It is hard to think of something our society values more highly than total personal honesty. On social media, television and in magazines, individuals are rewarded for revelations of private traumas, confessional writing, and self-flagellating admissions of guilt. The best people are “self-aware”. Writers, celebrities, and influencers have tried to capitalise on this trend, grounding their worth in their willingness to tell the world facts and stories about themselves that others might find hard to confess. But is admission in itself profound, and useful to others? And can personal absolution be reached through confession alone?
Emily Ratajkowski is trying to find out in her debut essay collection, My Body. The American supermodel originally shot to fame in 2013 after dancing almost naked in the infamous “Blurred Lines” music video and in the last few years has pivoted to politics, backing Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2020 and becoming a vocal advocate for women’s sexual rights. Known by her fans as “Emrata”, she has 28.5 million Instagram followers and a trendy clothing and swimwear brand, Inamorata. The book follows (and includes) a viral essay Ratajkowski wrote for The Cut in September 2020, “Buying Myself Back”, which became the magazine’s most read piece of the year. It told the story of Ratajkowski trying to buy a piece of art created using an image from her Instagram, alongside a harrowing account of being sexually assaulted by the photographer Jonathan Leder on a shoot in the Catskills, aged 20, and later watching Leder sell a book of photos he took of Ratajkowski on the night. (Leder has strongly denied her allegations of assault.)
The essay was largely met with praise, but its few critics noted blind spots in Ratajkowski’s understanding of her cultural position. They pointed out Ratajkowski’s inclination to frame her situation as a millionaire and celebrity as one of powerlessness (“I hadn’t made enough money to comfortably spend $80,000 on art,” she wrote, reaching for relatability) and her failure to see her own part in handing over her “image”. “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own”: a strange epiphany when exchanging your looks for money is the fundamental transaction of modelling.
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The problems that plagued “Buying Myself Back”, which is undoubtedly the strongest essay in the collection, are even more pronounced in My Body, resulting in a text that asks many thorny questions – what power does beauty really have? What are the politics of sex appeal? How much agency do women have under capitalism? – but fails to answer any of them. Instead, the book functions as an (admittedly thoughtful) brand exercise that attempts to do little beyond garnering sympathy for Ratajkowski herself.
A lack of self-awareness drives each story, despite a clear effort to prove she understands her position. In one essay, “Bc Hello Halle Berry”, named after a quote from the actress saying her looks haven’t “spared [her] any hardship”, Ratajkowski and her film producer husband, Sebastian Bear-McClard, are sitting on the beach on a sponsored trip to the Maldives complaining about “rich people” (they are, of course, not included in this category). Later, Ratajkowski describes herself as “trapped” by capitalism, which forces her to profit from her good looks. Though Ratajkowski grapples with her wealth, she ultimately hints that she agrees with Halle Berry (hinting is all that ever happens in My Body – real conclusions are rarely made). As the American writer Haley Nahman wrote in response to “Buying Myself Back”, Ratajkowski hints “at an awareness of class, but with a tone-deaf insistence on situating herself as an underdog within its context.”
Despite being the most prominent subject in the book, modelling is not seriously interrogated in any of My Body’s essays. Ratajkowski writes knowingly about the misogyny that is fundamental to the industry – such as having her teenage body sized up by middle-aged men, being forced to watch porn with a potential client, and being assaulted – but rather than unpack the ways in which this is bad for women and models, she discusses modelling as a vehicle for empowerment. “I did get a lot of attention from well-known, powerful men,” she writes in “Men Like You”, an open letter to a sleazy, older male ex-colleague. “That was how I got opportunities to work, to make money and also build a career.” In “Transactions”, she emphasises her belief that she has little other choice: “There was no way to avoid the game completely.”
This is the fundamental problem with My Body. Ratajkowski professes to be against capitalism and the patriarchal norms that crush women, but does little to subvert them. In fact, she sets trends for new iterations of unrealistic body standards (when you Google “ab crack”, the tummy look en vogue, her picture is the first result). To address meaningfully how to change these standards would require Ratajkowski to change almost everything that underpins her celebrity. You can’t help but feel she knows this; tiptoeing around this conclusion but always, at the last minute, dodging the opportunity to admit it.
Beyond the issues with My Body’s ideas, the book is also hammy. Many of its intended-to-be-thoughtful lines are full of obvious subtext and overwrought metaphors. In one essay, “K Spa”, Ratajkowski goes to an anonymous women-only spa where her body is given the same treatment as everyone else. But as she leaves, makeup-free, she is catcalled and – you guessed it – remembers (and enjoys) the male gaze. “I guess he thought I was pretty, I think. I smirk a little despite myself. As I drive home, I reach into my bag and put on some lipstick…” It is an imitation of clever writing.
None of this stops My Body from being, at many points, entertaining. Gossipy details are littered throughout, such as the pitch document for the “Blurred Lines” video shoot (choice quotes include “DUMB SHIT IN A VERY SMART CONTEMPORARY WAY” and “THIS IS FAR FROM MASOGYNIST”), her relationships with other celebrities, that she was paid $25,000 to go to the Superbowl with notorious businessman Jho Low, and an admission about her obsession with Instagram. Though often self-critical, these details seem to be deployed with the hope of drawing out sympathy from readers, and to absolve Ratajkowski of any responsibility.
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My Body is part of a trend of politically engaged, supposedly anti-capitalist writing. Though the distance between Ratajkowski’s underestimations of her own power and the enormous amount she actually wields is unique, similar fallacies abound in other works. Many modern essayists – such as Jia Tolentino or Anne Helen Petersen – acknowledge the systems at play, but stop short of considering any action that might address or resist them. This approach is almost always highly personal and often concludes with the writer actively continuing to participate in capitalist systems. In “Bc Hello Halle Berry”, Ratajkowski shows her husband a screenshot on her phone that reads: “Fuck capitalism, but until it’s fucked, keep getting that bag”.
There is no doubt that Ratajkowski is a victim of egregious misogyny, and has been objectified countless times since she first entered the public eye eight years ago. But when dealing with Ratajkowski as she asks to be dealt with – not as a supermodel, but as a writer and thinker – her ideas prove self-absorbed and flimsy. She aims to relate to the average woman’s struggles with their body, but relishes how profitable hers is, and fails to acknowledge her own impact on how most women see themselves.
Commodifying her body has undoubtedly bought a lot for Emily Ratajkowski. But no amount of self-reflection can make it meaningful for us.