05/22/2013 03:09 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

An Angel Soft 'No': Victoria's Secret's Missed Opportunity


It seemed like a slam-dunk, a no brainer, a feel-good win for womankind. In January, Allana Maiden circulated a petition in an effort to encourage Victoria's Secret, one of the world's largest manufacturers of bras and lingerie, to create a bra line for breast cancer survivors. Maiden's mother, Debbie, was the inspiration for her crusade. According to Maiden, mastectomy bras are the Yettis of lingerie: elusive, mysterious, and not very stylish. To purchase her bras, Debbie would drive over an hour one way to a specialty store. Enter Victoria's Secret.

Victoria's Secret officials met with Maiden and her mother at their corporate headquarters in Ohio early in the new year where they promised to put some research behind considering Maiden's proposal. This week, the purveyors of sequined panties and feather-dotted bustiers gave Maiden a polite "no" stating: "Through our research, we have learned that fitting and selling mastectomy bras in the right way... a way that is beneficial to women is complicated and truly a science. As a result, we believe that the best way for us to make an impact for our customers is to continue funding cancer research." Exit Victoria's Secret.

From a consumer point of view alone, the company's pass is a disappointment. With its global branding and vast brick and mortar reach, Victoria's Secret would have been an exciting and powerful advocate for all women's access to fashion that makes them feel desirable and confident. But even more disheartening is Victoria's Secret's non-answer. "It's complicated," is something you say when you want to break up with your high school boyfriend, but don't want him to hate you, or you know, turn you down when in four months you ask him to prom "as friends." "Complicated" is the bland, neutral, non-committal response right up there with "interesting" that alleviates you from having to concisely articulate your position, especially if it is an unpopular one.

Is the practice of "fitting and selling" mastectomy bras a tricky business? Probably. After all, what part of a woman's anatomy isn't fraught with snares, traps and things that go bump in the night? However, this is the same company that thinks nothing of hiring employees dedicated to performing what amounts to the Hunger Games of bra fittings for its customers. Suddenly, it is unthinkable to consider investing in some additional labor and training in order to be able understand the process of fitting women for mastectomy bras? As Amy Poehler would say, "Really? Oh. Really?"

The mechanics of producing and outfitting mastectomy wear for women is not as "complicated" as the meanings and representations attached to illness, and this is what, I believe, Victoria's Secret is responding to as the company tries to delicately wash its angel wings of the entire business. Sickness, even sickness conquered, cannot be sexy, or so the marketing logic likely goes. Many women have reclaimed their post-cancer bodies, complete with scars and other visual markers of disease, through photography, art, and fashion. In doing so, women challenge social notions of attractiveness, but also empower themselves to own their self-worth, to celebrate their beauty on their own terms. A woman living as a cancer survivor is not just a body transformed, hers is a life transformed. Victoria's Secret could have been a part of this process. They had the opportunity to participate in the journeys of these women in a meaningful ways and to make a clear and inspired statement about valuing all types of bodies, about acknowledging the hidden impacts of breast cancer, and about setting an example for young women that defies the stigma associated with disease. Instead, they opted to stick to making gauzy Barbie doll peignoir sets and cotton candy-colored training bras for its "bright young things."

I guess it's not that "complicated" after all.