Navigating The New Standards of Beauty; Lessons From Victoria’s Secret


Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2017 Photo: Corey Tenold

The highest-earning salespeople are often the most attractive. It’s a difficult metric to quantify but study after study confirms the relationship between appearance and income. Are attractive people drawn to positions where good looks earn them more money? Perhaps these individuals aren’t that attractive, but they invest in better clothes, expensive haircuts, and frequent grooming?

That’s certainly the message from the fashion and beauty industry, and it’s how they sell their products. From clothing, to hair products, to plastic surgery, our pursuit of looking our best has become a massive industry. But what happens when the image of beauty becomes so rare, so aetherial, that no mere mortal can achieve it? No other company can tell us more about that pursuit of impossible beauty standards than Victoria’s Secret, and their army of Angels!

Beauty has always mattered to human beings. The Egyptians were famously fascinated by beauty and largely created what we now call cosmetics. The word cosmetics is derived from a Greek term for “dress and ornament” and “skilled in arranging”. If you’ve ever seen models getting ready for a strut on the catwalk, you can see the art of make-up is about more than dumping some production on your face. Different models or different venues require different make-up.

Of course, beauty changes with the times. A couple of centuries ago and beauty (and celebrity) was defined by royalty. Who else had the prestige, the wealth, the magnificent jewelry, and the fantastically expensive clothing to capture our imaginations? Famous artists pre-dating photoshop created paintings and sculptures of unearthly beauty. At a time when your next meal was not always guaranteed, Rubens celebrated a plumber, curvier standard of female beauty that carries his name even today… Rubenesque.

Male beauty was not completely overlooked. Consider Franz Liszt, a 19th-century composer and pianist. His secret to filling concerts hall was partially his extraordinary artistic skills, and partially his dramatic good looks. As portraiture gave way to photography, lesser celebrities defined the male image. War heroes were picked up by newspapers, Broadway stars, Hollywood actors, and Rock Stars. They all had talent or at least accomplishments, but becoming a superstar meant having a certain attitude and the right looks.

Free But Profitable: In the 1990s, something new happened. Blame it on cable TV, and later the Internet. Fashion shows have been around since before the 20th century. But they were for industry insiders. Watching models walk from one end of a stage (the catwalk) and back, then go backstage, change, and repeat…. wasn’t exactly thrilling. But the nightly news might… on a slow news day… take a minute or two to talk about some outrageous fashion trend. But fledgling cable channels were struggled to fill up their air time, and (at least in the beginning) it didn’t cost anything to broadcast a fashion show.

Celebrity Without Talent?: While some models can act, sing, or dance most just have the right genes to be tall and slender, proportions to fit into fashion clothing, and the talent to walk without tripping. I’m not trying to be harsh, just realistic. Models today have changed. Many do have talents and abilities for their NEXT career. But modeling? Fit into the clothes, walk down the catwalk with a bit of attitude. And, of course, stay thin.

As cable networks expanded, fashion shows became popular. Models evolved into Super-Models, which was a big deal! Super Models could demand unheard-of fees. A SuperModel franchise is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But modeling has a dirty little secret. The ideal proportions of a model are those of a thin adolescent. No matter how you starve yourself, very, VERY few modeling careers can survive past the early twenties. But a Super Model might convert their celebrity into a Hollywood career, a music career, or some other area where good looks can make you rich.

Underaged Models: Let’s go back to that “ideal” body. At age 16, the female body is not fully grown, but the bone structure is largely complete, providing an “adult look” to the face. Supposedly, modeling careers start at 16, but many Super Models started at 12… or younger! Past 16, women will continue to fill out and gain weight, especially around the waist and hips. Usually, designers do not want models that emphasize these areas. It doesn’t take super-human effort to stay this thin, it takes eating disorders. Or some truly unusual genetics…. but mostly eating disorders. Typical super-thin models have too little body fat to be healthy. This causes life-long health issues for teens trying to break into modeling..

Super Models Go Mainstream: Let’s return to Victoria’s Secret. VS is not that different than other fashion houses. They were just a bit ahead of their competitors in making fashion shows more accessible and consumer-friendly. But over the next 20 years, they managed to associate themselves with a highly unrealistic form of feminine (and sometimes masculine) beauty.

One of Victoria’s Secret’s innovations was creating an army of branded models. One 6 foot tall, 120 lbs model is… a statistical anomaly. But churning out an army of just too tall and too thin to be human models was something new. In 1998 VS turned the volume up to 11, when they renamed their models… “Angels”. Just to make sure that we got the message, their models began wearing elaborate feathery wings on the catwalk and at other events. Taller and thinner than normal (6′ models weighing under 120 lbs), these Angels did have an other-worldly look, so… Angels? Why not.

Another big innovation by VS was marketing to men. Men? Yep! Roy Raymond, the founder of Victoria’s Secret, started the firm in the 1970s just when malls were becoming a staple of American life. He realized that men were lost in malls, especially in the “lady’s department”, which was not men friendly. According to Wikipedia, Raymond wanted, “a store in which (straight) men could feel comfortable buying lingerie.” While the culture has changed a lot since the 1970s, a male-led lingerie firm explains a lot about the evolution of the VS body type, the look of their fashion shows, and the latest projection of $90,000,000 to settle sexual harassments suits.

New Technology: The latest issue, perhaps the last straw was Photoshop. Super Models can be unusually tall and thin. So tall and thin that their proportions are exceedingly rare. Still, these rare individuals actually exist in the real world. But even Angels have small imperfections. Perhaps a model’s eyes are not perfectly symmetrical, or that smile is a bit crooked, or there is a small blemish on your arm or leg. Enter Photoshop. Blemishes disappear, symmetry returns, and waistlines become ridiculously tiny. But fans noticed that popular models had morphed into big-eyed Japanese anime stars. A firestorm on social media soon followed.

What Is “Realistic”: After years of pressure from health and youth advocacy groups, the fashion world started has begun to hire models with realistic body types. Of course, “realistism” in the fashion world is… special. The industry standard for “Plus-Size” starts at size 12, yet the average American woman is size 16. Fashion may always exist in an alternative universe, but it is a small step down the catwalk of fashion reform.

Models will never… can never… look like average Americans. Fashion models are supposed to look better than the rest of us. If not, why buy fashion and beauty products? The real question is if models can at least look healthy. To its credit, Victoria’s Secret is hiring models with more realistic bodies. After all, the standards for beauty do change over time. But what is the next standard for Super Models?

New Beauty Standards: Beauty and rarity tend to go hand in hand. Not everything that is rare is considered beautiful, but What are the rare qualities that we value today that can translate into the next standards of beauty? Well, Americans have never been as overweight and under-exercised. Perhaps our next standard of beauty will be “athletic”? Athletic perfection would still be rare. Not everyone will be able to look like an athlete. But a young adult aspiring to run faster, jump higher, or spend more time in a gym, might be a lot healthier than trying to meet today’s beauty standards.

Victoria’s Secret seems to get it. There are still a lot of Angels on the VS payroll, but so too is soccer star Megan Rapinoe. VS also wants to hire more diverse models. Like Priyanka Chopra. To me, the most fascinating thing about Priyanka is not her Indian background, but her more diminutive height (5’5″) and her age (39 years old), both of which would have disqualified her from becoming a VS model just a few years ago.

What’s Next?: A lot! Victoria’s Secret knows it’s time for a change. They’ve told the media that they want to change. Unrealistic body types and “Angels” are out. Diversity, realistic body types, and “Ambassadors” are in. Angels were supposed to be the beauty customers aspired to. Ambassadors are … I think… examples of the natural beauty that all women have. Politically correct, but is that what beauty products are about? Getting the looks you already have? Then why do you need VS? Being both realistic and hyper desirable is not an easy catwalk to tread!

And diversity creates another big hurdle. Like everyone else, VS wants to conquer the Chinese market. Both for diversity in the US and for moving into the Chinese market, expect to see more Chinese and Asian models. But the latest Super Models in China, models that have been hired by VS, appear to be even thinner than Angels. China (and Japan, and South Korea) is not on board with the American idea that beauty should be realistic… if only some of the time.

Can American have a diverse and realistic standard of beauty? And is that what customers really want? What do you think? Share your opinions with your fellow readers!

This entry was posted in Best Practices, Employment, Expectations and Rewards, Improvement, Improvement, Continuous or Not, Unique Ideas and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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