“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.”
These are the words of model Emily Ratajkowski in the introduction to her book of essays, My Body. One of the most famous women alive, and commonly considered one of the most beautiful, Ratajkowski is a woman whose image is voraciously consumed. It has been used to sell everything from hair products, clothing and lingerie to the status and importance of the people who pose next to her in photographs. While almost everyone knows Ratajkowski's angular features and almost impossibly proportioned body, her voice is more elusive, or rather it has been until now.
The model’s parents have long established links in west Cork. Ratajkowski spent her summers there while she was growing up, maintains an enduring fondness for the area and has referred to it as her “second home”. She says: “I’ve been going there since I was a baby. I spoke my first sentence in Bantry, which I have even more appreciation for now that I’m a new mom myself.” Because of the seeming unlikeliness of the story, Ratajkowski’s sponsorship of Bantry Basketball Club’s under-16 boys’ team last summer made international news. “My dad played on the basketball team in the 80s in Bantry, and he’s good friends with their coach, [Pa Curran]. I was really happy to support Pa and the guys.”
Ratajkowski covered kits and training costs when the team was struggling to find sponsorship in the wake of Covid-19. It’s an action that seems at odds with her public image as slightly aloof and impossibly glamorous, but more in line with the entirely human Ratajkowski we meet in her book of essays.
Ratajkowski became globally famous in 2013 after starring in the video for Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. There are infamously two versions of the video – one of them features Ratajkowski and two other models dancing topless in flesh-toned thongs with the fully dressed male singer. In response to accusations of exploitation and betraying feminism, the model claimed that the experience was empowering at the time – an articulation of her comfort in her body. Now, at 30, Ratajkowski assigns a nuance to the experience that casts a different light on things, and writes about the making of that video in a conflicted tone that encapsulates the nuance of her book.
My Body is ultimately a re-evaluation of Ratajkowski’s relationship with her own agency, and to a lesser extent, with feminism itself. “I think I still am looking for the right definition and understanding of feminism,” she says. “I don’t have a perfect definition of what I think feminism is, I think that power and female power can be really complicated.”
When we talk, she wrestles with that dilemma at the heart of the book – Ratajkowski has made and still makes more than a fortune through selling her image, but it is others selling her image throughout her career which ultimately made her feel disempowered. “I used to really believe in choice feminism and empowerment through saying, ‘I see this system, and I’m going to work it and look at all the things that I can have from it.’ And I think that there’s still truth to that in some ways. But I also think that the book explores the ways that that’s definitely not true.”
She recognises this ambiguity and pervasive discomfort, and says it is ultimately what led her to write the book – “it was deliberate in the sense that that was how I was feeling”. The book was an attempt to externalise the questions which had been troubling Ratajkowski. “I was writing the essays to get things down and try to organise them in a way that could give me some kind of insight and perspective into, you know – what is power? What is control? . . . and how have I been complicit?” The friction in this conflict is palpable as you read the book, and can feel discomfiting because you get the strong sense that Ratajkowski is grappling with very big questions without ever coming to a conclusion. The ambiguity comes directly from her – “it was definitely intentional, just because it’s how I feel, which is searching. I’m sitting with a lot of contradictions in my experience of my life and my career.”
Ratajkowski will not strike most women as relatable. It can be difficult to imagine that the model experiences the world in the way that others do, and no one needs to be convinced that beauty such as hers creates opportunities in life. Ratajkowski knows this better than anyone. However, her sense of feeling limited by the choices she made early in life is familiar to all of us.
“When I left school, my intention was to become an artist.” It would be a great way, she thought, to fund what she really wanted to do, which was to create things herself rather than to be a passive actor in other people’s creations. If you wanted to be an artist, she says: “I knew you have to have a day job. So this would be my day job, and . . . it took off in a way that I didn’t expect. I think now, turning 30 as I was finishing this book, it sort of felt like maybe this was just a different and longer road to getting to finally be able to make things.” Ratajkowski is a woman who allowed what felt like serendipitous success to carry her, but somewhere along the way, she became disconnected from the sense of agency that she struggles to pin down throughout the book. “I think for a long time, it felt like I sort of lost what I had wanted, who I had wanted to become, in this really exciting whirlwind of a career and fame and everything else. But I think there was a lot of discontent in that experience, and for the first time, I feel like maybe this was where I was supposed to end up anyway.”
Ratajkowski has indeed created something, and there is a bravery in her choice to do this which belies her sensitivity to criticism.
In the book, she shares moments in which she pores over responses to photos she posts for her 28 million Instagram followers with unflattering honesty, her sense of security seemingly attached to the number of likes a post gets. Now, she is knowingly exposing herself to criticism and derision. After so many years as an image – silently and voicelessly transmogrifying herself into whatever will sell the product – she has something to say. Enough, in fact, to fill a book of essays. "I don't think it was until the book was finished that I sort of realised there's this theme of desperately wanting to have a voice and to be an artist." It took time, Ratajkowski says, to realise "how frustrated I felt by the lack of a voice". She had become "this kind of one dimensional thing", and it was awareness of this which gave her the confidence to share the essays she had initially written just for herself. "There is a sort of feeling of 'How dare you and who do you think you are?' That is a very strong voice that I found can be super difficult to combat, especially as someone who's really used to having millions of people comment and reinforce that message."
Ultimately, Ratajkowski says, she needed to exercise her voice in order to find it again – “I don’t think that I would have been able to continue living happily or be the kind of mother that I want to be or the kind of friend that I want to be, or partner if I hadn’t done this, so in some ways I did it for myself, because I wanted to have a more fulfilling life. But I also did it for the people around me that I love.”
When I ask if she is nervous about how the book will be received (we talk a few days before it launches), she pauses, and there is a sudden vulnerability in her voice – “You’re catching me in a weird moment. It’s five days before the book is available to the public, or even less, actually. God damn, excuse me!”, she laughs nervously. “So it’s this weird moment of kind of having to . . . remind myself that no matter how it’s received by the public, or by the media, and particular, honestly, more the media, that I still made this thing, that I did it.”
There is something deeply human in Ratajkowski's attempt to defy the deafening silence of her own ubiquitous image
Ultimately, the contradictions in My Body are not resolved, in part because Ratajkowski tries to connect two puzzle pieces that cannot logically fit together. There is her sense of disempowerment at being sold, even with her consent, but there is also the disempowerment of viewing her own choice as being mitigated and incentivised by a capitalist system which makes her image so very lucrative. However, there is something deeply human in Ratajkowski’s attempt to wrestle with that dilemma so publicly, and to defy the deafening silence of her own ubiquitous image. “I’d created all these Emilys that were out in the world through images, or through just my image, and they were silent. That was so frustrating to me. I didn’t know how to take that control back and give this kind-of-person – this image of myself that exists in the public – a voice and a brain and a mind. I wanted to have that opportunity.” While there are contradictions in this too, as it is still an act of seeking to be seen by one of the most viewed women on the planet who has often felt debilitated by this gaze, Ratajkowski has been as generous with sharing the imperfection underneath her coveted and exalted exterior as she has been with her image through her career.
The book has revealed her scepticism, her contemplation, and her consciousness of the absurdity of her own situation in life. It has shown us a human voice behind the image – “I haven’t found answers necessarily. But I found some kind of power and autonomy in becoming the person who creates something rather than the pawn in someone else’s vision.”
My Body, €21, is published by Quercus and is available now