Emily Ratajkowski is a model, actress and feminist who rose to fame via Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video before playing Ben Affleck’s mistress in Gone Girl. With that in mind, her thoughts on beauty, sexuality, childhood, womanhood, body autonomy and shame were always going to be complex.
It’s “a messy, messy business” for women to honour their sexuality, Ratajkowski says; but it’s also necessary – and she’s reflected on her need to find a space for “ownership and enjoyment of my gender” in a searingly personal essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter.
In the piece, titled ‘Baby Woman’ after her father’s affectionate description of her developing form, Ratajkowski, now 24, tracks the moments through her childhood and adolescence when she began to realise her body was becoming something other than just her own. Her body parts were given meaning by others – ‘beautiful’, ‘desirable’, ‘sexual’, ‘trashy’ – transforming them into a force those others then expected her to contain and repress.
She was “a 12-year-old with D-cup breasts who still woke up in the night and asked her mom to come and sleep in her room”. An eighth-grader whose principal “snapped my bra strap in front of an entire room of my classmates and other teachers” because in peaking out of her tank top, it violated the dress code. A 13-year-old who gathered such looks from men in the audience of a school play that her parents’ friend sobbed to them afterwards. “I needed to protect myself, she explained.”
Modelling at 15, Ratajkowski says the adults in her life were concerned about the damage that high-pressure, adult world might do to her. But she says the world outside fashion was far more difficult to navigate – and the same people “who faulted the modelling industry for being oppressive and sexist” were looking past their own sexist attitudes that questioned what “message” her body was sending.
“Teachers, friends, adults, boyfriends — individuals who were not as regulated as those in the highly scrutinised fashion world were more often the ones to make me feel uncomfortable or guilty about my developing sexuality,” she writes.
And, importantly, the deeming of women’s bodies as ‘sending messages’ simply by existing are not just concerns for models.
“I think of women in their workplaces worrying about how their sexuality might accidentally offend, excite, or create envy. I think of mothers trying to explain to their daughters that while it wasn’t their fault, they should cover up next time.”
What’s particularly refreshing about this essay is that Ratajkowski doesn’t claim to have the answers. She recognises the difficulty in wresting power and agency back from the male gaze, and finding a space for sexual expression and celebration of womanhood and beauty that isn’t twisted by the perception of others. She ends the essay with a question that may not be entirely rhetorical.
“I struggle to find the space between as an artist, as a model, and simply as a woman — a space where I can have ownership and enjoyment of my gender,” she writes. “Honouring our sexuality as women is a messy, messy business, but if we don’t try, what do we become?”