You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
The key to Emily Ratajkowski’s debut essay collection is in the title. My Body stakes its territory as a deeply personal and, at times, painfully honest examination of the author’s ambivalent relationship with her body. Through a series of revealing, in places clinical essays, she explores how this relationship has been shaped by the public gaze; the commodification of her body and the abuse inflicted upon her by men in positions of power.
I flew through this book as I rarely do essay collections. Throughout, I was torn between wanting to read on and wanting to linger over what I had just read. The skill of this book is in the way that Ratajkowski manages to cast her experiences in the glitter-plated hills of Hollywood and LA as entirely relatable which, all things considered, is quite a feat. For those who are unfamiliar with her work, Emily Ratajkowski is a model, actress and writer who became a global superstar, sex symbol and subject of intense scrutiny following her appearance as one of three virtually naked models in the controversial video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. She was 21 and was, at the time, quick to defend the video against claims of misogyny in the immediate aftermath of its release, citing it as an act of female empowerment. It was the controversy surrounding this video that thrust her body to the centre of a public debate to be picked over by critics, fans, and feminists alike. The opening essay in the collection discusses the experience of filming the video and its afterlife. Whilst the rest of the essays are ordered more or less chronologically, “Blurred Lines” functions as a natural starting point for the stories she goes on to tell about herself, her body and the impossibility of truly dissociating the two. It is of course the job that propelled her to global fame, but it also neatly captures the intersecting issues that she wrestles with through the rest of the book.
Ratajkowski is concerned with how power and control are exercised over and by the female body, particularly hers. “Blurred Lines” is structured around the gap between her experiences as a 21 year old and the way she feels about those experiences looking back. The self-awareness she shows in revisiting her younger self is compelling and analytical. It serves to highlight the complexity of the power dynamics at work on her that she was unable to see clearly at the time. One of the strengths of Ratajkowski’s writing is that she is prepared to complicate ideas but does so through clean, accessible prose that is in itself unambiguous. This allows her to unpick contradictory feelings that are familiar to women everywhere; for example, she talks about the strangeness of drawing pride and validation from her body but simultaneously being expected to feel shame in it. Interestingly, she quietly points to the feminist complicity in her objectification following the video’s release, highlighting that, “the politics of [her] body were suddenly being discussed and dissected across the globe by feminist thinkers and teenage boys alike”. Whilst the feminist thinkers may have been approaching the video from a well-meaning place, it is worth noting that they too treated her as a representative object rather than an autonomous young woman comprised of more than her body.
There is a good deal of meat to these essays as Ratajkowski discusses the role of early influences like her parents and particularly her mother on the formation of attitudes to her body and beauty as well as offering crystalline articulation of rape culture in her teenage experiences as she asks “Who had taught me not to scream?” – a question women everywhere have found themselves asking. It is disturbing, if not surprising, that Ratajkowski has been subjected to many experiences of this nature. Elsewhere, she refers to a sense of dissociation between her sense of self and her body when working as a model, but this comes across most clearly in the stark plainness with which she describes these violations. There are diverse themes that recur through the collection, and she treats them all with the same sensitivity and clarity in her writing; resisting over-simplification and setting out the complexity of the different circumstances she finds herself in. She delineates a clear connection between her body and her self-worth whilst at the same time distinguishing carefully between beauty and sexiness. She cites beauty “as a way for me to be special. When I was special, I felt my parents’ love for me the most”. The insecurity that this instils in her reverberates through the text as it creeps into her relationships, professional and personal, and the work she must do in her efforts “to resist the way I’d learned to conflate beauty with specialness and with love”.
Another standout essay is “Toxic” in which she discusses the connection she feels to Britney Spears who has in many ways become a symbol for the Noughties’ exploitation and abuse of beautiful, talented young women in and by the public eye. This essay picks up threads on the currency of beauty and sexiness, but it also speaks directly to the question that comes up again and again: “But did I have power?”. Ratajkowski cites the example of Britney as the ultimate commodification of womanhood to expose the sinister world young women like herself and Britney were thrown into and the vulnerability it deliberately created for profit. She describes a shocking exchange as an agent comments on a picture of hers: “Now this is the look, this is how we know this girl gets fucked!” She was sixteen when this exchange occurred. She draws on Britney’s breakdown in order to explore female friendship in a society and industry that breeds competition between young women discussing how she and another young model had “never known how to be real friends […] how to protect each other […] we began seeing one another as competitors rather than allies”. Ratajkowski exposes the ferocity and physicality of this competition as another mechanism for exploitation, another way in which young women are kept vulnerable, isolated and exposed. Again, as a woman, this feels familiar, an intensified version of an experience that is far more universal.
As a collection My Body is lean and disciplined in construction. It touches on lots of different ideas and themes that from a less rigorous writer could have the effect of diluting content rather than enhancing it. Each tangential exploration serves to further elucidate the central question: how much control do I have? This is brutally exposed in an essay towards the end of the collection, originally published in the New York Times, “Buying Myself Back”, in which Ratajkowski uses the literal ownership of artistic representations of her image to reveal abuses that lie behind seemingly business-based transactions around her image. This essay returns to another motif that patterns her pages: men in positions of authority exercising their power and influence to exploit, abuse and violate the young women in their path. The interactions she describes with the photographer in this essay exemplifies the principle of the collection’s epigraph from John Berger:
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.
The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.”
By the end of this collection, Ratajkowski has demonstrated repeatedly and unequivocally myriad ways in which the power and sphere of the male gaze operates as a tool for the moral condemnation of women. More than that though, she makes a clear and cogent argument that the real villainy at work here is the way that women are coerced into complicity in their own objectification, their own disempowerment, their own reduction from person to body. The collection as a whole seems, on some level, like an effort to reclaim her body from its status as a “mannequin”, something for someone else to use as they see fit. It is striking that the books of nudes that were published against her will had her name in large print across the front of them, just as this book’s cover does. It is fitting then that the final paragraphs focus on the demonstration of her body’s power in a completely different way in the birth of her son. It feels like she sees fresh possibility in this new understanding of her body’s utility and worth; the start of a new chapter in her body’s narrative, one with greater space for her, Emily, to figure in it; to write the story herself.
By Emily Ratajkowski
Quercus, 256 pages