On Watching The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show

2015's Parade of Bodies

I watch the show every year, and every year it does not feel good. In 2015, I decided to look into what exactly felt so bad.

Susannah Emerson

 

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I’ve watched the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show on TV since I was a girl. This would probably surprise the majority of people who know me. It was always something I hid from my parents, never something I discussed with friends, and never something with which I wanted to affiliate myself, but I was always drawn to it. In 2014, I watched the show in the middle of the night in my bed during an anxious spell when I was desperately homesick. I remember wanting to watch it with my boyfriend; I wanted to ensure that he’d hear my commentary and concern over the models’ sterilized sexuality (presumably for network television and a male gaze), share in my judgments and admire me for having them. In 2015, I braced myself for another strong reaction, and sat on my couch, pen to paper, prepared to take notes and crack the secret code that had kept me captive since girlhood. In 2016, I DVRed the show, watched it and barely cared (and by that I mean, I didn't feel compelled to write something, and I only watched half of the behind the scenes videos on YouTube). I anticipate watching in 2017. This piece, however, harkens back to my 2015 viewing. 

Seconds into the hour-long TV special, I realized that I hadn’t recorded the live pre-show interviews with select models, and had a sinking feeling that I had missed something big. I didn’t have much time to dwell in regret though as there was so much skin and pink and hair to look at right off the bat. The show started, and then the models made their way down the runway. I sat up tall, ready to record every errant thought. My first note reads “not enough time to look at bodies,” i.e. I am in it, totally mesmerized by how well I can see skin pulling across tiny muscles and hip bones, wishing the producers had let each shot run a little longer so that I could find out what the butts and breasts look like post bounce. They don't let the shots run on, though. They move on to more models, and my gaze can’t settle. Looking at my notes now, I see a vague outline of the show - there were three performers: The Weeknd, Ellie Goulding, and Selena Gomez, and there were themed catwalk sections, backstage interviews and pre-recorded segments on the models’ fitness regimens, but my brain can’t put its memories in order. I wrote that I'd felt like like I may have just gotten off of a carousel.

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I do know that at one point before going on stage Adriana Lima crossed herself, and I wondered what exactly she was praying for. Not to fall? It struck me as sad for a minute that this would be a moment in her life worthy of a prayer, but I caught myself being condescending. I am a wholly unaffiliated, scornful and ultimately, invested, third party sitting in her apartment picking apart glimpses into an important day in a model’s professional life. The models all know this “cultural milestone” they’re a part of is set up to sell underwear, and they play along. In the model fitness segment, Elsa Hosk asserts that she and the other girls work out to be strong enough to walk with their wings. At the end of Selena Gomez’s rendition of “Me and My Girls,” two models clad as an American Flag and an Astronaut, respectively, return to the runway so that they can hug each other and promote friendship. These are the kind of calculated falsehoods that I expect to be fed by the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The entire production is figuratively airbrushed, and except the little girls watching, we can all see the spin as it's spun. It’s not even insulting because we are all supposed know - models, producers, spray tanners, audience members, everyone.

I keep going back to what Adriana Lima could have been praying for, though. This was her 15th show. She, and all the other models, talk about what an honor it is to put on their angel wings; they talk about what it does for their career, how it’s the most important event in fashion, seen in 192 countries. That’s their job, but Lily Aldridge cried when she was chosen to wear the multimillion dollar fantasy bra this year. And Gigi Hadid cried when she found out she was chosen to walk the 2015 runway, having been rejected in 2014. Jasmine Tookes told us she works out 7 days a week, sometimes twice a day leading up to the show. The event clearly matters to its participants. I see it as they’re about to head on stage and in their poses at the end of the runway, especially. The girls shimmy or wink or draw a heart and blow a kiss, and they look so vulnerable. They’ve been whittled down, made up, put in the middle of a lot of lights and wind machines, and they're trying so hard for us.

When new angel Sara Sampaio walked on stage, she smiled and made a “ta da!” type gesture with her arms just like a 6 year old girl might. The producers chose to include this shot of her, and I can’t figure out why. She looks awkward and uncomfortable and decidedly preadolescent (that is, very unsexy). I am embarrassed for her in that moment, just as I am for just about every girl (save for the veterans who look like they might enjoy themselves) at the end of the runway when they have to pose and deal with the rest of us knowing that this is what they look like when they try to look supernaturally alluring.

But nine times out of ten, they do not look supernaturally alluring. If the producers linger on anything, it's consisently these shots showcasing the models and their painful vulnerability. The show is not live. There are infinite moments to choose from, taking into consideration the multiple cameras and the multiple walks each girl takes down the runway for every one that we see televised.

The show's not just shots of lithe legs and seamlessly applied weaves, though.  We see childhood photos of Behati Prinsloo in a nativity scene and Candice Swanepoel playing cricket in bloomers because relatability, just like “girl power,” is in (and lucrative). I get that. But why show us shot after shot confirming that many of these girls (Prinsloo and Swanepoel excluded) look relatably uncomfortable up there being sexy in their underwear? Isn't that the wrong kind of relatable?

In 2015, I thought I’d know something new about sexuality or sales when I finished watching, but I was left toying with odd editorial inconsistencies, a persistent spinning feeling that came on when watching the Fireworks section, and so many questions about what they’re selling to me when they put models who look so fragile, so shell shocked on TV. I hope next fall I’ll be able to treat the show as a long and messy advertisement that I can disregard. I hope I'll spare myself the agony of imagining the inner lives of Victoria’s Secret models. Two years ago I couldn’t stop replaying the models’ frozen smiles and their stilted dancing. I couldn't separate myself from them, my body from theirs, and not take on the inordinate pressure of their wings. I couldn't stop thinking about how very unpretty it might be on the inside.

I'm thinking these ruminations might not change for me. I wonder if any of them gets high off of their rare opportunity to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. Whether any of them crumbles under the responsibility of suggesting that perfect exists. Whether any of them is hurt by the occasional suggestion that they are not real women because they don't have certain curves. I wonder how many of them don't have those curves by sheer force of will; for how many of them the pursuit of curvelessness has both ruined and made their lives. I wonder if any of them feels both blamed for and broken by the public notion that their bodies are the ideal, how they manage being hated, adored and fetishized for their bodies. Do they think about the many, many very young and very old boys and girls who get off looking at their bodies? Do they like that? Hate that? Ignore that? I wonder whether they feel pride. Whether they question the pride they feel. And I wonder if, for any of them, the whole event is as simple as loving walking around partially clothed for an audience. If that last part could be true, what do they know that I don't? What don't they know that I do?