Emily Ratajkowski used to find modelling “empowering”. “It’s such an overused word,” she said to me, “but for a long time I felt like being able to disrobe and show off my body was some kind of strength. It did feel like this weird superpower.”
Ratajkowski, born in London and raised in San Diego, first signed to a modelling agency at the age of 14. At 20, she appeared on the covers of erotic magazines. At 21, when she starred in the controversial music video for Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines”, she became internationally famous. Over time she realised that the “power” she felt when modelling wasn’t necessarily hers. She may have felt a rare pride when she took off her clothes, but a model’s image, she realised, “is used by other people to succeed. You don’t have control over it: that’s when it becomes someone else’s power.”
Now 30, and speaking via video call from her home in Manhattan in mid-October, she wondered how this realisation had affected her sense of self. “What happens when you really are just a thing to be looked at? That can be the opposite of empowering.”
Ratajkowski understands the facts of her career plainly. “I built a platform by sharing images of myself and my body online,” she writes in the first few pages of My Body, a book of essays published in November by Quercus. In it, she considers the ways in which her career and personal life so far have existed under the male gaze. She also alleges that on the set of the “Blurred Lines” video in 2013, Thicke sexually assaulted her, groping her bare breasts without her consent.
Such behaviour from men towards Ratajkowski was not a one-off: in the book, she also describes several events of alleged rape by a boyfriend, the first when she was 14 years old; the essay “Buying Myself Back”, in which she alleges that the photographer Jonathan Leder sexually harassed her and which went viral upon publication in the Cut in September 2020, also appears in the collection. Ratajkowski’s relationship with her body has always been tied to how men perceive it. “I just think that life is like high school,” she said. “I remember what it felt like for a boy to tell you that your boobs weren’t big enough, or that they were too big, and how much power that had over your self-worth. It’s the same thing now too.”
Ratajkowski now exists in a unique position, straddling the mainstream arena of modelling and Instagram (where she has 28.5 million followers) and the world of feminist thought: which tends to require more nuance, and hates hypocrisy. With My Body she attempts an intellectual enquiry into body politics. She examines the placement of herself, as a feminist, in an inherently capitalist industry where she is forced, she writes, to measure her “self-worth in a value system that revolves around men and their desire”. Critics of Ratajkowski have questioned her continued willingness to contribute to and profit from such an industry.
The point at which Ratajkowski finds herself is “complicated”, she said. She acknowledged her stratospheric power – both socially and financially – compared with most other women. “If I had not commodified my body and image, I would not have been given the opportunity to write this book,” she said plainly. For this interview her appearance was casual – her hair was loose and she wore a green rugby shirt – and her demeanour was friendly, but the very facts of her life mean that she is not “relatable” (a trait often demanded of celebrities). Her answers often seemed rehearsed, but no less true because of that.
She described herself as a “defensive and defiant” teenager. “I felt like saying, ‘Everybody fuck off and get off my back! I want to be able to wear what I want and do what I want without people having all these ideas about me!’” She laughed as she remembered this, but became more matter of fact when assessing the impact of her upbringing on her developing understanding of femininity. As a child, she watched her mother – who even at a young age she understood to be unquestionably beautiful, just as Ratajkowski herself was told she was – and learned that “there are assets that girls have that can make our life better or harder”.
As a model, she exchanged her beauty for capital gain. In such an industry, her innate defiance was little use. “When you’re a model, you’re a mannequin; you’re the muse, you’re not the person who has ideas.” She learned to “disassociate” from herself when working. When normalised, such an experience sounds immensely troubling, though Ratajkowski spoke without anguish in her voice. She said she imagines it typical for other models too, though it’s not something she’s discussed much with others in her position.
Ratajkowski has no plans to leave modelling in order to extract herself from the knotty ethical conundrum she finds herself in. “I think it’s the wrong politics to try to criticise the woman. Instead, we should be looking at the system that allows for this abuse and also praise, simultaneously,” she recently told the Guardian.
But her understanding of the moral scope of modelling has evolved. “I used to think that if you were making a choice [to model], then not only is it feminism because it’s your choice, it’s also feminism because you’re hustling: you see the system and you decide how to succeed. There is some truth to that still,” she said. Yet she remains conflicted about the success she has achieved in abiding by this system. “I would never tell a young woman that she shouldn’t model or try to succeed through commodifying her image and body, because it’s why I have the life that I do…
“But it is an economy – of power and of actual money – that revolves around men and their desire. It’s a double-edged sword. You’re in the confines of a patriarchal culture.”