The Pulse

August 9, 2019

Victoria's Secret Hired Its First Trans Model — But It Still Has a Ways to Go

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Valentina Sampaio made history this month when she became the first openly trans person to model for Victoria’s Secret — an undoubtedly overdue milestone for the iconic lingerie brand. On August 1, Sampaio posted behind-the-scenes photos from a campaign shoot on Instagram, writing “Never stop dreaming,” underneath one of the images. Sampaio’s boundary-breaking was confirmed on August 5 when her agent told the New York Times that the 22-year-old Brazilian model and actress had been cast for a catalog photo shoot. This is not the first time Sampaio has made history as a trans model, but getting hired by the 42-year-old lingerie brand is uniquely monumental.

By finally featuring a trans model in their lineup, Victoria’s Secret helps challenge harmful stigmas that claim trans women are undesirable and unattractive—stigmas that their chief marketing officer recently perpetuated. 

In 2018, Ed Razek, CMO of L Brands (the parent company of Victoria’s Secret), made transphobic statements in an interview with Vogue.com when asked why the brand does not cast trans or plus-size women. Razek responded, “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy.”

The backlash was swift and deserved, from the general public and from folks in the fashion industry. Angels Karlie Kloss, Lily Aldridge, and Kendall Jenner each shared illustrations on Instagram defending and celebrating trans and gender-nonconforming people. Phillip Picardi, then chief content officer of Teen Vogue, tweeted, “We, as an industry, must stop honoring this arcane pageantry and demand that they change. The fact that this show exists the way it does in 2018 is absurd.” Additionally, beauty influencer Nikita Dragun, a trans woman, created her own Victoria’s Secret-inspired lingerie ad to prove Razek wrong.

Razek apologized for his hateful remarks and claimed Victoria’s Secret would indeed hire trans models, but he’d already demonstrated his personal ignorance, as well as the company’s reluctance to catch up with the fashion industry and the times, in general. Through its hiring practices, Victoria’s Secret — particularly its annual (and recently canceled) televised fashion show — has long upheld the most stereotypical and unattainable standards of feminine beauty as dictated by the straight male gaze: thin, cis, and mostly white. In 2019, that’s frankly — and thankfully — outdated. In fact, last month, model Karlie Kloss alluded to these problems when telling British Vogue why she left the brand: "The reason I decided to stop working with Victoria’s Secret was I didn’t feel it was an image that was truly reflective of...the kind of message I want to send to young women...about what it means to be beautiful. I think that was a pivotal moment in me stepping into my power as a feminist.”

It’s interesting to note that on August 6 — mere days after Sampaio’s historic announcement — the company shared that Razek had retired. It’s also very important to note that, on the same day, the Model Alliance published a powerful open letter signed by more than 100 models criticizing Victoria’s Secret for its ties to alleged child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein and to three photographers accused of sexual misconduct. 

We clearly ought to be critical of the company, but that shouldn’t minimize Sampaio’s accomplishments or the representation that she brings to Victoria’s Secret. 

Trans women are frequently told by society that they are undesirable. Janet Mock, journalist and Pose writer/director, wrote, “We, as a society, have not created a space for men to openly express their desire to be with trans women. Instead, we shame men who have this desire... We tell men to keep their attraction to trans women secret, to limit it to the internet, frame it as a passing fetish or transaction. In effect, we’re telling trans women that they are only deserving of secret interactions with men, further demeaning and stigmatizing trans women." So when one of our culture’s “decided authorities” on sexual attractiveness says an openly trans woman is beautiful, that does count for something — even if the company itself is problematic.

Christia S. Brown, PhD, a professor who focuses on gender stereotypes’ impacts on children, recently wrote for Psychology Today that “gender identity is rarely discussed in health class and sexual education focuses on a heteronormative, cisgender default...trans individuals are just beginning to be seen in popular culture…[serving] as important faces for trans youth, who are eager to see themselves reflected back from their computer screens.”

Thankfully, there are also lots of other lingerie brands practicing trans inclusiveness that we can support without the troubled past or concerning business ties — including Bluestockings Boutique, TomboyX, Origami Customs, Rebirth Garments, Curvy Kate, Chromat, RodeoH, and more. Unlike Victoria’s Secret, these brands also feature trans people of color and gender-nonconforming folks amongst their models, as well as highlight diverse body types in their promotional images and in the sizes they offer. Several of these companies incorporate gender-neutral sizing in their catalogs and sell garments that cater to trans bodies, so the inclusiveness goes beyond advertising.

While such increased representation is ever important, we also need comprehensive education existing alongside it so the impact of this representation can be substantial and long-lasting. In a 2019 interview with CNN, Isa Noyola, deputy director of the Transgender Law Center, discussed the shocking and increasing rates of murdered trans women — especially Black trans women — reported in America on a yearly basis: "You have this incredible, pivotal moment of media visibility with pop culture, but it comes without education and deeper learning about the transgender community. Too many places remain unsafe." Brown referenced a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA that showed how transphobia is effectively challenged when intersectional education actually occurs, not just visibility alone. Specifically, when participants were asked to read a paragraph about transgender identity, and then were asked to look at images of trans people, the Williams Institute found that “hearing about and seeing images of trans individuals reduced transphobia, which in turn led to increased support of trans rights. Knowledge and representation matters.”

Valentina Sampaio’s work for Victoria’s Secret and elsewhere is increasing trans visibility for young people, creating opportunities for other trans models, and bringing attention to trans contributions in fashion. Our society certainly needs a whole lot more than that to be equal and safe for all (and Victoria’s Secret certainly has plenty of problems it still needs to fix), but we can still celebrate trans trailblazers and support more inclusive companies.

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Rachel Sanoff is an editor at O.school and a writer in Los Angeles. She was previously the features editor at HelloGiggles, and you can read more of her work on Jezebel, Bustle, The Culture Trip, and other places on the internet.

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