October 20, 2023 - 6:00pm

Over the past decade, several brands have decided to pivot to a more “inclusive” marketing strategy, including lingerie superpower Victoria’s Secret. Earlier this week it was reported that, because of a revenue drop, the fashion line is ditching “wokeness” and returning to “sexiness”. In other words: say goodbye to overweight or “unconventional” models, and welcome back the Victoria’s Secret Angels with whom we grew up. Interestingly (and maybe just coincidentally), this was announced soon after they debuted an adaptive intimates line, featuring models with both common — and much rarer — conditions, like spina bifida or multiple amputees. 

Brands which have made similar, “more inclusive” marketing shifts, have frequently been criticised for spreading pro-obesity or even “pro-ugliness” propaganda, while supporters have countered that it draws more people into fashion. Some more practical-minded observers have argued it’s about the bottom line: if a brand has obese models, it probably has obese customers. As it turns out, even if they do, those obese people probably don’t want to be reminded that they’re obese. Or, in Victoria’s Secret’s case, disabled as well. 

So what purpose do these types of advertisements serve if they’re not actually making customers feel more comfortable? Well, there might also be something baser and more sadistic at play. Essentially, we’ve rechannelled our impulse to gawk at extraordinary bodies under the guise of “compassion” and “inclusivity”. Nowadays, many of these catwalks (and therefore, the accompanying ads) feel like freak shows, which might be the most apt analogy. As it turns out, not as many people are interested in that kind of “diversity porn” as marketing directors thought. 

A similar impulse arises on TikTok, with the popularity of visibly disfigured beauty influencersThere’s a part of me that wants to believe that we’re giving them a fair shake and seeing past their physical deformity, and that these fields are now less focused on looks. But scroll through the comments section, and that’s pretty much the exclusive focus of users. “Just checking to see if this passes the vibe check!” is a common stock phrase, as though users are preempting the cruelty they assume will come because of the creator’s appearance. 

But it’s all the same, whether fashion shows or burn victims doing “Get Ready With Me” videos. “Inclusivity” and “diversity” are just DEI wrapping paper that gives us a safe excuse to stare. 

But not everyone wants to stare, especially when it comes to fashion. Or, at least, their lingerie. So what’s next if the freak show impulse — or inclusivity, if we’re being more charitable here — isn’t selling underwear? Is this the canary in the coal mine for “wokeness”? For mass-produced clothing brands, it could well be. But it’s also possible that it was never working in those markets, either, and corporations were simply hewing to the zeitgeist. 

Yet if one contrasts diversity in fashion with diversity campaigns in Hollywood, one gets a slightly different picture. That’s because the Hollywood expression of wokeness is still glamorous, even if some people find it cloying or over-the-top. We see more diversity in movies these days, but that diversity is still pleasing to look at. The same hasn’t been true for fashion. Woke branding has its limits, it seems, and we are certainly not ready for it to touch our lingerie.

Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit defaultfriend.substack.com.