I finished this book almost 2 months ago and I’m still parsing out my thoughts – so much to unpack! & truly, what better place to figure out your opinion than in a rambling blog post on the internet? Before getting into the content of the book, I will say that I enjoyed Ratajkowski’s writing style. It’s very conversational and, based on the few interviews I’ve seen of her, it reads like an authentic voice. Direct in certain moments, “between the lines” in others, a few call-back moments as bookends, and wistful vagueness in moments of intangible description. At 237 pages, these essays hold moments of extreme vulnerability, raw honesty, candid confessions, and reclamations of power. The conversational writing style and relatively short chapters make it a quick read, but not one that lends itself to an immediately clear opinion, at least not for me. My knee jerk reaction felt like the low-hanging fruit critique of “yes, you have had to deal with some SHIT and that is all valid, but at the end of the day you’re still a gorgeous rich model which makes it difficult to illicit sympathy from us mere mortals”. But as I said, that’s the low-hanging, right in front of your eyes, surface level opinion, and that’s what I’m here to break down. To paraphrase our favorite ogre, Shrek, sometimes you have to peel away the layers to reveal what truly lies beneath the surface.
The jacket copy for My Body reads: “Emily Ratajkowski is a model, actor, activist, entrepreneur, and writer. She has starred in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, among other films. Ratajkowski has also appeared on the covers of multiple magazines and walked the runway for numerous high-fashion brands. Her 2020 essay for New York magazine, “Buying Myself Back,” was hailed as a landmark and was the magazines most-read piece of the year. My Body is her first book.”
An initial note that rang true throughout, was Ratajkowski’s self-awareness, or as self-aware as any “celebrity” can really be, of course. There are moments of recognition throughout her writing that point out the obvious pretty privilege she’s held her whole life. I do feel there was a missed opportunity to directly breakdown the specifics of this privilege. Several times she mentions that her small waist and large breasts appeal to the male gaze, however, I wish she would’ve taken it one step further in explaining that in the fatphobic society we all live in she would hold the power of pretty privilege for simply being thin. Ratajkowski touches on her disordered eating here and there, mostly regarding restricting her diet before photoshoots or feeling better about herself after losing weight from a stomach bug. Of course, as a young model she saw a direct correlation between how skinny she looked and the types of jobs and paychecks she was raking in, so again there are obviously nuanced layers to these issues that would take smarter folks much less time than I to adequately unpack, but I’ll do what I can in the space I’ve got.
“I built a platform by sharing images of myself and my body online, making my body and subsequently my name recognizable, which, at least in part, gave me the ability to publish this book. But in other, less overt ways, I’ve felt objectified and limited by my position in the world as a so-called sex symbol. I’ve capitalized on my body within the confines of a cis-hetero, capitalist, patriarchal world, one in which beauty and sex appeal are valued solely through the satisfaction of the male gaze. Whatever influence and status I’ve gained were only granted to me because I appealed to men. My position brought me in close proximity to wealth and power and brought me some autonomy, but it hasn’t resulted in true empowerment. That’s something I’ve gained only now, having written these essays and given voice to what I’ve thought and experienced.” (p. 5-6).
In saying there are moments of raw honesty and candid confessions, I’m referring to moments like this: “I post Instagram photos that I think of as testaments to my beauty and then obsessively check the likes to see if the internet agrees. I collect this data more than I want to admit, trying to measure my allure as objectively and brutally as possible. I want to calculate my beauty to protect myself, to understand exactly how much power and lovability I have.” (p. 22) On first impressions alone, this is a cringey statement. It feels shallow and vain and begs you to roll your eyes at the self-absorbed model. But these are the moments that I return to in order to critique why that is my initial reaction. To admit outright to the absolute chokehold that outside validation has on her own self-worth takes a certain nerve. She’s offering herself up on a silver platter for randos like me to write off her insecurities as “woe is me” moments fishing for compliments and re-assurance. But in several very meta-moments Ratajkowski explains her own uncertainty of whether she is just playing the game or if she is the reason the game is able to exist in the first place – and, what responsibility belongs to her regarding how to change the game entirely.
The lack of conviction for me one way or the other is further demonstrated by a scene involving her and her husband (whom she refers to as “S” throughout the entire book even though he is tagged all over her instagram and is a public figure himself so it’s not exactly cracking the Zodiac’s code to know who she’s referring to, but I digress) enjoying an all-expense paid trip to the Maldives. She tries to be objective about it and set herself apart from the other millionaires vacationing at the all-inclusive resort, but it ends up reading like a Kardashian trying to relate to a peasant and just didn’t land for me. She mentions that with how rich the owner of the resort is, it’s a drop in the bucket for him to pay Emily whatever amount he did to show off his resort. Her objective approach never seems to work because she is the subject. The lack of interest from her husband in regard to her hitting a million likes on an IG photo he took for her moments earlier again makes it difficult to find sympathy for Emily and her musings on capitalist tycoons.
In one of several many-layered-areas-of-gray, Ratajkowski talks about hating being called beautiful by past boyfriends, or any comments on her looks at all outside of paid modeling gigs – “Some part of me was attempting to resist the way I’d learned to conflate beauty with specialness and with love” (p. 25). The key word here seems to be ‘attempting’ because a few chapters later she recounts a story of leaving a model recruitment meeting wearing no makeup and being blocked in a parking lot because the driver wanted to lean out and ask for her number. She pulls out around him, annoyed, but then looks at herself in the mirror sans makeup and smiles to herself as she thinks “he must’ve thought I was pretty”. Again, this initially elicits an eye roll because it feels like she’s saying one thing and thinking another – she doesn’t want to conflate beauty with specialness, yet here she is thinking “wow that random man thought I was pretty, I feel special”; however, I’d argue that these are the moments where she appears the most human to me. Rather than read these conflicting thoughts of what value her looks hold as hypocritical or faux-humility, I see them as Ratajkowski sharing the annoying hot-girl thoughts as she actively tries to dismantle them. There is no switch for this kind of rewiring, so it makes sense to me that she would first have the thought of wanting to resist conflating beauty with specialness, but also experience the feeling of validation she’s been conditioned to feel when someone compliments her appearance.
Ratajkowski is not shy in disclosing that one of the main sources of this conditioning is her parents, her mother especially. In one of her more vulnerable moments, she says, “Beauty was a way for me to be special. When I was special, I felt my parents’ love for me the most.” (p. 17) – a statement that speaks for itself, bringing with it an understanding of Ratajkowski’s difficulty later in life divorcing her value as a person from her physical image. Delving further into her most impressionable years as a child, she says of her mother, “My mother seems to hold the way my beauty is affirmed by the world like a mirror, reflecting back to her a measure of her own worth.” (p. 20) – followed by an anecdote her mother tells of a 3-year-old Emily overhearing a conversation and telling her mom those other women were “just jealous of her”. This story leads a now grown Emily to question why she knew the concept of jealousy at such a young age, and how she knew to wield it against other women so casually. Did I already mention there was a lot to unpack here?
Central to the theme of the book, Ratajkowski writes that people typically react to her saying she’s comfortable being completely nude with some iteration of “Of course YOU’RE not self-conscious naked – with a body like that who would be?!” She pushes back against this assumption offering, “It’s just not that simple,” I want to respond, but I know that then I’d have to tell them about how I dissociate when my body is being observed, how I don’t even really recognize my body as me. “Does that make any sense?” I’d ask, and I can see them shaking their heads: Not really. Dissociating makes everything easier. In a way, overexposing myself has always felt like the safest option. Strip yourself naked so it seems like no one else can strip you down; hide nothing, so that no one can use your secrets to hurt you”. (p. 103) Again, this feels like it goes against the idea of Ratajkowski feeling special and validated because she has the “ideal body” for this society, but it is also clear that there is more going on internally than the projected feelings of “I’m hot, everybody either wants to be me or be with me”. There is an emotional response to recognizing that although you are willingly modeling and showing the world your body that means that you are essentially allowing yourself to be consumed in some way. Either by men as a sex object, or by women as an unreachable standard. A public figure willingly choosing to live this life and feeling exploited or exposed at times are not mutually exclusive feelings; both can exist in the same space and be as equally valid as the other.
This leads me to one of the more powerful sections of the book where she shares her experience involving the scumbag that is Johnathan Leder. Public figure or not, even the most well-known of celebrities should never have to endure the publication of their nude image without their consent. Period. In Emily’s words, she was flown out to Woodstock in 2012 to meet and shoot with photographer Johnathan Leder. He insisted she have some red wine while they shot, making sure her cup was never empty. They first shot lingerie, then nudes, and later Jonathan made an entire art book called EMILY RATAJKOWSKI with no permission from Emily or her agent including some of the most overtly sexual photos of Ratajkowski has ever taken. He then went on to do an art show featuring the work and continues to reprint the work as it sells out each time.
Undoutedly there will be people who focus on what Emily “did wrong” to put herself in the situation and only as an afterthought might concede that in the end it’s not cool for this guy to make money off of her image, the most private images to exist of her, without at least offering her a cut. At the end of the day, it’s bullshit that she was put in the situation as a young female model being sent to shoot lingerie with no one else present besides the male photographer – there’s an inherent power dynamic created which forces Ratajkowski to not “make waves” and pressures her to shut up and smile for the camera. & of course there were some BS loopholes that kept Ratajkowski from being able to sue or order a cease and desist or any other legal terms that may apply, but at least she’s been able to share her side of the truth and hopefully she’s found some solace in that.
Throughout My Body, Ratajkowski’s writing is both individual and collective. She writes of her personal experiences while creating a microcosm of what it means to be consumed by the male gaze in a patriarchal society. It speaks to the duality of having the power that coincides with pretty privilege while lacking legitimate power in a man’s world. There are many, many levels to this shit. If you are acceptable by white cis-hetero male standards, then you can use them to make money and connections, but ultimately this book shows that it’s a hollow power, one that never feels quite right and offers a sense of fulfillment when it’s really just empty placating BS.
I think the reason I’m having so much trouble forming a confident opinion on this book one way or another is because it’s not a fixed entity itself. Throughout these essays, we watch Emily sort out her own thoughts and feelings regarding her experiences; she mentions feeling real empowerment and ownership only AFTER having written and published these essays – as cliche as it sounds, ultimately Emily Ratajkowski is a human being. She’s problematic and still learning, which is why she deserves to be critiqued but at the same time, also deserves recognition for putting herself and her story out there for all of use mere mortals to write reviews about on our wordpress blogs.
As always, happy reading!