When I was in college, my good friend Holly and I used to go out at least once a week, doing the typical things that 20-year-olds do.
One afternoon I was at her house waiting for her to finish getting ready, sitting in her living room in a chair that had a magazine rack next to it.
I randomly reached into the stack and pulled out a Victoria’s Secret catalog – something I had never seen before.
This was 1989 so the catalog wasn’t yet filled with photos of women in floral swimsuits or flannel PJs. The catalog of the 80s had full-on boudoir-style images of women who were not just thin and beautiful, but who were apparently the pinnacle of sexual attractiveness.
I remember feeling in that moment that not only would I never look like that – I would never be that. I was hit with the punch-in-the-gut awareness that not only was I not beautiful, I was undesirable, too.
And it really was immediate. As soon as my eyes landed on those images, a feeling of unworthiness was imprinted on my heart.
It sounds dramatic, but I’m guessing you know what I’m talking about. The power of the images women are faced with daily is damaging, destructive, and ultimately devastating.
And it’s even worse for girls who have yet to become women.
But let’s back up to the catalog.
We all know that body image is connected to self-esteem. We also know that the constant message that thin is beautiful makes us disconnect from our imperfect bodies – and therefore wrecks our self-esteem.
The image we have of our bodies is part of how we relate to ourselves. And how well we relate to ourselves determines how we relate to others. We have an innate need for connection, so relating to other people is critical to our survival as human beings.
But if we are so fundamentally disconnected from ourselves, how can we connect with those around us?
The most powerful means of connection we have as human beings is through our sexuality. And before you start recoiling at the mere mention of the word, understand that sexuality isn’t just about sex.
Sexuality is energy. It’s how we interact with the world. It shows up in how we carry ourselves. It manifests as enthusiasm and confidence and joy. It’s how we create. It’s the power within us.
But only if we can embrace it.
However, women have been trained to do the polar opposite of embracing our sexuality. On the contrary, we’ve been shamed for it. Worse, we’re taught that our sexuality isn’t even our own; it’s for the enjoyment of others.
Even worse than that, we’re taught that it’s only worth something to others if it measures up to the cultural standards set out for us.
We’ve been trained to understand very clearly that unless you possess very specific physical characteristics, you aren’t sexually attractive. Therefore, your sexuality is nonexistent.
And therefore, so are you.
Women’s sexuality is culturally tied to our outer beauty. But sexuality isn’t just about looks – it’s about personalities and emotions. It’s about who we are, not just what we look like.
But we’re bombarded with the message that unless you’re “beautiful,” you’re not worthy of this most basic means of human connection.
And that’s the message I absorbed as I looked at that catalog. The women I saw were beautiful and therefore sexually attractive and therefore worthy of the connection I was never going to have – solely because I didn’t look like them.
When we disconnect from our bodies, we become disconnected from our sexual experiences. In a best-case scenario, we’re not fully engaged. In a worst-case scenario, we’re victims of assault.
Most of the time, we’re too busy judging our bodies to relax and enjoy anything. But what difference does that make since we’re trained that it’s not even about us? We’re not participants – just bystanders.
As it turns out, the Angels aren’t enjoying it either. And reading about their behind-the-scenes experiences is what made me start to reconsider being a Victoria’s Secret customer and card holder.
As if it isn’t bad enough that they have to survive on a diet of cigarettes and coffee just to don two-ton wings while teetering down a catwalk in sky-high heels, wearing underwear designed for men’s pleasure rather than our own comfort, they were also subjected to routine sexual harassment and sometimes violent and threatening behavior from the company’s executives.
After reading their stories, it occurred to me: These are the men who are indirectly in charge of teaching my beautiful daughters how to feel about their bodies and how to “embrace” their sexuality.
I bring up my daughters because the credit card I had in my wallet was a PINK card. For those of you who don’t have daughters, PINK is the teenage version of Victoria’s Secret.
But wait a minute . . . isn’t PINK different?
The models in the PINK photos are all shapes and sizes. They are White, Asian, and African American. They have straight hair and they have curly hair. Some have freckles and some don’t.
PINK does a decent job promoting a healthy body image for girls, and that’s a good thing. But I couldn’t escape the reality that by leading my daughters by the hand into a store to buy cute sweatpants and training bras, I was also leading them by the hand to become future VS customers.
This realization was appalling to me. After all, I’m the mom who does everything in her power to counteract the cancerous cultural messages my babies get on a daily basis. I’m the mom in charge of giving my daughters a positive body image and of building their fragile self-esteem.
Then I realized the irony that I’m also the mom who points out the absurdity of the photos hanging in the windows of Victoria’s Secret while my girls and I are walking through the mall on our way to PINK.
There’s a Trojan horse in that store, and what’s inside are the sexist men who are leaders of a global brand that objectifies women in the worst way possible. Who promote a version of beauty and sexuality that I want no part of – for my daughters or for myself.
So I decided to cut up my card and cancel the account.
Funnily enough, as I dialed the number I had a moment of panic. Should I be totally honest and unload all of this on the customer service rep? Or should I lie and say that I’m trying to reduce the number of credit cards I carry?
Then I realized that this mental argument is a side effect of everything I’m talking about here – namely, the powerlessness of women. So I made the radical choice to give no explanation at all. And that felt almost more powerful than the decision itself.
Surprisingly, I got zero push-back from my girls about no longer shopping at PINK. I told them why I didn’t want to support PINK or Victoria’s Secret, and they were immediately on board.
I attribute this to the sometimes positive power of social media, where more and more girls are speaking out about these issues. Or maybe it’s a result of my parenting. Maybe it’s a little of both.
Either way, it’s my responsibility to my daughters to make sure they never have to feel the way I felt that day at my friend’s house. And it’s my obligation to myself to make sure I never feel that way again.
Even if you don’t feel compelled to make a choice like this, I hope you’ll realize that you were born to be powerful and joyful and to live fully while you’re here on this earth. And part of how you do that is by connecting with yourself and with others through your beautiful, perfect body.
Because no matter what it looks like, that’s exactly what it is. And don’t let anyone – or any brand – tell you differently.
If this post made you say an internal Yes! please make sure to share it with a friend! 🙌