Commercial Femininity: A Jewish Reckoning with Victoria's Secret's Legacy
Women are taught to pluck, laser, wax, tone, and bleach our bodies in order to emulate the sexual appearance of a Victoria’s Secret catalog model. We ration money to afford tiny pieces of embellished polyester (only for it to negatively affect our bodies’ pH balances) in the hopes of “feeling” sexy. And who is this sexiness for? Some women say they engage in these costly measures for themselves. I don’t wish to invalidate these perspectives, but I believe that it’s necessary to evaluate the extent to which the male gaze affects women’s attitudes towards ourselves. More specifically, how viciously the male gaze becomes internalized, and how women are not only victims, but now unknowing accomplices.
Lingerie companies like Victoria's Secret have always had a dirty history (and not the good type of dirty) that caters to patriarchal conceptions of beauty to sell to men. Victoria’s Secret began in 1977 with the stated goal of providing a space for men to buy lingerie for women. The early stores featured decorations and furnishings reminiscent of the Victorian era. The catalogue featured images of nearly nude models in suggestive positions. While some parts of the business idea might sound beneficial for women (namely, providing them with more affordable underwear options), it’s clear that there was another motive: create the expectation for women to casually wear lingerie, as it plays into the interests of heterosexual men. Victoria's Secret was created by heterosexual men for heterosexual men's pleasure.
In the time since the launch of Victoria’s Secret, the brand has incorporated some intersectional elements (though it's been slow and announced such changes only recently). The catalogues and advertisements have begun to feature more models of color, models with varied gender and sexual identities, and models of varying body types. What hasn’t changed, though, is their hypersexualized public image—so publicized that it’s almost impossible to visit any mall or shopping center in America without witnessing blown-up photographs of hairless, airbrushed women’s bodies plastered across the walls.
Growing up, I would see these images of Victoria's Secret models when I went to the mall. The models became my default (and only) view of femininity and what it means to be an adult woman. Their perky breasts, long legs, and Eurocentric features all represented aspects of physical maturity for a woman in my mind, rather than an idea of cosmetic and genetic perfection. Since I was so young, I had no idea that there was a way to be a woman without looking like them. I even expected myself to wake up one morning and magically look like a Victoria’s Secret model. I saw models' bodies as the norm.
And that’s the problem.
This aesthetic I believed to be "normal" for women was manufactured by men to sell a product to men, and I, as a growing kid, wholly believed that this was natural for everyone (or at least anyone that was worthy of being deemed as attractive). Further, these advertisements led me to believe that the casual use of lingerie and smokey eye was the only way to express femininity. If seven-year-old me were to find out that seventeen-year-old me exclusively flaunts sports bras from Costco, she would have been devastated at how uninspiring I’ve turned out to be. Luckily, I don’t care what my former, indoctrinated self would think about these choices; after all, self-validation and care is all the rage nowadays.
But actually, the lingerie industry has shifted their agenda to match the rising popularity of self-love in the mainstream accordingly. Though the original intent of Victoria’s Secret was to create a place where men could buy gifts of lingerie for women, the consumerist dynamic has shifted, and the lingerie industry has accordingly shifted their agenda.Victoria’s Secret now markets to women and their internalized male gaze, rather than to men directly.
If it was once a reward or an expression of adoration from a man to be gifted a piece of lingerie, then how could social conditioning not lead women to believe that same sexy clothing can represent love and validation in other ways? Cutting men out of the equation, contemporary marketing tells women that purchasing lingerie for ourselves is self-love. This idea simply trickles down from the original necessity of “male validation.” I’m not seeking to judge this practice; I’m nowhere close to overcoming my own internalization of the male gaze. But I do think it’s important to highlight that nothing in this industry is a coincidence; it’s simply misogyny, in its most lucrative form.
I’ve recently been learning about onah, the word in Jewish law which refers to the commandment that men satisfy their wives sexually. Even in ancient Judaism, where patriarchy flowed like milk and honey, there’s a notion that women's pleasure is important to the success of a sexual encounter; yet, is this discussion related to female empowerment, or to furthering men's pleasure through women's pleasure?
The discussion of this word in Jewish law reflects the ancient struggle of female empowerment in relationship to sexuality—there must have been an instance that led to this rule being written into Jewish law. In my experience, oddly specific rules are evidence of oddly specific mishaps. Onah may further exemplify how everything for women is made with the intent of pleasing men; in this case, it's may be presented through the idea that female enjoyment creates a more pleasurable experience for the man involved.
These lessons leave us with a lot to think about. As of June 2021, it seems like, finally, Victoria's Secret may be addressing these issues in some way as well. Yet, however they work to move forward, this 56-year legacy remains. For me, I'll be focused on figuring out a way to liberate myself from my internalized male gaze without throwing away aspects of a commercialized femininity that I enjoy from time to time. As it is, mass-produced lingerie is clearly a patriarchal mechanism; there must be a way for women to wear an accessory without being treated like accessories ourselves.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Lieberperson, Goldi. "Commercial Femininity: A Jewish Reckoning with Victoria's Secret's Legacy." 26 July 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 24, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/commercial-femininity-jewish-reckoning-victorias-secret>.