‘Glamour is tempered with boredom and, sometimes, pain’: Emily Ratajkowski arrives for the Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 13 September 2021. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
Uncomfortable honesty from the model and actor in an examination of what it means to be paid for your beauty and the boundaries of power
The Guardian-Eva Wiseman
One afternoon, Emily Ratajkowski’s therapist took her up to the roof and presented her with a bowl of water balloons. Ratajkowski had awoken from a dream where she had been fighting, in a terrible rage, but when she tried to hit out it was “like being a ghost,” she explained, “something without a body”. Her therapist had suggested she throw things to access her anger, but the balloons were too colourful. They popped too gently. So her therapist handed her a jar and told her to think of someone she wanted to punish. It flew from her hand and shattered noisily against the wall. The essays she went on to write, now published in a collection titled My Body, read as those shards of glass, landing with purpose.
A couple of times I was reading her book in public, and acquaintances made variations on a snort at the idea of a collection of feminist essays by a person such as Ratajkowski, a model and actor who became famous dancing in a thong in Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video, whose Instagram glitters with nudes and shots advertising her bikini collection. There was a similar noise internationally in 2020 when New York Magazine published one of these essays, Buying Myself Back, about the many ways in which she does not own her image, from attempting to buy a piece of art that is a screenshot of her face to the sexual assault by a photographer who later sold three separate books of Polaroids he’d taken of her that night. After people read it, the noise quieted. Rather than simply a story written from a place of great power and privilege, it was a story about that power and about that privilege. About the boundaries of a power that lies solely in beauty. Hers, readers found, was an extreme version of a reality familiar to many women who had also been forced to consider where their image ended and their self began.
The tone is that of a thriller – the sense something terrible is looming, perhaps in the waves, perhaps in her phone
The book continues in the same vein; essays that shock and illuminate as they walk around the central themes of what it means to be a woman and a commodity, poking at them with a variety of sharpened tools. One essay sees Ratajkowski waking in a $400m Maldivian resort with her husband, where she has been paid “a shit ton” to post pictures of their sponsored holiday. A headache blooms over the course of a restless day spent on the beach, checking Instagram as a picture of her ass collects a million likes and thinking darkly about money.
The tone is that of a thriller or horror film – the sense something terrible is looming, perhaps in the waves, perhaps in her phone, perhaps in her body. Contemplating the “glistening skin” of her hips in a bikini from her swimwear line, “the whole of the ocean stretched out before me and yet I felt trapped”. In another she accepts $25,000 from a billionaire to join him at the Super Bowl. Watching a model grind purposefully against him, Ratajkowski contemplates the transactional nature of her industry, both contracted and unspoken. “I liked to think I was different from women like her. But over time it became harder to hold on to that distinction or even believe in its virtue.” The model went on to marry a tech mogul, and peers who married pop stars suddenly got Vogue covers. “The world celebrates and rewards women who are chosen by powerful men,” she notes. “Wasn’t I on the same spectrum of compromise?” At times the reader is a popcorn-eating audience; at other times her therapist, offering balloons.
Throughout, glamour is tempered with boredom and, sometimes, pain. Early in her life Ratajkowski learned that beauty gave her power, but also that it was complicated. “It wasn’t just the way I looked that made the boys notice me, it was also my perceived status in the outside world as an attractive girl,” she writes, one eye then on Britney Spears, “a warning”. She learned to be wary of people who responded to her beauty; there’s a hidden violence present as she walks through parties. While filming the video that made her not just famous, but “famously sexy”, pop star Robin Thicke grabbed her breasts. It only occurred to her recently that “the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place.”
She describes the night in 2012 when a photographer violently assaulted her after a lingerie shoot, and his response to the essay’s fact-checker too: “This is the girl that… bounced around naked in the Robin Thicke video that time. You really want to believe she was a victim?” She treats it as a valid question. One essay is a letter to another photographer who, it’s clear, underestimated her. She tells him the story of Audrey Munson, an artist’s muse whose likeness is scattered across New York, and who attempted suicide before being buried in an unmarked grave. “I think of her and the other naked women who line the walls of museums,” Ratajkowski writes, each one anonymous, forgotten, dead. Upon realising her nude shoots had led to her being cast in Gone Girl, after director David Fincher asked Ben Affleck for someone “whom men were obsessed with and women hated”, it’s clear all her achievements are curdled by a squeeze of lemon.
It’s thrilling, often, to sit with Ratajkowski in the roiling surf of her life, in elegant stories written with uncomfortable honesty. It’s revelatory, too, to explore digital life and body politics through the eyes of a person whose body shapes a discourse, and unexpectedly moving to see the bruises left behind. The only problem with this being a smart and glittering collection of essays, rather than simply the glamorous celebrity memoir Ratajkowski could have sold, is that its quality reveals its limits.
Read as memoir, it’s extraordinary; read as activism, it’s unsatisfying. Her commentary on the industry she’s chosen is passionate and chilling, and yet at times rings hollow, in part because of her reluctance to subvert the male gaze she critiques. She returns to the concept that her power lies in her body, without interrogating the idea that her body could also walk away.
It’s fair, of course, for her to criticise the system she works within, but it’s unclear whether she cares enough to change it. To do so would mean (among other things) leaving social media, where images remain commodities to be exploited and crushed, often taking women’s identities down with them. Just because she can see the problems (capitalism, beauty standards, misogyny) are structural doesn’t mean she is not implicated in them. Or, indeed, is not perpetuating them daily.
But perhaps this project is a beginning. Perhaps it’s not Ratajkowski’s responsibility to overthrow the patriarchy, or redefine beauty, or destabilise capitalism. Perhaps it is enough for her to simply write a dazzling book considering the contradictions of living in a body like hers. To hold her stories up to the light, shards of glass, and see which ones draw blood.
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski is published by Quercus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply