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Tearing Along Viciously: Emily Ratajkowski’s My Body
Orit Gat , March 5th, 2022 09:49

Orit Gat unpicks the vicissitudes of agency and abuse in a recent memoir by the model Emily Ratajkowski

In my art history BA I was taught about the idea of naked versus nude. It’s classic art history fare, a lesson that involves comparing paintings of women and asserting who was naked – meaning powerless, there for a male gaze, possibly fragile – and which women were nude: aware that (or how) she is being watched, possibly taking pleasure in it, drawing power from it. Titian painted Danae six times, where she lies on a bed and Zeus comes to her as a shower of gold: obviously naked in all of them. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is naked. All those bathers – Cézanne, Renoir – definitely naked. Goya’s Nude Maja from the late eighteenth century, comfortably lying on a bed with her hands supporting the back of her neck, easily watched: nude. Diego Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus from the seventeenth century kind of a challenge – seen from behind, she is reclined on a bed of soft textiles, her luscious figure stretched for the pleasure of a viewer, her face visible in a mirror held in front of her by a small cupid; she makes eye contact, she knows you’re watching her. By the time Manet bases his Olympia on Velazquez’s Venus, in 1863, she is looking straight at you, confrontational, aware.

Even considering the general stodginess of art history as a discipline, looking back I am shocked to think how this was the first time, the first way, I was taught to think about the women in the paintings. About them as subjects, the way they perceive how they are seen. The word ‘subject’ is intentional: the representation of women being an oft-discussed topic, loaded with questions of sex, power, religion and commerce, often neglects the idea of women as subjects where the term stands in for personhood. Emily Ratajkowski – one of the most recognisable women in the world, a model, actress and writer – writes a collection of essays titled My Body which asserts her subjecthood by considering her image, her body, her presence, as refracted through her job – that is to say, through the way she looks.

There’s always room in publishing for a celebrity memoir, but Ratajkowski wrote a book that diverges from the formula. Yes, there are accounts of Hollywood parties, expensive outings to the Super Bowl and Coachella, money and access and clothes and other commodities exchanged against Ratajkowski’s (well-documented) presence. But mainly there is a nuanced account of one woman’s experience as defined by beauty. And beauty, for a woman, can be a complex thing: for Ratajkowski, it meant money, which is what she was after when she started modelling. At first, when she was still in high school, it was money for newer, cooler clothes and bikinis (she grew up in a surf town in Southern California). Then, it was more money, and movie deals and paid posts on Instagram and big jobs. The power of female beauty – one of few powers afforded to women in popular culture – is qualified by society as fleeting, and women are constantly told to behave accordingly: to acknowledge that they did nothing to ‘achieve’ their good looks.

Ratajkowski’s book comes out in a post-#MeToo era (or what Katherine Angel calls “the age of consent” in her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again which was published earlier in 2021). And though Ratajkowski’s book is not about sex, the pressure on women in the limelight, on women who are conscious of their beauty, who exploit and employ it, feels like it mirrors a lot of the discourse around sex after #MeToo: it is a facet and a representation thereof, only set up in a pressurised environment of money and expectation. At times, when Ratajkowski writes about her body, it mirrors some of the discourse that women have developed around sex and violence. It feels like her body – her tool – is somehow separate from her. As if the way her body is read in society is something she can disassociate from (in writing it reads as weird and alienated and thus memorable, lines like, “I had several clients who booked me regularly for what my body did for their products”).

The book’s introduction is dedicated to the moment Ratajkowski shot to fame in the music video for Robin Thicke’s 2013 song ‘Blurred Lines’. The video, which included Thicke and musicians Pharrell Williams and T.I. who collaborated with him on the song, had them in a blank, white set surrounded by three models: Ratajkowski, Elle Evans, and Jessi M’Bengue, who are dancing around, at times with the men, mostly just playfully spending time with some cuddly animals and toying with whatever objects are on set. When ‘Blurred Lines’ was first released, the three female models were totally naked except for very minimal thongs; eight days later, after the video was censored on YouTube, a new version was posted, in which the three women are dressed in tiny white crop tops. Combined, the two versions have more than 800 million views. Reading about it, I watch the video. I’m sure I’ve seen it before, or, I just had a loose image of it in my mind and an indefinite idea of it being kind of fucked up. It came out before #MeToo but no one needed #MeToo to think there’s something off about a video featuring three undressed young women whose red lipsticks are more prominent than their shirts dancing around three fully clothed men.

Ratajkowski challenges that and I have to admit to having a hard time with that. Trained in looking at women’s images from my art background, but obviously more so from just living in contemporary society and being incessantly exposed to such representations of women, watching ‘Blurred Lines’ I glance something intangible, unclear to me. It’s confidence, it’s presence: Ratajkowski is so charismatic, or so photogenic, or so nonchalant, that it’s hard to look away from her. She’s so attractive, in the most complex way that could be true. This definitely feels like something that could be assumed, performed, but Ratajkowski knows when and how she is performing. In the introduction, she describes the set as a safe place – the director was Diane Martel, an extremely experienced female director; the models were told to have fun. “I felt confident in my body and my nakedness,” Ratajkowski writes, “and who was anyone to tell me that I wasn’t empowered by dancing around naked?” There’s something frustrating about it, by which I mean, I have to do the work. I have to come to her book without assuming that I know anything about her experience. The last line in that paragraph reads, “stop trying to control me.”

Here’s something I do know something about: the control of women’s bodies. I can’t read Ratajkowski without thinking of some of the language that developed around the momentum from #MeToo, or because that moment, deficient as it may be, has defined a practical form of feminism through a single act: speaking up. When Time magazine featured women who called out their abusers as their Person of the Year in 2017, they called them “the silence breakers”. Angel writes about those early days that “in this environment the act of speaking out about one’s experiences was taken as a self-evident and necessary good”, and adds that it created a pressure on women who were expected to feed the “collective appetite for these stories”, a singular voice circulating versions of the same thing: marginalisation, abuse, a loss of – or no access to – power.

Ratajkowski doesn’t insist on her own power. Instead, her story poses questions on how it is bestowed and how easily it gets taken away. When Ratajkowski writes about what she describes as her Instagram ‘hustle’, posting photos of herself in bikinis made by a company she cofounded with a friend with buy-now links while on a paid-for vacation in the Maldives, she writes, “the ability to make a living off my own image shouldn’t be cause for embarrassment”. Why can’t she keep what everyone else gets to take? One of the essays in the book circulated widely when it was excerpted in New York magazine. Titled ‘Buying Myself Back’, it describes how Ratajkowski bought a Richard Prince artwork that reproduces a post from her Instagram account featuring Prince commenting on the photo, which was then reprinted on a large-scale canvas (it’s part of the series ‘New Portraits’, 2014). Ratajkowski writes about it in a way that reiterates a conflicted relationship she has to living in a world full of images of herself (the emphasis in the original): “Everyone, especially my boyfriend, made me feel like I should be honoured to have been included in the series. […] the implication was that I should feel grateful to him for deeming my image worthy of a painting. How validating. And a part of me was honoured. I’d studied art at UCLA and could appreciate Prince’s Warholian take on Instagram. Still, I made my living off posing for photographs.”

In a form of taking back control, with her boyfriend at the time (the one who gave her the feeling she should be grateful that Prince used her image) Ratajkowski bought the Prince painting for $80,000 (she ended up having to fight that same guy over the ownership the work when they broke up). She writes about the Prince in contrast and in relation to other images of herself, ones she cannot own: paparazzi photos and several books with naked photos of her published by a photographer named Jonathan Leder. The result of a photo shoot Ratajkowski did for free for an arty magazine to build up her portfolio back in 2012, they came to haunt her for many years after, when Leder kept publishing every image he took that night in books titled Emily Ratajkowski. So apparently, beauty isn’t power and fame does not protect you, especially when you are a women, especially from men. There is a calm-before-the-storm feeling to a lot of the writing in My Body. Ratajkowski accused Leder of sexual abuse that night (he vehemently denied it, only to have more women come forward after Ratajkowski published the essay). From the relative safety of time and position, she writes about sexual abuse, by her high school boyfriend, by Leder, and by Thicke on the set of ‘Blurred Lines’ (I could describe more but I actually can’t. Because it feels too familiar, because all women know something about the control of our bodies, because even if sharing these experiences may be meaningful it doesn’t help the fear that reiterating someone else’s story might feed what Angel has described as the social appetite for stories of abuse of women). This isn’t ‘if this could happen to Emily Ratajkowski it could happen to you’ because it’s already happening all the time and violence constantly looms over these cycles of gender, power and representation.

In the introduction to her book On Violence and On Violence Against Women, also published in 2021, Jacqueline Rose writes, “in response to the crisis of the hour, the increasing visibility of gender-based violence, this book tilts towards male violence against women, and towards one deadly mix in particular: the link between the ability to inflict untold damage and a willed distortion – whether conscious or unconscious – in the field of vision. Violence is a form of entitlement.” The field of vision is the space Ratajkowski inhabits and the world she reflects on. When I write about #MeToo I am writing about power, not sex. But when I think about how women and their bodies are perceived, of course, sex is in the background. And Ratajkowski inhabits a world where sex is the currency and bodies are currency and women are consistently reminded how they never earned it. Ratajkowski writes about rarefied experiences – the money, the Oscar parties, the fame – and takes issue with anyone who wants her to be grateful for it all. Because why should she. Because when women are told to behave, to be grateful, reminded that the source of their power – beauty – is fleeting or easy-come, it means they are assured that even if they populate the field of vision, they will never truly own it.

A reminder: My Body is a memoir. Ratajkowski writes about the home she grew up in, her parents and her memories and her experiences. And just to write about your experiences, to insist that they have value, makes Ratajkowski more than just a great example and her stories more than fodder for a social appetite for accounts of women’s suffering. It’s an insistence on subjecthood. My Body ends in childbirth – this mature, big idea of womanhood that she doesn’t portray as a moment of calm, of arrival, the way women are expected to exit stage once they’ve shifted roles from young woman to mother. When Ratajkowski writes about the birth of her son in 2020, she uses intense, painful language: “I was inside my body, a machine that was tearing along viciously, with no regard for anything or anyone”. That feels powerful.

My Body by Emily Ratajkowski is published by Quercus