Monday, July 09, 2007

Victoria's Dirty Secret

It was in the 7th grade when I first became conscious that my underwear might say something about me. I was changing into my gym clothes in the girls' locker room when, glancing around, I noticed that all the girls in my row of lockers were wearing the same underwear, a low-rise panty decorated in bright prints topped off with a silk band bearing the words "Victoria's Secret." When they put their jeans back on you could see the top of the band, with its giveaway scalloped edges, peeking out, a subtle symbol of identifying with a brand associated with gorgeous adult women.

I was instantly jealous of how grown-up and cool they looked... these were the kind of underwear I could imagine high school girls wearing, and compared to my own Fruit of the Looms that bought in bulk at Kmart, they were on a whole other planet. I realized I could no longer continue wearing the same brand of underwear as my 9 year old sister and 42 year old father.

When I came home from the mall with my own set of colorful VS underwear, I couldn't wait to get to school the next day. Back in the gym locker room, I spent longer than usual trying to find my shorts in my locker and when I heard another girl (a very pretty and popular girl at that) call my name, I turned around in anticipation.

"Where did you find the swirly orange pattern? I was at Victoria's Secret last week and I didn't see them. Orange is sooo my favorite color!"

With that, three other girls jumped in to discuss which patterns and colors of VS underwear were cutest. They were collectors items in a way, and you could compare what was in your collection with your friends. Before long, every girl in our class had at least a few pairs, and despite the fact that they fell apart after a few months of washing, and cotton and banding aren't very comfortable, I continued wearing them, exclusively and religiously, until midway through my high school career.

As a result of my familiarity with their cotton panty section, I came to Victoria's Secret for my first bra and later for my first pieces of real lingerie. The branding that occured when I was 13 lasted well into my late teens, and if you asked me today to think of the first brand that comes to mind when you say "sexy" or "lingerie," it'll still be VS.

I was reminded of that locker room experience when I decided to stop in a VS store on my way home last week. I was browsing the Pink section, a brand that wasn't in existence when I was in middle school, but that I'm sure I would've loved. The concept is essentially taking the experience of flirting with adulthood and sexuality in a safe, private way, but turning it into a public one, as the collection leans heavily on clothes and accessories.

Victoria's Secret might pretend that Pink is aimed at women 18-24, but as most of us understand, when young teens are told that older teens like something, they want it, and the older teens stop associating with it (they're too busy trying to be college kids anyway). I've seen girls as young as 10 and 11 wearing candy-colored sweatpants with "PINK" scrawled across their butts (in fact, nearly all the pants, shorts and pajamas in this line have this endearing feature) and fitted t-shirts and tanks with "HOT PINK" and "PINK BIKINI CONTEST" printed on the chest. There are also short shorts, panties and bras in the same bright aesthetic, many that are indistinguishable from VS's normal adult line.

And while the line is pitched as sleepwear or "hanging out" clothing, kids naturally wear them everywhere, projecting their association with Victoria's Secret to the entire world. In our age of mass-exhibitionism, when any kid with internet access can (and likely does) have a MySpace page with pictures and virtually every piece of information about herself on it, it really isn't surprising that underwear would become outerwear.

The whole Pink line plays into the "ideal" Victoria's Secret woman that I discussed in an earlier post. Young, playful and submissive, they project a message that confuses sexiness with cuteness and naivete. The way they market sexiness, it's not about owning your sexuality, a knowing look or exuding confidence, it's about being innocent, but "not that innocent." When you grow out of the Pink brand, you're just a few short steps from the rest of the store, where a more explicitly erotic article of clothing can be yours, when you're ready to make the jump. By that point, kids have already been brainwashed by the VS philosophy of gender and sexuality, and they're ready to imitate Gisele or Adriana, who epitomize sexiness in the eyes of a 15 year old.


Ais said...

Well, that's all well and good, but now where do I get attractive underwear that:
a) won't fall apart in the wash
b) is comfortable
c) attractive!
d) not about exploiting the newfound hormones of junior high creatures, which it really is, I completely agree, great entry.

Anonymous said...

I've never managed to get over my horror of the VS store -- I absolutely hate going in there.

The whole candy-pink, everyone knows what you're there for, random store people approaching you with a measuring tape in hand nature of a VS store maximizes for me everything embarrasing about buying underwear.

Now that they've got the place outfitted to look like a strip joint (coincidentally, in honor of their PINK line) with neon signs and black walls, I can't even work up the nerve to go in.

Meg said...

(Meg from

Yeah, I get creeped out by young teens and especially pre-teens trying to look sexy - and worse, people marketing things to them using sex appeal. Ick!

I got some at VS a few times, but they weren't very comfortable and they fell apart just as quickly as cheaper undies. So, now I just buy undies made of modal at Target where they are about $3 or less each. They are soooooo comfy. I love the thongs - and I never thought I'd ever say that. I have a few pairs in various colors, but most of my undies are beige so that they don't show through my lighter colored bottoms. Plus, so far they aren't falling apart (I do wash them cold, delicates cycle and hang to dry just like most of my clothes, though).

Anonymous said...

My favorite underwear comes from ShopKo.

Anonymous said...

Great post about the continued sexualization of our very young ladies. Hmm...I haven't had the durability issue with mine; I usually have to thow them away after about two years because the elastic is starting to go. The Body By Victoria thongs have been pretty good--no panty lines. But only when there's a BIG sale--Vicky's sexual fantasy, even the plain cotton type, is way overpriced!

Kori said...

I very much agree with this post. I'm sixteen and in high school, and when I was 11 this wasn't such an issue. However, now I see my younger neighbors strutting around in miniskirts and PINK sweatpants, and I almost feel sorry for them. Their sexual discovery is going to be led by gisele bundchen and other completely unrealistic role models. Really smart marketing by VS, but really sad for our over-sexualized culture and preteens.

Anonymous said...

I have totally missed out on the attractive underwear craze. I like my underwear white so that I know its clean. It has to be easy to wash and bleach friendly. I have two black pairs and two nude pairs. One in bikini and one in thong. I usually buy them in bulk at Fruit of the Loom. If I were married or in an intimate relationship I might reconsider my underwear selection. As it is, the only people who see me in my undies are my roommate (hey, sometimes I want to bake and there is nothing comfy to wear!) and my dogs. I don't think they care. Anyway, just thought you should know that there are those of us out there who gravitate towards bland and hygenic. BTW, I have always loved your column and this is in no way a comment on you or your underwear choices.

Anonymous said...

The one thing about the PINK line is that (in contrast to the baggy-butted abominations that are their standard cotton undies) they actually fit well and are comfortable. I agree in general that the store is horrible and the sexualization is horrible, but the PINK underwear is some of the most comfortable I've ever had-- doesn't ride up or slip down, elastic isn't too tight (doesn't show through tight clothes), wedgie-proof. Too bad the store is so appalling.

Karin said...

Great post! Like everybody else, I'm bothered and creeped out by this kind of thing being marketed to very young girls; I get wanting to be pretty and grown-up, but I also remember all too well all the negative aspects of looking more mature than you really are. Thirteen is a horrible age.

Anonymous said...

You know, I have to agree with the author. While I am a loyal fan and customer of VS and have several overpriced hoodies w/ matching sweats (i opted for the ones that have quotes on the leg, not the rear) I was really taken by seeing little girls as young as 9 wearing clothing that had quotes on the butt. Why would any parent allow their CHILD to have something written on their child's behind? Wouldn't they want to discourage strangers from looking at their kid's butts? Now, not only VS has this trademark, but many other brands like Juicy. For the adults, sure. No big deal. For older teens, sure. But.. one thing said, WHY DO THE OVERWEIGHT, FRUMPY women wear things like this that sport quotes on the butt? Gross. If I were frumpy and fat, I would NEVER wish to attract attention to my cellulite prone butt... that is just a thought as well. Juicy? More like greasy...
That's my thought. Don't hate.

Anonymous said...

I being a teen I have to agree that 10 year olds at Victoria's Secret are shocking. I do like the PINK panties though. I think they are very comfortable and they don't show panty lines. I remember there was a time when I had gone in there after work to get another strapless bra (they are very hard to find in an A) and I saw these two girls, while I was looking for the bra I heard them talking and what I heard made me gasp. They were 10 years old and looking at thongs. I don't know about anyone else but a ten year old in Victoria's Secret is a shock, much less a ten year old picking out thongs and talking about boys. I started buying my underwear at VS when I was fourteen because a friend of mine told me it was very comfortable, and they were right. They also have a very good selection of bras. I remember when I was ten most girls my age barely knew what VS was, or if they did, it was the store they giggled at because the mannequins in the front were all in their underwear. I have a difficult time thinking about me at age ten in VS. Now is a bit different, but I still never venture past the PINK section except to pay.

Elle said...

I'm a fairly new reader here at FGB, so I'm just now reading this post because it was pointed to in today's (Saturday 9/1) column. I'm chiming in on the comments anyway. :-)

First, those of you with more extensive interests in media/cultural sexualization of young girls may be interested in the report on media sexualization of girls released earlier this year by the APA. You can read an executive summary here.

Second, since one of my degrees is in linguistics (and the others are in communication/women's studies) I'm continually amazed that more people aren't outraged by the whole PINK line. "Pink" is well known slang for female genitalia. One of the anonymous commenters expressed surprise about parents letting their child wear pants with slogans on the rear; it's not so surprising to me that the average middle-class mom doesn't know the slang meaning of PINK, but I'm guessing there's a whole lot of dads who have no idea what their adolescent daughters are wearing.