Emily Ratajkowski and the Burden of Being Perfect-Looking

Emily Ratajkowski and the Burden of Being Perfect-Looking

Some injustices are so self-evident and quotidian that they lose their capacity to enrage. The undue burden placed on women to maintain their appearance—and to be constantly appraised on the basis of physical attractiveness, both covertly and overtly—is one such injustice. Even in the era of supposed body positivity and self-acceptance, the amount of resources devoted per woman to grooming, primping, nipping, and tucking toward some aspirational physical ideal is extraordinary, and yet so easily shrugged off as part of everyday life.

But what about the rare women who are those physical ideals, the women born with the supernatural beauty to which others aspire? (These are the women whom Naomi Wolf crudely described, in “The Beauty Myth,” as “gaunt, yet full-breasted Caucasian[s], not often found in nature . . . assumed by the mass media, and often by magazine readers and movie watchers as well, to be eternal, transcendent.”) This is the position from which Emily Ratajkowski, the model and entrepreneur, writes. Lauded for her beauty since she was a young girl, and made world-famous by her topless appearance in a music video, in 2013, Ratajkowski has spent decades receiving the world’s lecherous gaze, metabolizing it, inviting it, rejecting it, capitalizing on it, and agonizing over it. In her new essay collection, aptly titled “My Body” after her foremost preoccupation, Ratajkowski attempts to reckon with how her appearance has shaped her personal relationships, her career, and her psyche. If there is a thesis statement to be drawn from Ratajkowski’s somewhat muddled, overly lyrical début, it’s that physical beauty—in particular, a near-perfect, if outdated, sort of beauty—is a heavy cross to bear. Beauty is not an antidote to emotional anguish or self-doubt, but, instead, a breeding ground for more insecurity: “I so desperately craved men’s validation that I accepted it even when it came wrapped in disrespect,” she writes.

Ratajkowski grew up in Southern California, a child of the nineties and early two-thousands who, like most of her peers, eagerly lapped up the images of complicated pop stars like Britney Spears. Ratajkowski’s mother was particularly fixated on her beauty, observing with glee the way men reacted to her daughter when she was as young as twelve. With the support of her parents—whom Ratajkowski lightly condemns as overenthusiastic about the prospect of having a professionally stunning daughter—she signed with a modelling agent as a teen-ager. She dropped out of college after a year to pursue modelling full time, a choice that, she explains, coolly, was purely about money. “I considered my life and work as a model as a temporary situation,” she writes. “Money meant freedom and control.” The central, and perhaps most exasperating, contradiction of “My Body” is Ratajkowski’s warring descriptions of her career path—one moment, being on display is an act of pure empowerment that makes her feel “badass,” “special,” “in control.” The next, her career is a hideous double bind that she pursues strictly in the name of financial security, or because people won’t take anything but her looks seriously.

The modelling industry, as examined in documentaries like “Picture Me” and “Girl Model,” is exploitative by design. It still seems to have eluded the formal reckoning that so many adjacent industries have faced in the wake of #MeToo. Ratajkowski recalls the unsettling working conditions she experienced and the crass comments she received on shoots as she navigated this universe early in her career. She got her big break when she was cast in the music video for “Blurred Lines,” the megahit single, from 2013, by Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I., which stirred up a blizzard of debate over its questionable lyrics: “I hate these blurred lines / I know you want it,” Thicke croons. Ratajkowski long maintained to the press that there was nothing anti-feminist about the video, in which she cavorts suggestively around Thicke, but, in a new essay from the book, called “Blurred Lines,” she reconsiders, confronted by a memory of Thicke groping her bare breasts from behind without permission. This is just one of many physical violations that Ratajkowski recounts having incurred from the licentious men in her orbit. But, despite how harrowing these incidents seem, Ratajkowski is honest about the competitive pride and pleasure that she took in being able to sustain such indignities, and triumph over them. The validation and the money were often worth it: This guy shoots all these women, but I’m going to show him that I’m the sexiest and smartest of them all. That I am special, she remembers thinking during one shoot upstate at a pervy photographer’s house.

Ratajkowski recalls this scene vividly in “Buying Myself Back,” an essay in which she examines the power dynamics between those in front of the camera and those behind it. At the upstate shoot, Ratajkowski gamely drinks too much red wine, takes her clothes off, and is sexually assaulted by the photographer after the shoot, an incident that she chooses to ignore at the time. Years later, that very photographer, recognizing Ratajkowski’s newfound global fame, compiles the images from that shoot and sells a book of them. He even has a gallery show for these photographs, rendering Ratajkowski emotionally and financially powerless with regard to the dissemination of her own likeness. The essay, which was originally published last year in New York magazine, is a compelling examination of intellectual-property-rights issues in the fashion and modelling business. (It also makes one shudder to think of just how powerless the models who don’t have Ratajkowski’s platform are. Ratajkowski seldom seems to consider these women.) Short of bankrupting herself to cover legal fees, social media was Ratajkowski’s only recourse.“I tweeted about what a violation this book was, how he was using and abusing my image for profit without my consent,” Ratajkowski writes. (Ironically, just a year later, Ratajkowski received a cease-and-desist letter from the swimsuit designer Lisa Marie Fernandez for allegedly ripping off two styles for her own swimwear line, Inamorata.) Ratajkowski’s tale was such a rare and intoxicating invitation into the elusive psyche of a celebrity that the essay became New York’s No. 1 most-read story of 2020.

Not all of the other essays in “My Body” are quite as effective as “Buying Myself Back.” The collection whipsaws between childhood, early adulthood, and present day, trying to forge connections between concrete memories and ambient sensations—all adding up to a pervasive sense of internal conflict that Ratajkowski experiences over commodifying her own physicality. In one essay, she compares the experiences of changing clothes on set, visiting the gynecologist’s office, and going to a Korean spa—the only place where she is permitted to be just another anonymous form. The broad concept of “the body” is applied quite liberally, and the reader can lose the thread.

In another essay, Ratajkowski recalls a sponsored vacation that she takes with her husband to a luxury resort in the Maldives, where she obsessively checks the “like”s she’s receiving on her Instagram photos. On the beach, she spots a group of Muslim women in head scarves; she reads an article about Kim Kardashian; she wonders why she’s selling herself for a free vacation. But she struggles to draw out any insights or observations between these hazy experiences, and often defaults to blanket justifications: “I’m trying to succeed in a capitalist system . . . but that doesn’t mean I like the game,” she argues to her husband, when he teases her at the beach one day. In one of the book’s most scandalizing essays, “Transactions,” Ratajkowski admits that she once accepted twenty-five thousand dollars to sit in a billionaire’s box at the Super Bowl. Later, she’s invited to go to Coachella, all expenses paid, by a creepy promoter, an offer that she is conflicted about. Ultimately, she writes, “I was too excited to turn it down.” As much as she alludes to being in control, Ratajkowski seems incapable of making a decision that doesn’t actively reinforce the things that make her feel bad. She confesses to still being “addicted” to the sensation of being loved on Instagram. Of course, all of these contradictions are valid, and the questions she poses are meaningful ones, but Ratajkowski often fails to cut through them with insight.

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