Taylor Swift rejects her Victoria's Secret brainwashing 💀
Thoughts on unlearning the parasite of self-starvation
Dearest Pancake Brains,
Happy Friday! I promised you a mission statement, and, for now, I’ve settled on this:
America is currently an oligarchy organized by the hierarchy of the white supremacist patriarchy. Pancake Brain is a Friday newsletter dedicated to replacing the status quo with equitable public power, and a community dedicated to building the discipline of democracy that equity requires. We move through the world committed to a daily practice of activism and critical thinking. We reject limitations and embrace the possibilities of social imagination, certain that the queer future is better than anything we’ve yet dreamed up. We insist on our right and duty to the political conversation, and empower others to join us. Out of love for ourselves and the collective, we are engaged in a sustainable practice of freedom.
I’ll talk more about how I plan to tend to this virtual garden as we go. For now, know that I have big dreams, including discussion threads, live video interviews, and a book club. I see you all as early stakeholders in this project, and I hope you’ll take an active role in shaping it as we grow together. Along the way, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings. If you dig this post, please share it, and invite your friends to join us — ideally, the ones who are smart, funny, and kind. (Editor’s Note: I reserve the right to ban bots and Nazis.)
I’m also excited to share this first draft of a logo, created by my partner, who says to think of the letters as purple butter. 😭
The big idea behind Pancake Brain is that we have to do the constant work of re-inflating our souls, which have been squashed through the binaries of an oppressive system, and also Twitter. Transcendence must be a daily process, and I want this to be a place where we can evolve together. Each week, I’ll include action items you might incorporate into your discipline of democracy (see below) after an essay in which I encourage you to engage in the earnest irreverence of critical thinking, by routinely asking my favorite question: What the fuck?
This week, assuming you’ve already read enough about the global health crisis, the Democratic party’s ongoing clown car of a primary, and the illegitimate president redefining modern authoritarianism one tweet at a time, I thought we might talk about that Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, “Miss Americana,” specifically the part where she talks about recovering from an eating disorder.
“I’ve learned over the years it’s not good for me to see pictures of myself,” Swift says, after escaping the fans and paparazzi waiting outside of her apartment. “I tend to get triggered by something, whether it’s a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big, or someone said that I looked pregnant or something, and that will trigger me to starve, to just stop eating.”
“The fact that I’m a size six and not a size double zero, that wasn’t how my body was supposed to be,” she continues, as we see footage of her on the red carpet with chiaroscuro shoulder blades. “I just didn’t understand that. At the time, I don’t think I knew it.”
What Swift reveals in this admission is striking: The capitalistic ideal of cis white femme perfection is such an impossible standard that it requires literally starving.
At face value, this statement may appear obvious. We all “know” that female beauty standards are deranged, that the images produced by capitalism are created to satisfy a white supremacist male gaze, that even the models don’t look like that in real life. And yet, often the phenomena we can negate with our thinking minds still unfurl in full effect at the subterranean level. This was also the case for Swift. Until the awakening she details in “Miss Americana,” the self-proclaimed feminist was a pawn in the patriarchal machine that grinds out visible ribs, hip bones, and thigh gaps.
The propaganda of thin, white feminine perfection is buried deeper in my gray matter than I ever realized. I’ve been through a lot of transformative healing over the past few years, but sometimes it feels like while my soul has evolved, my body remains in a primitive state. It was only after I realized I’m gay that I began to let go of a lifelong obsession with having a flat stomach. Before I came out to myself, I had unlearned decades of fatphobic indoctrination, but I was still internalizing it as low-grade self-hatred. After I came out, it occurred to me that I wasn’t longing for a flat stomach in the womxn I dated, and that finally got me to ask why the hell I continued demanding it for myself.
The answer, of course, is that we are endlessly bombarded with the image of the flat stomach through pop stars, billboards, and, most recently, that tea that makes you shit. There is an anorexic vision board still embedded in the feminine unconscious, and it looks a lot like the window of Victoria’s Secret. Swift’s generation was raised on a beauty ideal epitomized by an emaciated white woman in her underwear.
Victoria’s Secret is the quintessential example of the oppressive ideal, and the company has played a visible role in Swift’s journey. During the double zero phase of Swift’s career, she frequently surrounded herself with Victoria’s Secret Angels. The two international mega brands are linked beyond public-facing friendship. Victoria’s Secret is a core distributor of the poison that is the thin, white image of feminine perfection. The brand is a ubiquitous institution in a culture that told Swift she was “supposed to” winnow her body down to a double zero.
I was in middle school during the peak of Victoria’s Secret saturation in the 2000s, and it was truly inescapable. Before Swift’s Instagram account was but a glimmer in her eye, the thin ideal was flourishing in catalogs, at the mall, and in that fucked-up fashion show that felt like mandatory viewing in my New Jersey high school. Teenage girls plotting to Special-K-diet their way to the bodies on the Victoria’s Secret runway was approximately as reasonable as attempting to sprout wings.
A few days after “Miss Americana” debuted on Netflix, the New York Times published a first-page story detailing a “culture of misogyny” at Victoria’s Secret. (The company has also perpetuated racism and transphobia). I was struck by a quote in the Times piece from a former public relations employee. "The abuse was just laughed off and accepted as normal,” she said. “It was almost like brainwashing." It only makes sense that there would be a culture of misogyny at the core of the brand. Victoria’s Secret is partly responsible for brainwashing their employees, Taylor Swift, and society at large into believing that the paragon of beauty is a cis white woman who ate a carrot for lunch.
The sexism of the Victoria’s Secret image of perfectionism is obvious on its face, and yet, I find that I am still in the process of freeing my mind from its impossible, unnecessary goal. Once in awhile, most often the week before my period, I hear the demon who sometimes speaks to Swift, hissing for me to starve. And when it does, I conjure the Victoria’s Secret image of beauty, as if ripped from a 2003 catalog, and I imagine tearing it to pieces, bit by bit, and every time I grow stronger. On a less emotional note, I would add that Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands, announced last Thursday that it is selling off a 55% stake amid declining sales, so, yeah, in conclusion, RIP Victoria’s Secret, you won’t be missed.
Now, before I go too far over the word count I made up for myself, I want to leave you all with some potential action items for your discipline of democracy (which, ideally, you started up after reading “How to Start a Revolution,” though that’s not required).
As we head into Super Tuesday, I hope you will consider donating to or volunteering for your candidate. Don’t let gatekeepers tell you who is and isn’t electable, get out there and shape the race. (In the interest of radical transparency, I would like to disclose that I want Elizabeth Warren to adopt me.)
Alternatively, if you’re feeling burnt out on the primary after that clusterfuck of a debate, how can you redirect your energy? Down-ballot races will be critical in 2020 no matter who the nominee is, especially state legislatures. You might consider donating to Run For Something, or doing exactly that.
Another ongoing cause that is worthy of all our concern is having a habitable Earth. In December, I gave a talk at Cambridge Forum with Boston representatives of Extinction Rebellion. Look into getting involved with your local group here.
Really, the options are limitless. I don’t care what you do, but do something. What matters is that we all prioritize a commitment to active citizenship. As you develop your discipline of democracy, I’d love to hear what is working best for you all. How many hours can you commit to take action each month? What sort of activities most resonate with you? Have you found any luck making it social?
Sending you love and strength as you continue surviving this god awful timeline.
With earnest irreverence,