Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2023: Audience backlash over ‘fat’ models replacing ‘Angels’

Warning: This article contains content relating to eating disorders that may be distressing for some readers

After four long years, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is finally back – but not everyone is happy.

The iconic modelling event was dramatically cancelled back in 2019, amid declining ratings and controversies, including the alleged sexual harassment of models, ties to Jeffrey Epstein and a culture of misogyny within the brand.

But earlier this year, Victoria’s Secret announced that it was making a triumphant return, much to the delight of fans that had longed to see it make a comeback.

However at a glitzy red carpet event held in New York City on September 6 – attended to by fashion icons including Naomi Campbell, Emily Ratajkowski and Gigi Hadid – Victoria’s Secret revealed that the format of the show had undergone a massive re-vamp.

It was out with the televised ‘Angels’ strutting along the runway and in with the ‘VS Collective’: a group of 10 women of notable accomplishments and diverse body types.

Their new project was dubbed The Tour ‘23 and was said to be half fashion show and half documentary, which landed on Prime Video on September 26.

Leading up to the event, Victoria’s Secret announced that it wanted to be “the world’s leading advocate for women” – a statement that clearly reflects the company’s desire to rebrand and disassociate from their problematic past.

Fury over "fat" Victoria's Secret models

Era of the ‘Angels’

Since first launching in 1995, the event was known for showcasing very thin, young, beautiful models, who had the type of eye-popping physiques that other women envied and many men desired.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show catapulted era-defining bombshells such as Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum and Gisele Bündchen into our living rooms, as we watched them transformed into ‘Angels’ right before our eyes.

Few can forget the mesmerising display of eye-popping push-up bras, skyscraper stilettos, and gargantuan feathered wings that effortlessly floated down the catwalk.

The ethereal models seemed too perfect, too out-of-this-world, to possibly be real – they were truly perceived as genetic freaks of nature.

This type of size-zero body we saw splashed across our television screens was unattainable for most, which only fuelled people’s obsession with the show.

But celebrating extreme thinness on this scale had consequences.

Many viewers reported that seeing the models made them feel “bad” and “ashamed” about their own bodies and caused their self-esteem to plummet, which experts warned could trigger disordered eating and exercise behaviours.

Even more concerning was the unbelievable pressure that the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show had on the models themselves, with many going to extreme lengths to adhere to the event’s strict weight and body fat requirements.

Alarmingly, research from the Boston University School of Medicine proved that the models had actually gotten skinnier over time.

In a 2019 study published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal, experts reported that the women had shrank roughly two inches across their bustlines, one inch around their waistlines, and nearly half an inch off their hiplines, while their dress size decreased from 5.2 to 3.7 over the same span of time, despite their height and waist-to-hip ratio remaining the same.

Adriana Lima, the brand’s longest-serving model, told The Telegraph in 2011 that she would cut out all solid food nine days before a runway show, only consuming protein shakes.

Twelve hours before the event, she would cut out drinking all water completely.

Speaking on the Fallen Angel podcast, former VS model Erin Heatherson revealed that she had turned to diet pills and injections in order to maintain her impossibly thin physique.

Like many models, she expressed how she felt her career was always on the line and she struggled with the pressure of having a livelihood that depended on maintaining a strict and very low body weight.

Closer to home, Australian model and former Victoria’s Secret ‘Angel’ Bridget Malcolm has been very open about her struggles with an eating disorder.

In an article she wrote for Harper’s Bazaar back in 2018, Bridget explained how years of unhealthy dieting practices had left her with a “ruined digestive system and chronic anxiety”.

“For two years, I lived off mostly steamed vegetables and protein shakes,” she wrote.

“I was so underweight that it would take me 10 minutes to climb a flight of stairs. I was tired, often going to sleep at 8pm because I had no energy.

“My hair was falling out. I felt completely alone and isolated, but I was scared to leave my house.

“I didn’t want to eat anything that wasn’t made by me, so I stopped hanging out with people. I became boring – a hindrance. I was listless. And I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on because I didn’t know what was going on.

“Unknowingly, I was battling an eating disorder and chronic anxiety that would soon lead to a ruined digestive system, all because I thought I was doing what I had to do to succeed in the industry that I love.”

Changing Attitudes

There is no doubt that the modern world is a starkly different place to how it was when the event first launched almost 20 years ago.

Thanks to the rise of social media, people from across the globe are more interconnected than ever before and as a result, we’re far more exposed to different ways of existing in the world.

The celebration of diversity in all forms is at an all-time high, while the body positivity and body acceptance movement has been widely adopted.

These modern values are a far cry from the original ideals that launched the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

In the past, higher ups from the brand itself have openly admitted that diversity on the runway was not something that they had any desire to strive for.

Ed Razek, former chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands, was forced to apologise in 2018 after telling Vogue that he did not want transgender models in the show because it would spoil the “fantasy”.

In the same interview, he declared that there was no interest in portraying a wider range of sizes and shapes.

“I’m always asking myself: if we do that, what is the reason we did it?” he said. “Did we include them because it was the right thing to do or because it was the politically correct thing to do?

“Do they take the place of somebody who worked for a year for the opportunity and cried when they found that they got it?”

A damning New York Times article back in 2020 exposed a culture steeped in misogyny, bullying and harassment, allegedly cultivated by Razek.

The now 75-year-old was the subject of repeated complaints about inappropriate conduct, including allegedly trying to kiss models, asking them to sit on his lap, and touching one’s crotch ahead of the 2018 show.

Despite the event reaching its peak in popularity back in the mid-2000s – becoming so popular that it even got a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame – this palpable shift in attitudes towards the end of the 2010s undoubtedly had an impact on the show’s demise.

Viewership of the fashion show had fallen from 9.2 million viewers in 2014 to 3.2 million in 2018.

In November 2019, L Brands CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer officially confirmed that the 2019 event had been cancelled, citing its declining viewership and lack of immediate “material impact” on Victoria’s Secret sales post-broadcast.

He also reaffirmed that Victoria’s Secret was “figuring out how to advance the positioning of the brand and best communicate that to customers”.

A Controversial Comeback

The 2023 return of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has been met with a range of starkly different opinions.

Iconic supermodel Naomi Campbell told TODAY that she thought the project was “beautiful”, adding that she had “so much fun” being part of it.

She expressed her excitement at the new direction Victoria’s Secret was taking.

“I think it’s fantastic,” she said. “I was so impressed when they said, ‘We’re going this way.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ So for me, it was just like, you’re really not just talking the talk, you are walking the walk.”

Actress, producer and winner of the 2000 Miss World pageant, Priyanka Chopra, also supported the move

“The brand comes from a tumultuous history, for sure,” she declared.

“There was a time when the brand told people what women should look like, and I think now what they’re trying to do is champion people and individuals to be as they are.”

Former Victoria’s Secret angel, Adriana Lima, told People that she thought the project was “uplifting”.

“I feel that as a woman, and still being in fashion – I’m 42 years old and a mum with five kids – I feel that I’m still being celebrated in this stage of my life,” she said.

“It’s great to see that no matter what stage you are [in life], for my kids and the new models coming up, it’s uplifting.”

Victoria’s Secret said in a statement that the “exclusive showcase will captivate audiences and provide a viewing experience that celebrates Victoria’s Secret’s mission to uplift and champion women all over the world.”

They added that the brand’s main aim was to be “inspiring and uplifting our customers in every stage of their lives … and serve women of all sizes and budgets … while driving positive change through the power of our products, platform and advocacy.”

“I want the tall, skinny, beautiful models”

However, not everyone has been thrilled with the show’s revamped return.

Former fans of the event have been taking to social media to blast the brand for being “woke” and “ruining” the format by including diverse models.

One woman, speaking on a now-viral TikTok video shared by Evie Magazine, slammed the project for abandoning the original features of the event.

“Victoria’s Secret, what have you done? You’ve made the girlies so mad,” she said.

“Gen Z is out here pissed at the execution of the tour. So many of us were like, oh my god, the tour is coming out, it’s going to be a fashion show.

“New lingerie, it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be sexy. But no, I turned this on and I was like ‘what is this?’.

“For one, if you look up the documentary online, it literally says it’s a fashion show. You know what I think of when I hear Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show?

“I think of wings, runway, beautiful, tall, skinny models. The second reason why the girlies are mad is because they just want the OG Victoria’s Secret back.

“Showing different body sizes is great, but can we have one brand that has models and clothes that are vibrant, fun and just extremely attractive?”

Australian influencer and adult content creator, Minki Minna, shared on TikTok that she was disappointed with the choice of models for the event.

“Let’s talk about the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show,” she began. “There is a lot of controversy surrounding it, and honestly, I think I agree with a lot of it.

“When I watch the Victoria’s Secret show, I want to spit out whatever I’m eating. I know that’s not healthy, and I’m not claiming to be healthy.

“But I think that’s the whole point, and one of the reasons why it was shut down in the first place, because it was projecting this ideal and unattainable body standard.

“But that’s why people loved it. When I watch the Victoria’s Secret show, I just want to stop whatever I’m doing and just start doing crunches because I hate myself.”

‘Glorifying Obesity’

In another post on X, formerly Twitter, a user shared a side-by-side photograph showing the women that were the Victoria’s Secret ‘Angels’ back in the 2000s compared to the models that featured in the latest project.

“On the right you see a picture of the Victoria’s Secret angels that I had as a reference while growing up,” she wrote.

“On the left you can see a picture of the current Victoria’s Secret models. Young girls are looking forward to have diabetes and being weak. Our society is in decline.”

Responding to critics, she added that “obesity should not be glorified. Staying in shape is about good health and good aesthetic.”

“They’re called Angels because not everyone can be them” one agreed. “Stop with the inclusivity bulls**t. Worst comeback ever.”

“I want to see the models whose beauty is unattainable,” another said.

“All the models are disgusting,” one blasted.

“They went and found people who look weird, because they want to make everyone think that it’s OK to not look beautiful anymore. They want mediocrity to be normalised.”

In light of this negative and “offensive” feedback, others have spoken out in support of the brand.

“I wish it had been like this when I was growing up,” one Facebook user said. “I struggled so much with self-esteem and disordered eating because of watching the old VS runway shows.”

“This gives me so much hope for the future,” a TikTok user posted. “I love that my daughters will be able to see models they can relate to.”

“Thank god the old style is gone for good, it’s time to get with the times,” another said. “Inclusivity and diversity is the most beautiful thing of all and I am glad it is finally being celebrated.”

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