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Emily Ratajkowski’s New Book Tests The Limits Of Self-Awareness

The model’s first essay collection, My Body, is well written, thoughtful, and honest. Is that enough?

Posted on October 25, 2021, at 3:02 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News / Macmillan, Getty Images

What an impossible task Emily Ratajkowski gave herself — it’s admirable, really, her efforts to better understand the arcane, patriarchal, racist, capitalistic measurements of physical beauty that have allowed her to be famous and successful and rich. I know this sounds glib, but I promise you it’s not: It would’ve been easier for her to have spent the 233 pages of her new essay collection, My Body, giving lip service to body positivity or taking control of your own narrative or objectification without grappling with a more complicated story. She could just enjoy her slender body and the career it afforded her without examining how she got here.

Instead, the essay collection, which comes out on Nov. 9, tries to make sense of her childhood, her work as a model, her value outside of her body, and the way men in and out of the entertainment industry have treated her. Honestly, the whole book is pretty depressing, a constant push-pull between Ratajkowski’s self-awareness and the greater forces that commodified her. Yes, her beauty has made her successful, but it also means that she has rarely, if ever, had control over her public image and how people perceive her. If there’s a question driving Ratajkowski’s culture study into herself, it would be: Did I have control over my own career and how I see myself? And I’m not sure she’s found the answer.

“Beauty was a way for me to be special,” she writes in “Beauty Lessons.” “When I was special, I felt my parents’ love for me the most.” But her relationship with her ailing mother, though clearly loving, is fraught because Ratajkowski has the kind of body that her mother, Kathleen, desired for herself. Kathleen encouraged Ratajkowski to defy school dress codes and taught her she was allowed to present her body however she wanted — a double-edged sword, for while her mom’s body positivity was nurturing, her focus on Ratajkowski’s physical appearance was sometimes overwhelming.

Ratajkowski’s clean, clear writing does what you want it to do; it wrestles with what it means to be conventionally attractive, both the good (being featured so prominently in a Robin Thicke music video that the entire world learns your name) and bad (in one essay, the details of which were leaked earlier this month, she says that Thicke sexually assaulted her while filming said video). “I didn’t have any real power as the naked girl dancing around in his music video,” she writes. “I was nothing more than the hired mannequin.” It’s the truth, and it feels like shit.

In hindsight, Ratajkowski realizes that she didn’t really have the control she thought she did. There is power in a woman’s sexuality and in women using their sexuality as they see fit. But Ratajkowski is constantly taken advantage of by men who seem jealous of that. “In my early twenties, it had never occurred to me that the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place,” she writes. “Those men were the ones in control, not the women the world fawned after.”

She relishes her body, but she also punishes it. Ratajkowski tells one story about meeting her agent and a few other models at a restaurant. Beforehand, she had pierced a new hole in her belt in order to cinch it tighter, so that everyone would “be able to see, right away, how small my waist is.” Later at home when she undresses, she sees red welts from the belt cutting into her flesh. There are also a few moments where Ratajkowski recognizes that her relationship with food is more fraught than it once was. In “Buying Myself Back,” a reprint of her viral New York magazine essay from September 2020, she looks back at an old photo shoot she did. “I’d been less concerned with my weight at the time of that shoot. Freer. I enjoyed food more and didn’t think so much about the shape of my ass.” But how to escape that loop? She’s a model, after all. She knows the score, that there’s a particular look that’ll raise her profile. She worked hard for this life, and specifically, for this body. Is she going to give that up?

Where Ratajkowski fails is in thinking more critically about her place in the world, in the continuum of women feeling bad about their bodies, being discriminated against for their bodies, being abused and assaulted for their bodies. There seems to be almost no recognition in her writing that her body is held up as a standard — not necessarily by her, but by other people intent on maintaining the beauty status quo — used to shame people who don’t look like her. There’s no overt recognition that her thinness, which she admits isn’t a fun requirement of her job, is in some way a response to public pressure to be and stay thin.

She’s an able-bodied, white, thin, gender-conforming woman who has benefited from her body socially and financially, but she only vaguely acknowledges that she can be weaponized against other people without those privileges. The thing that she’s trying to understand in a more holistic, intersectional way is the very thing that has given her a good, comfortable life. I don’t begrudge her those moments of low self-esteem or the individuals in her life who seem to think she’s nothing but a body, but when taken in the larger context of fat-shaming and body discrimination, hers is an unfulfilling tale; she mentions these topics only sparingly, always from a great theoretical distance. And maybe that makes a lot of sense. She’s not really the person you want to hear evangelize about experiences she hasn’t had.

But My Body doesn’t give us any way to move forward, any idea what to do with our punishing self-hatred or the way men profit from women’s beauty. The book highlights the limits of this kind of self-awareness: You can analyze your experiences and the factors that led to your success, but then what? Would it mean turning down opportunities offered merely because of the privilege beauty brings? Knowing how the deck is stacked for or against you is one thing; doing something about it is another.

In all fairness, few will read My Body hoping it will solve society’s body-shaming epidemic — there are people like Sonalee Rashatwar (The Fat Sex Therapist) or Aubrey Gordon (Your Fat Friend) who are better equipped to address that. But this bigger context is lacking in the book, and some hard questions go unasked.

Many people benefit from the way their body looks. Plenty of us have at least a sliver of what Ratajkowski has, the luck of being considered attractive and charming. But what do we do with that? Few want to give up their privilege or the rewards that come with it, and few can relax enough to let their body exist without interference. Ratajkowski doesn’t talk about allowing herself to gain weight or eat with full freedom, and that’s no surprise; it would fundamentally change her career. Who is she, professionally, if not this body?

I don’t blame Ratajkowski for not having any clear answers about what her body means; I don’t have any answers, either. I think about my weight constantly, even if I work hard to avoid negative thoughts about it. I eat what I like, but I still rotate through obsession and guilt. The many of us with body anxiety or disordered eating know that diets don’t work, but we keep trying, hoping to be the exception to the rule. We calorie-count, even subconsciously, and eat controlled meals that give us no pleasure but fuel us to work out harder, tone up, and slim down. People are entitled to look however they want, Ratajkowski included, even if her body sometimes makes me feel bad about my own. That’s not her fault, per se — but she is an active participant in a system that raises her up and makes me hate jean shopping. That dichotomy is missing from her reflections.

In “Buying Myself Back,” Ratajkowski writes, “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own.” It’s about the very tangible matter of her losing rights to images of herself — paparazzi shots, a shitty photographer profiting off her newfound fame — but it’s also a metaphor about being a woman in the world. You do not belong to yourself. No matter what you wear or how you act or what you ask for, you’re being served for consumption. There's no need to take a selfie or commodify yourself through professional modeling.

It’s not even like she’s having that much fun: In “K-Spa,” she writes about how she “dissociate[s]” when she’s being observed, saying, “I don’t even really recognize my body as me.” If Ratajkowski — who has been so richly rewarded for the way her breasts fall, her doe eyes, the firm crease in her abdomen that looks like pilates and $19 salads and cryolipolysis — can’t feel peace about her body and its impact on her as a human being, what hope is there for the rest of us?

My Body is semi-defeatist, not seeking the possibility of a completely different system. Ratajkowski can see the flaws but accepts the world as it is, working within it and offering her body up for consumption in ways she can’t fully control. She can celebrate her looks, but that comes with the double bind of capitalism, an inescapable scourge for any woman, but especially one who works in the beauty industry.

In the final essay, “Releases,” she writes about being pregnant with her son, how it changed her understanding of her own flesh. On a bike ride while pregnant, she has an epiphany. “It doesn’t matter what I look like, I realized,” she writes. “I wanted to cry out: Thank you! What a joy life can be in this body.” There’s hope in the positive thoughts about how strong her body can be, how much it can do, how it’s a beautiful tool. But it’s a tool nonetheless, and one that proves difficult to both incorporate into and distinguish from her sense of self. “I didn’t know how to marry the identity and ego that I’d kept as separate as possible from my work with the one that the world was now labeling a sex symbol,” she writes.

I have to believe a better world is possible, even if the specifics of how are foggy. There’s no winning, but perhaps that means there’s no real losing either: Any art, any writing, any attempt to detangle ourselves from the cruel stagnation of body-shaming is progress. My Body doesn’t cut as deep as I want, but it cuts all the same. ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.