Emily Ratajkowski’s body reached viral fame in 2013, when at 21 she appeared naked but for a skin coloured thong in the music video for Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. Controversy raged over whether the video and the song’s lyrics (“You’re a good girl, I know you want it”) demeaned women and undermined sexual consent. Dozens of student unions in the UK voted to ban the song from playing at university events.
She presents her modelling career as more of a Faustian bargain: fame and fortune in exchange for her image
Interviewed in the men’s magazine Esquire, Ratajkowski denied that the use of semi-nude women as props was objectifying. “That eye contact and that attitude really puts us in a power situation […] I think it’s actually celebrating women and their bodies.” In the years following Blurred Lines, she became not only one of the most lusted after women in the world, but also, in her words, “the poster child for choice feminism”. According to this popular but superficial strain of feminism, anything can be feminist if it’s what an individual woman chooses for herself. Never mind the deeper circumstances of that choice, never mind the collective implications for women of normalising cosmetic surgery, BDSM, or OnlyFans: it’s her choice so we should celebrate it as empowering. Yas kween!
Ratajkowski’s new memoir, My Body, tells a different story. Looking back now, she presents her modelling career as more of a Faustian bargain: fame and fortune in exchange for her image, her privacy, and often her dignity. Ratajkowski alleges that she has been sexually assaulted multiple times — including, no less, by Robin Thicke on the set of Blurred Lines. Not only this but, contrary to her past statements, we learn that on some level she has always felt conflicted about making a living by being appraised for her looks, and uneasy with the disembodiment and countless small self betrayals that has entailed.
The story follows a predictable hero’s journey: an insecure and slightly naive teenager seeks validation and financial independence; is confronted by the seedy and lecherous reality of the modelling world; and emerges stronger and wiser, reconnecting with her body via exercise, self care, and finally, pregnancy and motherhood. It is undeniably solipsistic (as suggested by the title), and very much follows the vogue for intimate, slightly self-pitying introspection as the route to wisdom. Despite this, I don’t find her trite or formulaic. My Body is genuine, powerful, and often eerily relatable.
The foremost lie of patriarchy is that women do not have a rich inner life — they are simply an exterior, “looking glasses … reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”. There is something subversive, therefore, about a model — the ultimate sexualised exterior– insisting on sharing her subjective experience in her own words, and in doing so asserting her personhood.
My Body is woven with unglamorous details reminding us that behind the Instagram-perfect image is a real person, a person whose feet ache in uncomfortable shoes, who feels tired, sick, awkward and insecure. Ratajkowski clambers into a car “using one hand to hold down my short dress to keep it from riding up over my ass”; far from home at a party she’s paid to attend, she sneaks off to sleep squashed between two other models “under a comforter that smelled stale and of someone else”.
Helen of Troy may have been the face that launched a thousand ships, but did she really have any power?
Ratajkowski also gives voice to broader experiences I suspect many women will relate to. The confusing sense that attracting attention from men is something to be simultaneously proud and ashamed of; and somehow dangerous too, like a loaded gun thrust into your hands at fifteen. The feeling of comparing yourself to other women, on some level wanting to be told you’re prettier and more special, while at the same time resenting your own vanity: “I hate that I am having this conversation […] I want to stand up and scream ‘Of course I know this! I hate women who compare themselves to other women! I am not that way!’”
Age-old cultural narratives tell us that desirable women possess an incomparable power, that they can manipulate and have men at their beck and call. But what’s really on offer is more like a kind of temporary and conditional special treatment. Helen of Troy may have been the face that launched a thousand ships — but did power really reside in the kidnapped wife, or in the men who fought over her with armies at their command?
Most women learn through experience that the promise of power and respect via sexual objectification is an illusion. Emily Ratajkowski is only unique in having this revelation so publicly. It’s a painful realisation, like the humiliation of finding out you aren’t in on the joke; that you were being laughed at, not laughed with.
The tragedy is that for the most part we each have to learn this lesson for ourselves. Older women who’ve already been through the process are cruelly mocked as humourless bra-burners, jealous of younger women’s desirability. In response, many younger women are all too eager to prove themselves as fun, sexy, and not at all like those boring, old fashioned prudes. Emily Ratajkowski has until now largely played the part of the cool girl extolling the emancipatory powers of female nudity. To see her now expressing something more ambivalent — while very much in possession of fuckability credentials, and with an Instagram following of nearly 30 million — feels significant, and possibly hints at a coming feminist backlash against the excesses of 2010s sex positivity.
My verdict? Buy this book for your teenage daughters
It would be all too easy to paint Ratajkowski as a hypocrite. One review accuses her of cynical career positioning, pointing to an inconsistency between her newfound misgivings and her continued self-objectification on Instagram. To me, this contradiction adds a poignancy and universality to the conflicted feelings Ratajkowski expresses in My Body. Presenting a sexualised image of herself has been Ratajkowski’s career since her early teens; I’d argue she’s well placed to comment critically on the nature of that work without having to go cold turkey. And who among us can say that if we were born with one in a million modelesque looks, we would be “too feminist” to capitalise on them? I certainly can’t.
Blurred Lines and the endless arguments over whether or not it was “empowering” were the soundtrack to my first weeks at university. Reading My Body, I recalled how lost, bewildered and hungry for belonging I felt at that time. I wonder what it might have meant if I had known then what I know now: that the impossibly gorgeous woman at the centre of the controversy, a couple of years older than me and confidently telling the media that dancing topless on camera put her “in a power situation”, also felt lost, also felt insecure, and that her feelings below the surface were not what they seemed. My verdict? Buy this book for your teenage daughters.
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