A Victoria's Secret logo fades to a distance shot of a woman's figure. There's a white sheet covering her lower back, her butt, and one of her legs. Another leg, long and toned, juts out from behind the sheet and angles down, planting a high heel on the floor. The ad asks, "What is sexy?", but this is, of course, rhetorical. Before the ad even asks the question, it has presented its answer in the first shot. Throughout the rest of the ad, we're reminded to be thinking, "What is sexy?", as well as shown not only the physical features, but the behaviors of sexiness. In a chapter of American Beauty documenting the qualities of Victorian standards of beauty in America, Lois Banner notes a number of traits that we can easily observe in this modern Victoria's Secret commercial.
Banner traces a sort of passive, frail, completely unaggressive woman as the paragon of beauty (45-47). She describes the women in Victorian rococo paintings as, "buxom, yet small and delicate, their sensuality coy and indirect," (45). Although she is describing an 18th century style it is certainly not a stretch to imagine that she is describing these Victoria's Secret models. The model in the first shot of the ad, for example, does nothing physical to appeal to the viewer. She is merely on display, not pushing herself on us, but passively letting us watch and evaluate her. Several of the women are coated in light, flowing sheets that seem a part of the models, as if to suggest that that the wind could carry the models off as easily as it could the sheets. The models are in good physical condition, but are merely toned, not buff. They have enough self control to keep their bodies in shape without seeming as though they're capable of overpowering anyone.
Part of this nonthreatening physicality is the result of a specific focus on weight, often with the help of corsets. Banner writes that, "...'beautiful', 'fine', and 'handsome' women existed, and these categories of physical appearance implied height, health, and solidity." She also writes of "public censors" that ensured women ate very little in public, and big sisters imposing diets on younger sisters (47). Although the ad gives no overt verbal directive to watch our weight, the models and imagery describe to us that "sexy" is thin. And although women of Victorian beauty that Banner describes were encouraged to wear corsets to create the illusion of thinness, the commercial omits them. But this does not mean that these tools are forbidden. Rather, they've become invisible. For example, Dove commissioned an ad that depicting a time-lapse video of a woman being transformed, first physically and then digitally, in order to be put onto a billboard (Evolution [Dove]), and liposuction is available to those with access to the extra funds.
Banner's description of Victorian beauties and the Victoria's Secret ad also share similar methods of presentation and enforcement. The Victoria's Secret ad does this by providing examples of what "sexy" is. To (heterosexual) men, the women in the ad seem to ask, "What is sexy? Oh...me?" and in a manner that preserves the passiveness of the models, but still comes to the conclusion that the models exemplify beauty. Directed at women, the message changes. They more appear to be saying, "What is sexy? I am. What are you?", in a very critical tone. The way the models are presented aims to capture the attention of heterosexual men, while also subtly chastising women who don't (or can't) look like them. Essentially the models act as prescriptions, not unlike the "prescribed dimensions" (48), descriptions in fashion magazines (46), and etiquette books and manuals (48) that Banner notes in her book as methods of distributing and enforcing beauty standards. Just as these objects laid out the rules for women, the Victoria's Secret commercial presents models for women to compare themselves to, showing them the standards for beauty that they must obtain (which also, incidentally, serves the purpose of the ad by associating sexiness and beauty with their lingerie).
Fortunately, the corseting and chronic dieting of Victorian beauties and the touch ups and cosmetic surgery required to look like the Victoria's Secret models reveal the absurdity of these prescriptions. Banner uses a Harriet Beecher Stowe quote that very accurately sums up the situation: "We in America have got so far out of the way of a woman-hood that has any vigor of outline or opulence of physical proportions, that, when we see a woman made as woman ought to be, she strikes us as a monster," (47). Stowe points out the very important fact that the women who subscribed to these Victorian codes were unnatural, and that it was the natural appearance of women (that is, how they would look if they weren't obsessed with "physical proportions") that was to be combated. Ironically, Banner later notes scientific discourses of the era that linked the Victorian standards to a natural state (49-50), despite the overwhelming accounts of women's hard work to appear the way a Victorian woman should. And these insane measures to conform to what beautiful is exist today, not only in the form of dieting, but also (as mentioned before) through surgery and digital manipulation. For example, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty commissioned a commercial to show how models really look and how much they are distorted by the time we see them (Evolution [Dove]). Although the ad makes no direct claims that science or nature dictate that women should uphold the beauty standards, they make no efforts indicate otherwise, and, in fact, draw focus away from the incredible effort the models must put into attaining that specific physical configuration.
All of this comes to a head to form the concept of beauty standards as culturally formed, as opposed to being natural qualities. Banner eventually describes visitors to America (where Victorian beauty was prevalent), especially Germans and the British, as "plump and healthy" (58). She also writes that, "Lola Montez...pointed out that only Western Europeans held the model of a 'Lilliputian dame' as their ideal of beauty in women," (59). And the same is true today. Many of the American symbols of beauty differ in look from those of other cultures. In a blog post, a film critic commented on the differences between what American and Puerto Rican men find typically attractive, and concluded that, "Chacon points out that Puerto Rican men prefer a more voluptuous body (Iris, J-lo, Vida Guerra, Eva Mendes, etc.) than American Men (Elisha Cuthbert, Scarlett Johansson, with Paris Hilton the "skinny chick" apotheosis)," (Merv Griffin, Iris Chacon, and Latin Beauty Stereotype). What this points out is that beauty is almost undeniably a set of man (and woman) made dictations, or fabrications of culture. Once this is realized it is important to explore (and this has probably been done many times over) why the standards exist, and what function they serve those who act to maintain them. But that is beyond the scope of this paper, and for now, after merely noting the manufacture of beauty, the tag line, "No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted" (Evolution [Dove]) should resonate in our minds, and perhaps inspire us to think about being angry, if only a just a little.
Banner, Lois. American Beauty. Knopf, 1983.
Evolution (Dove). Dir. Yael Staav. Perf. Stephanie Betts. Online. Ogilvy & Mather (Toronto), 2006.