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Women starved themselves to reach Victoria's Secret 'virtually inhuman' standard of beauty; now the iconic Angels are gone

·5 min read
JUNE 17th 2021: Victoria's Secret officially abandons the Victoria's Secret Angels and the Angel Wings as part of a major re-branding campaign. - File Photo by: zz/DP/AAD/STAR MAX/IPx 2016 11/30/16 Alessandra Ambrosio on the runway during the 2016 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show held on November 30, 2016 at The Grand Palais in Paris, France.

Shiny hair. Big breasts. Flat stomachs. Protruding collarbones. Long, tanned legs.

Jazmine Moreno would examine their bodies on her lunch break at work, watching them catwalk across the stage in thongs and bras made of Swarovski crystals. At age 17, in Moore, Okla., she tortured herself with one question: "Why can't I look like a Victoria's Secret Angel?"

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Moreno, now 26, did everything she could to make her body more like theirs. She looked up their diets online. She ate three nuts when she wanted a handful. She worked out every day, sometimes twice. But no matter what she tried, she said, she was still too muscular. Too curvy. The little pouch at the bottom of her stomach - the thing she hated most about her body - wouldn't go away.

"You imagine yourself looking like that. You're sparkling, you're glowing, you're everything. That was the fantasy in my head."

Victoria's Secret announced a major rebranding effort Wednesday that included an end to the "Angels," the store's signature group of models, known for taking the catwalk in lingerie, jewels and feathered wings. The platform that launched supermodels like Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks will be replaced with a more diverse set of models who have built successful careers that extend outside of the industry, including soccer star Megan Rapinoe, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and LGBTQ model and activist Valentina Sampaio.

The Angels are no longer "culturally relevant," Victoria's Secret chief executive Martin Waters told the New York Times.

Since the late 1990s, the Victoria's Secret Angels have been a cultural icon, idolized by people around the world. They promoted a standard of beauty that was "virtually inhuman," said Renee Engeln, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. In her classes on the psychology of beauty, Engeln uses the Angels as the "classic example" of the narrow range of body types often put forward in the media, causing women, and especially young women, to feel like they'll never be enough.

"Victoria's Secret has always had this hold over young women," said Erin Dyer, 23, based in Doonbeg, Ireland. "You look at these tanned bronzed women and you think, 'I should have this as a goal, then I'll feel like these women look.'"

Of course, Dyer said, it was a goal you'd never reach.

When Jennifer Osting was 14, she and her friends would gather around the television in Louisville to watch the famous Victoria's Secret fashion show. "These women are perfect," Osting would think to herself. At her all-girls school, many of her friends tried the "Victoria's Secret Model Diet." She would see them at lunch, eating celery and peanut butter, she said. They could only eat 1,200 calories a day.

Osting, now 21, didn't think she was like those girls, she said. She was comfortable with her body. Whenever her school served loaded tater tots for lunch, she helped herself to a heaping portion.

But then she noticed how many compliments the Model Diet girls seemed to be collecting.

And she'd think to herself: "Maybe I should do that, too."

Through the Angels, Victoria's Secret linked their brand to sex appeal, Engeln said. The message was clear, she said: Men want women who look like this. If you didn't look like an Angel, Engeln added, you might come away thinking you weren't desirable.

As a teenager, Moreno said, she liked Victoria's Secret because it was "kind of scandalous." If she wore this kind of lingerie and tried to embody the Angel aesthetic, she said, she thought boys would like her.

Eventually, she said, she started to get skeptical.

"It took me a while to realize: Why do I want to be this fantasy for guys and not be this fantasy for myself?"

Over the last few years, more and more people have been speaking out against the unrealistic beauty norms perpetuated by brands like Victoria's Secret, Engeln said. Several of the company's competitors, like Fenty by Rihanna, have embraced a more inclusive concept of beauty.

"Victoria's Secret isn't doing this because they care about women," Engeln said about the shift to inclusivity. "They're doing this because the old way wasn't making them as much money."

In making this decision, the company listened to its consumers, chief marketing officer Martha Pease wrote in a statement to The Washington Post. "Women have told us what they want. We know what they want from us in their lives. They want us to acknowledge and embrace diversity."

Osting imagines there are a lot of women like her, in their 20s and 30s, who grew up with Victoria's Secret - but are now starting to question the company's definition of beauty.

Dyer, who wears plus sizes, has tailored her social media feeds to leave out pictures of stick-thin models. When those kinds of models pop up on her social media, she'll scroll right past them or click "not interested." After a while, she said, the algorithm picked up on what she didn't want to see.

Dyer is deeply skeptical of Victoria's Secret's rebranding decision. She doesn't believe their new, inclusive message, she said. While Victoria's Secret executives may say they want to promote all body types, she said, "I think they will always value socially accepted beautiful people more."

Still, she said, she was happy to see the change. For many women, she said, Victoria's Secret is still the "poster child for femininity." If they change everything about their brand, she added, other companies will follow.

After she learned about the rebranding with Rapinoe and others, Moreno thought about her 17-year-old self.

"These are real people, chosen based on what they've accomplished." If she had seen the new model lineup when she was 17, she said, "it would have saved me so much trouble and heartache."

Even with all the changes, Moreno isn't quite sure how she feels about the store.

She would maybe take her future daughter there one day, she said - but "only if she asked."

- - -

This story first appeared in The Washington Post's The Lily publication.

          

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