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The thing that struck me most, when my daughter started secondary school in September, is how different all the girls in her year look. All shapes and sizes, from teeny-tiny waifs who look like they’re barely out of reception, to big strapping ones, taller than me, and with all the accessories to match.
Or, as my daughter herself put it with great excitement: “Mummy, some of them have got even bigger boobs than you!”
Tall, short, stocky, skinny, sporty or speccie, they are all special in their own way. All starting out on life’s long journey; no longer children but not yet women. And still, for the most part, mercifully unaware that their appearance matters much.
Sure, they might admire someone’s pretty hair, or blue eyes, or cheek dimples; but that nasty little worm of self-doubt that afflicts so many older girls and women has yet to burrow its way into their hearts and minds.
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American lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret has launched a new billboard advert featuring ten super-skinny models in their underwear
As a mother, I am keen to keep this little parasite at bay for as long as possible. I don’t have women’s magazines in the house, and I do my best to suppress my own deep-rooted feelings of negativity about my own shape and size, and to promote a positive attitude towards healthy eating and exercise.
But I know, deep down, that I’m fighting a losing battle. Because whatever good I may be able to do, the body fascists will always find a way of undoing it — whether through pop music, fashion or the media.
The latest example of this comes from American lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, currently intent on a British invasion. Ten super-skinny models in push-up bra and pants pout, simper, giggle and hair-twirl their way across a billboard by way of promoting VS’s new so-called ‘Perfect Body’ range.
And there’s no mistaking what they mean by ‘perfect’: perky of bosom, tiny of tummy and negligible of behind — with a thigh gap wide enough to park a bicycle in.
As if that weren’t enough, the girls appear to have been stretched even thinner with a little help from that digital miracle device Mr Photoshop. One of them, a dark-haired girl in a purple set, appears to have the proportions of a Barbie doll, which, as we all know, is anatomically unfeasible. All have visible ribcages and wrists like sparrows.
Of course, no one expects a brand like Victoria’s Secret to advertise its wares on ordinary women. But there is a line between aspiration and thinspiration, and this campaign clearly oversteps the mark. As for their use of the word ‘perfect’, it’s not only offensive to the 99.9 per cent of the female population who don’t share the models’ ‘perfect’ proportions, it’s also deeply irresponsible, if not downright cruel.
Especially given the brand’s target market. Which is obviously not me. Or indeed anyone over the age of 22 or bigger than a size 6.
Only the other day I saw a gaggle of 14 and 15-year-olds scuttling out of Victoria’s Secret in London’s Westfield shopping centre, laden down with garish bags presumably containing various items of microscopic and sexually precocious underwear. When I was their age, my mum was still buying my pants, and rightly so.
Hurrah, then, for the three British students who are demanding that the company — which is the largest American lingerie retailer — apologise, and alter the wording on the advertisement.
Like other overtly body-conscious brands of this ilk — from American Apparel, with its adverts awash in demeaning pornographic imagery, to Jack Wills, which imagines all girls as salty-haired surf sirens — they’re aiming squarely at all our daughters.
Young women who are picked to model for Victoria’s Secret, including Alessandra Ambrosio (left) and Adriana Lima (right) - who claims she only consumes liquid protein nine days before a show - are nicknamed 'Angels'
That’s right: those same happy girls who start off being all shapes and sizes, unaware that there is any aspect of themselves that is wrong, and who end up hating their bodies half to death.
Who look upon the likes of Martha Hunt and Adriana Lima and all the other so-called ‘Angels’ (young women picked to model for Victoria’s Secret are nicknamed Angels) and find themselves so lacking in the fundamental virtue of extreme thinness that they lose all sense of reason and proportion.
This advert — and all the others like it — is not just harmless titillation. It’s a deliberate projection of an ideal of female beauty so narrow as to be virtually unattainable.
It is also deeply damaging. And that is exactly how Victoria’s Secret and their buddies like it. Because what these companies are really peddling is not underwear; it’s a lifetime of body insecurities.
Why? Simple. That’s how they maintain demand and ensure that consumers keep coming back for more. Treat them mean, keep them keen. First create the problem . . . then provide the solution.
Because, let’s face it, if all the women in the world suddenly woke up tomorrow miraculously happy and comfortable in their own skins, what need would there be for push-up bras? Female self-loathing is the commercial cornerstone of the fashion and beauty industry.
Every woman who looks in a mirror and hates what she sees is a potential customer, lured by the prospect of finding the ‘perfect’ answer to her imperfect appearance. When a woman declares she has nothing to wear, what she really means is: ‘I hate myself for not being thin/pretty/young/busty enough’.
Successful commerce is all about profit margins. So if you’re Victoria’s Secret and you make cheap, rather nasty mass-produced underwear that normal women wouldn’t dream of buying because it fits so badly and makes you itch, it’s in your clear financial interest to detract as much attention away from the actual product as you can, and to sell an image instead.
You put on super-glamorous fashion shows, hype up your models, hire pop stars, build a buzz. You get every hot-blooded male lusting after your ‘Angels’ and every impressionable young girl wanting to be one. You ruthlessly exploit every weakness of the naive young female mind — and then you sit back and watch the cash roll in.
Of course, when you’re old and wise and a bit grumpy, like me, you can see through these shameless tactics and make your buying choices accordingly.
But when you’re young and naive and inexperienced, and all you want to do is please others and be accepted by your peer group, it’s so much harder to be rational.
Shoppers are pictured at the Victoria Secret store on New Bond Street, central London, which attracts teenagers in droves
When you see ten girls in bikinis like this, you don’t think: ‘My goodness, they look like they could use a bowl of beef soup and a buttered bun.’ You think: ‘If only I looked like that, all my problems would be solved.’
No matter that to get this way, these models, the Martha Hunts and Erin Heathertons of this world, have to spend weeks on end eating nothing but shredded kale and protein shakes. Or that they have to give interviews in which they gush about the joys of juicing and ‘drinking lots of warm water in the mornings’.
‘Angel’ Adriana Lima, for example, claims she consumes only liquid protein for nine days before a show — and then stops drinking completely 12 hours beforehand, because, as she enthusiastically explains ‘sometimes you can lose up to 8lb just from that!’ Great!
Young girls don’t read things like that and think: ‘She’s clearly mad.’ They think: “Oh, excellent. If I do that, I too can be a supermodel.” Except they almost certainly can’t.
No one can lead a halfway normal existence existing on nothing but warm water and protein shakes. Certainly not teenage girls, whose bodies are still developing and need a sensible, nutritious diet.
And even if they did, there’s no guarantee they’d end up a size 000, in their underwear on a billboard.
I know, because when I was young I tried very, very hard to be super-thin. But even at my thinnest, I could never make the grade because I’m simply not built like that. I have huge hands, even bigger feet — and a pair of shoulders like an ox.
The fact is these girls — these so-called ‘perfect’ girls that Victoria’s Secret are encouraging women to emulate — are not normal. It’s not just that they lead obsessive, narcissistic lifestyles, in which the only thing that matters is the way their bottom looks in a thong. It’s also that they belong to a species all of their own.
The difference between these girls and your average female is the difference between a solid little Welsh pit-pony and the winner of the Grand National; or a sausage dog and a whippet.
Same species, worlds apart. Nothing wrong with either, of course. What’s wrong is the relentless and totally demoralising message that one is ‘perfect’ — and the other not.