Valentina Sampaio, a 22-year-old trans model from Brazil, has joined VS Pink to become Victoria’s Secret’s first-ever transgender athleisure babe. The announcement received praise from LGBTQ activists — including GLAAD and the legendary Laverne Cox — as well as people who simply want to see corporate entities take a more inclusive approach to conducting business. After all, the fashion industry has an outsized impact on the way that society views bodies. It shapes our collective ideals by elevating or erasing our normal physical features like shape, size, and color through marketing campaigns. Allowing talented and beautiful trans people like Sampaio to be more visible in popular culture is one way to foster a more compassionate, less transphobic society.
There has also been necessary dialogue around what it means for a trans model to work with a company whose chief marketing officer had previously described its branding as a “fantasy” that necessarily excludes trans and plus-size models. It’s no secret (pardon the pun) that Victoria’s Secret has hewn to a very specific type of body to model its lingerie: tall, slender, relatively light-skinned, and perkily-breasted. Some have argued that Sampaio is simply an alternative iteration of this ideal and that her inclusion in VS Pink’s campaign ought to be praised with a grain of salt.
It’s a complex conversation that has been broached before by other trans activists. While visibility itself has been a huge win for the trans community, model Munroe Bergdorf talked with The Guardian earlier this year about how there is much more to consider as a trans model. “I got booked on a job for Uniqlo in 2016 – my first big campaign – and they wanted me to speak about my experience of being transgender and black in Britain. I hadn’t come across that before; I had always just been cast as the token trans model.” The experience was formative for her, and she began to use her platform to help others feel seen. She shared that she knows “so many trans people who got their first bra from Victoria’s Secret.” While Bergdorf has been vocal about eradicating the male gaze from the industry, she took an optimistic stance on the prospect of inclusion, suggesting that a powerhouse brand like Victoria’s Secret has the opportunity to reshape what it means for a woman to feel sexy.
Her perspective reflects some of the negative experiences she has had as a black, trans model: In 2017, L’Oréal dropped her from a big campaign after she lambasted white supremacy on social media in the weeks following Charlottesville. The company felt that her words were too inflammatory, cutting her loose. Reflecting on the experience, Bergdorf explained, “It was a diversity campaign that used my appearance but didn’t allow me my voice, and I was dropped after making comments about systemic racism on social media.” She was of course devastated but sees the experience as a net positive. “What came out of it has been greater than what it was intended to be in the first place.”
Adding more nuance to the larger conversation, Rihanna has explicitly refused to tokenize trans people in her body-inclusive Savage x Fenty campaigns. “I don’t think it’s fair that a trans woman, or man, be used as a convenient marketing tool,” she said, responding to someone who asked why trans women weren’t part of her lingerie campaign. “Too often I see companies doing this to trans and black women alike. There’s always just that one spot in the campaign for the token ‘we look mad diverse’ girl/guy! It’s sad!” She emphasized that she worked with trans women throughout her career, “but I don’t go around doing trans castings! Just like I don’t do straight non-trans women castings. I respect all women. Whether they’re trans or not is none of my business.”