OPED: Dear Victoria, I have a secret — my queer, fat sexuality is not for sale

Kt Hawbaker
Chicago Tribune
Victoria Secret's 2018 Body by Victoria Collection is shown in this news release photo. (Victoria's Secret)

I was 15 going on size 16.

While my friends were all about sexy, little things, the only stuff that fit me at Victoria’s Secret was the appletini body spray. The following summer, when I existed on an 800-calorie-a-day diet and dropped 35 pounds in a single month, it was the store’s summer catalog I kept next to my bed. I would flip through it, circling the bikinis I would buy as I pounded Diet Mountain Dew.

I, too, was going to be a Sexy. Little. Thing.

I reeked of virgin cocktails and an eating disorder until I picked up my high school’s tattered copy of “The Feminine Mystique” and unraveled from there, landing safely in the arms of folks like bell hooks and Lindy West. Thanks to feminist theory, years of therapy and a gender studies program, I became a sexy, hairy, queer thing instead. And, while my relationship with my body is still complex, I do my darnedest to ensure that it’s just mine.

Victoria’s Secret hadn’t been on my radar until recently, when its chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, came under fire for making anti-trans and fatphobic comments about the store’s annual fashion show.

“If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have,” he told Vogue on Nov. 8, the day the show was taped. The fashion show aired Sunday on ABC.

But, could the brand include transwomen in the show?

“No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is,” he said.

Oh, sweetie, what are you doing?

The righteous fallout from these comments resulted in an apology from Razek. “My remark regarding the inclusion of transgender models in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show came across as insensitive. I apologize,” he stated. “To be clear, we absolutely would cast a transgender model for the show.”

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The word “inclusivity” keeps coming up in responses to the incident.

“As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have no tolerance for a lack of inclusivity,” Halsey wrote on Instagram in regards to her performance in the fashion show. You know, where she sang onstage despite “a lack of inclusivity.”

Calling for inclusivity in this moment is a bunch of baloney. To quote Rihanna, Victoria’s Secret is only sorry it got caught. The chain isn’t here to celebrate the nuances of human sexuality; it is here to create and monetize an ideal.

Inclusivity, while well-intentioned, often keeps whiteness, thinness, money and ability at the center. Instead of hoisting up marginalized voices and bodies, inclusivity invites them to reinforce hierarchies and participate in well-oiled systems of power. It ignores the difference between diversity and equity — we might all be in the same room, but we’re not allowed to take up the same amount of space or speak at the same volume.

The Victoria’s Secret debacle is the perfect example of this dissonance at work. Here’s a brand that literally made millions off its image of “The Body,” shelling out a singular vision of feminine sex appeal and offering the “fantasy” of heterosexuality. These are slinky teddies for your honeymoon, when you’ll sleep with your husband. You’ll then make babies, whom you’ll protect from depictions of sex — with the exception of Victoria’s Secret, because mostly white, blond, thin, heteronormative sex is safe enough for the mall. It’s a tangled web that includes the purity myth, Eurocentric beauty ideals and anti-queer attitudes, all draped in capitalism’s pretty pink wallpaper.

With Razek’s apology, Victoria’s Secret is implying that all people can buy their way into these sexual expressions, as long as they don’t critique what it actually means.

I, for one, don’t want my fat, queer body to be included.

When Razek talks about bringing in trans and fat folks to the “fantasy,” he’s talking about transwomen who pass as cis. He’s not talking about folks looking fly in binders or packing devices. He’s not talking about boxer briefs with room for dildos or toys. He’s not talking about kink or sex among senior citizens. He’s not talking about folks who use wheelchairs and are brown. He’s not talking about chunked-up femmes like me who have small chests and a fire in their big bellies.

He’s talking about the replication of white heterosexuality.

He’s talking about dollar signs, not genuine sexual pleasure.

He’s talking nonsense.

I’ll admit that there’s no one neat answer to this dilemma. On one hand, I don’t want to shame women who are comfortable with conventional expressions of sexuality. I do recognize that many have felt liberated by the brand’s products, and I want to avoid shutting down these experiences. We need more conversations about sex. Period.

On the other hand, I’m sick and tired of the male gaze co-opting feminism. You can’t buy your way to sexual empowerment, especially through a lingerie store with a history of utilizing privatized prison labor.

Victoria’s Secret is the product of a culture with minimal language surrounding pleasure and the body — after all, the company was founded by a husband who felt embarrassed purchasing lingerie for his wife. It’s about as old school and problematic as it gets. Victoria’s Secret has relied on a mainstream culture that frequently denied the vastness of human sexuality, but if this snafu suggests anything, that mindset is changing.

With that in mind, Razek’s plea for forgiveness isn’t sexy, but it is little. Too little, too late.