Seeing a woman’s body from her point of view
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By Maddie Crum
The cover of Emily Ratajkowski's essay collection, "My Body," is all text, a staid typeface in bright colours.
There's no photo of the actress and model, whose star - and notoriety - rose after she performed what looked like a nonchalant topless dance for Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video.
She went on to appear in David Fincher's "Gone Girl" and launch a swimwear line which she promotes to her 28 million Instagram followers.
A text-only cover is unusual for a book by a celebrity, but it aligns with Ratajkowski's intentions. "I wanted to be able to have my Instagram hustle, selling bikinis and whatever else," she writes in her introduction, "while also being respected for my ideas and politics and well, everything besides my body."
She wanted, in other words, to challenge an either-or fallacy of womanhood: that she can't have both a body and a brain, can't be both appealing and incisive, can't have both a brand and a book - not one she wrote herself, anyway.
It's a formidable project that mines old questions, not so much to provide answers as to suggest that the questions are still relevant. Does profiting from the male gaze come at a cost, or is the male gaze a source of genuine power for some? Yes, Ratajkowski writes, and yes.
In "Buying Myself Back," first published in New York Magazine, she writes about a photographer who published allegedly unlicensed portraits of her in a bestselling book, using her name as its title. On the day of the shoot, Ratajkowski recounts, he gave her wine; by the time he assaulted her, she writes, she was drunk, barely conscious.
In "Blurred Lines," she writes about another instance of on-set harassment, skillfully showing one woman's complicity in another's oppression. When Thicke grabbed her breasts between shoots, there was a long silence before the director, a woman, "finally spoke." "Okay, well, no touching," Ratajkowski recalls the director saying. "She addressed no one in particular, her megaphone now hanging loosely at her hip. I pushed my chin forward and shrugged, avoiding eye contact, feeling the heat of humiliation pump through my body."
In these entries, Ratajkowski guides us through the scenes where popular images of her were initially captured so she can reorient us; we're in her point of view now. Her prose is direct, almost journalistic. We access the interiority of a woman who left school during the recession to make money and who's blunt about that objective.
"They were the talent, we were more like props," she writes about the "Blurred Lines" set. "I wasn't bothered; I was there to work." Later, she writes, "The more money I made from modelling, the more I enjoyed having it."
Most of the essays oscillate between pride and disenchantment with her own beauty, especially as a means of making money and attaining a restricted kind of social capital. This sort of power, Ratajkowski feels, is contingent, transient, addictive, and also what gave her the opportunity to publish a book. "My Body's" smartest and most moving moments sit with these warring feelings, allowing several to coexist.
In "Beauty Lessons," she writes critical yet sympathetic fragments about her mother's obsession with looks and her parents' support of her modelling career, leaving her with a belief, related tearily to her therapist, that "everything is ranked"; "that is how the world works."
In "Bc Hello Halle Berry," she writes about visiting an expensive resort in exchange for posting a few photos of herself there in a bikini. "The whole of the ocean stretched out before me, and yet I felt trapped," she writes, comparing herself to the ultrarich hotel guests whose bank accounts, not bodies, afforded them the trip.
In that same essay, though, the collection's weaknesses are most apparent: the thin or absent analyses of the artists, writers and thinkers who've preceded her; the few signs of awareness that the power structures she critiques have farther-reaching effects than her own discomfort on a beach vacation.
Artist Hannah Black's online sound piece, "My Bodies," from which the collection takes its title, is described briefly because it's the author's "favourite." It's a mash-up mostly of Black women, including Rihanna and Beyoncé, saying the phrase "my body," their voices forming a chorus. A connection between Black's piece and Ratajkowski's collection is implied but never deeply explored, and the cultural reference feels decorative, adding texture, not depth.
The starkest difference between the two works is evidenced by their titles: Black is interested in plurality, and Ratajkowski is not, although she claims to be. In the collection's weakest essay, "Men Like You," a righteous letter to her former manager, she writes that she supports, and works in concert with, other women.
It's a curious claim within Ratajkowski's book, a book that neglects to mention its subject's context or long history, a savvy but myopic collection about its author's individual body: the crimes enacted against it; the life afforded by it; and its limitations, too.
Maddie Crum is a writer and editor in New York.
This article first appeared in Sunday Insider, November 14, 2021