in and of itself isn’t a one-step fix-it for systemic injustices. But it does go a long way toward normalizing what has historically been othered. Laverne Cox’s groundbreaking “Transgender Tipping Point” Time magazine cover from June 2014—a watershed moment for trans representation in media—comes to mind.
However, it’s equally important to interrogate why we’re so obsessed with this type of representation in the first place. Is it because we genuinely want fat women and trans women to be included alongside thin, cis models? Or is it because we want to make these non-normative bodies palatable to general audiences by contorting them until they align with society’s idea of beauty?
If plus-size women were to walk the runway at a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, make no mistake: We’d see fat women whose bodies have been primped and preened to look appealing to the male gaze—not fat women like me, with cellulite and blemishes and short hair and tattoos. If trans women or trans feminine folks were to walk the runway, we’d see trans women whose bodies exemplify conventional femininity—trans women who “pass” as cis, who’ve been made-up into a version of a woman cis-het men can fantasize about without transphobia-induced shame.
Of course, all of those ways of being fat and being trans are valid. I’m not here to critique or discredit anybody’s journey toward self-love. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look beautiful in a way that is societally sanctioned, and every woman, cis and trans, reserves the right to look and present how she wants.
But there’s nuance here. When we ask Victoria’s Secret to include plus-size women and trans women, we know exactly which fat and trans bodies will even come close to attaining the unattainable. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves if this kind of representation—the kind that perpetuates narrow, patriarchal gender norms, even if it offers a huge platform and buckets of money—is really the hill we’re willing to die on.
Yes, Victoria’s Secret should welcome plus-size women and trans women, even if its execs don’t see it as a competitor for ThirdLove or Savage x Fenty. (Spoiler alert: Brands like those, which do value inclusivity and diversity, will outlast the Victoria’s Secrets of the retail world.) Yes, I’m sick and tired of having this goddamn conversation over and over again in 2018. And, yes, we should remain critical of why and how we want to be depicted on a national stage. As members of the LGBTQ community, the types of representation we seek matter as much as, if not more than, simply being represented.