‘My Body’ reads more like a memoir than a collection of essays, exploring how Ratajkowski navigated the virulent, hostile and cruel landscape of her industry. A lot has changed for the 30-year-old model, actress and now author since she shot to fame in 2013, staring in the infamous music video for Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Criticised for its glamourisation of misogyny, chauvinism and rape culture – it was an apt, albeit tragic, metaphor for the complex livelihood it plunged 21-year-old Emily into.
Throughout the book she writes powerfully with raw and visceral emotion of her experiences of sexual assault and harassment, as well as diving deeper into the modelling industry and how it magnified her feelings of isolation, vulnerability and lack of control. Control is a theme Ratajkowski comes back to again and again; it was why she started modelling in the first place as “money meant freedom and control” but she quickly discovers both are unattainable. She loses all autonomy and agency over her body and her image again and again: from humiliating photoshoots resurfacing years later, to libels and exploitation by both teenage boyfriends and, later, powerful and predatory men. Ratajkowski’s identity becomes warped and degraded by the media and society until she becomes nothing more than a ’mannequin’, a ‘prop’. Her body is public property: its commodification has sold thousands of products, from clothes and skincare brands to nude art and magazines. Every step of the way, men profit from and exploit her for her sensuality and attractiveness. It has made her one of the most famous models of her generation, but at what cost?
Negative reviews of the essays and their author are intense and innumerable. They highlight her hypocrisy at criticising her commodification whilst posting provocative images of herself online. They claim that if she disliked her lifestyle so much, she should stop pursuing and profiting from it. They say her self-professed feminism is a scam due to her suggestive sexual expression. Ultimately, they refuse to see her as any kind of victim. However I think this misinterprets her motives in writing the essays. She doesn’t ask for pity, but rather understanding and respect, acknowledgment that she is, was, and will always be more than just her body.
There is a disconnect here between the way we accept but also shame the objectification of Emily, or indeed, of anyone’s body. We use sexy women to sell everything: from cars, and perfumes, to Müller yoghurt and smart phones. They are on our TV screens, our cereal boxes, our magazines and our Instagram feeds. We have no problem using these women for marketing, capitalistic pursuits, for the benefit of a company or client, for the profit of other, more powerful people. But as soon as a woman takes that sensuality and makes it her own, using it for her own success, profit and fulfilment, she becomes an anti-feminist, a slut. This is how people view Emily Ratajkowski. Trying in these essays to dispel such notions, she writes that “I wanted to be able to have my Instagram hustle, selling bikinis and whatever else, while also being respected for my ideas and politics and well, everything besides my body.” This is an ideal she has so far struggled to achieve. Perhaps this New York Times best-selling book will help her, as she is judged on her intellect, writing style and socio-political viewpoints rather than simply her physicality, her desirability.
What strikes me reading, however, is a sense of shallowness; the themes and ideas touched upon lightly need to be delved into fully: it’s not quite a full exposé of her industry, and as astutely as she recognises the way she is perceived by men, she does not consider the effect on women, on girls. She mentions in passing “losing ten pounds” and “smoking cigarettes and skipping meals” to maintain a desirably slim figure, and nowhere in her obsession with the ‘hustle’ of social media does she consider the dangerous potential perfected and idealised bodies have on others. She acknowledges her insecurities about her own appearance, but almost every day reinforces to her 28.6 million followers “archaic tropes of female sexuality” with explicit images. I go to her recent Instagram post and click on the likes: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven teenage boys I know personally and am friends with, have liked this image of her bare breasts. The picture has over a million likes. Is this truly empowering and liberating? Is it a true expression of her femininity? If so – for whom?
My favourite part of the book is the final essay, ‘Releases’, where Ratajkowski explores the power of her body in a very different way: its strength and resilience giving birth to her son, to whom the book is dedicated. Now her body is “transformed” from its usual state of idealised beauty to the point where she “no longer recognised [her] face, and the veins at [her] temple were pronounced and throbbing.” She finds her appearance “swollen and raw and unfamiliar” – perhaps even ugly. But in these moments, she finds something she has searched her whole career, even her whole life, for: never has her body been more powerful, more free.
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