On Monday night, the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show aired on CBS.
It’s an event I watch every year with mixed emotions. For me, there’s a balance between excitement of marveling at beauty and lusting after pretty pieces of fabric I can never afford and agitation.
I’ll admit there’s something enchanting about meticulously curated beauty. However, as I am a gender studies minor and feminist, the knowledge that this beauty has been handcrafted and perfected makes me nervous.
Year after year I find myself confronted with a moral dilemma. Is enjoying this display almost exclusively devoted to showcasing women’s bodies an anti-feminist act?
A similar conversation has emerged recently regarding beauty pageants. Many feminists argue though beauty pageants profess themselves to be about female empowerment and education, in actuality, pageants offer images of female success within patriarchal structures that oppress women.
In my eyes, the existence of the swimsuit competition has always illustrated this point. If a pageant were truly about female intelligence, then all portions of pageants that judged women exclusively on the way they looked would be removed.
To many, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is the swimsuit competition on steroids.
On the surface, both are televised events in which women showcase themselves in skimpy clothing. However, the intent of each feels different. One is a competition where women fight for powerful men to crown them best woman, while the other is a proponent of female confidence.
Yes, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show promotes a very selective type of beauty. However, to me, seeing any woman confident enough in her body to strut a glittery runway to the sounds of candy pop feels empowering.
Part of this question of oppression versus empowerment comes from the intent of the programming. Beauty pageants are, at their cores, about deciding what it means to be a good woman. To assign morality to womanhood is to limit women everywhere, and to herd them into categories of good and bad examples of womanhood is a fundamentally sexist act.
In contrast to pageant contestants, Victoria’s Secret Angels compete for nothing. They are simply women who are proud of their bodies and are showing off beautiful clothing.
Many would argue a woman can never be simply anything.
To an extent, I agree. After all, there are few spheres of female expression that haven’t been bogged down by generations of male oppression. Fashion is no exception. Any showcase of women’s clothing — especially lingerie — exists with the history of male influence on how women were allowed to express themselves as a caveat.
There comes a point every day when I have to make a choice not to allow the past to influence my present. In my day-to-day life, if I want to wear something, I wear it. If men are looking at me with 18th-century desire in their eyes, so be it. The act of looking pretty is more about my own confidence and empowerment than how I’m being perceived.
At its heart, female empowerment through beauty seems to be what the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is about. While I certainly wouldn’t list the angels alongside my feminist heroes, like Angela Davis and Hillary Clinton, a runway level of confidence is a feminist-friendly ideal anyone can strive toward.