Nothing throws gasoline on the embers of resentment more than a woman deemed to be universally beautiful declaring herself unhappy. When you inherit something powerful in short supply – the right kind of looks, education, family name – the general opinion is that you should be grateful or stay quiet. Examining those powers in the wider context of patriarchal capitalism, it seems, is everyone else’s job.
When Emily Ratajkowski released her debut essay collection My Body last month, it poked at all the sore points that typically flare up when women, their bodies and money are considered in unison. Is someone crowned by Rolling Stone, FHM and Maxim as one of the greatest sex symbol of the 2010s the best person to weigh in on beauty standards? Is it possible to criticise a power structure – whether that’s capitalism, the patriarchy, or the fashion industry – while simultaneously benefiting from it? In an economy where individuals are elevated as spokespeople for large swathes of society, and attention carries its own form of currency, who gets to speak?
My Body sees Ratajkowski examining her experiences in vivid detail, from childhood through to her teen years and the present day. Unpacking everything from her relationship with her parents, to the abuse she’s experienced working with nefarious photographers and casting agents, to motherhood (she gave birth to her first child, Sly, in March of this year), you get the sense that Ratajkowski has been almost absent through many of these experiences – a fly on the wall of her own life.
Ratajkowski shot to fame in 2013 after appearing in the video for “Blurred Lines” – which, depending on how you look at it, was either a lads mag cover come to life, or a playful satire that arrived at precisely the wrong time. In many ways, not much has changed since then. Pop feminism has detoured into a bizarre space where things that are bad for society are largely considered fine as long as women are doing them, while hostility towards those who use their bodies to work is greater than ever. A lot has changed for Ratajkowski, though. Having modelled since the age of 14, playing the part of a silent “mannequin” in front of the lens, as she puts it in the book, Ratajkowski has assumed a new role: A woman looking at society looking at her.
My Body has been praised for its incisive writing, self-awareness and uncomfortable honesty. Elsewhere, critics have claimed that Ratajkowski doesn’t spend enough time considering how women and girls might respond to images of her and fails to offer solutions to the problems she identifies. It’s probably fair to say that in its weaker moments (mainly, a bit about the difficulty of being paid to go on a luxury holiday), it gives Marissa Cooper flipping a deckchair into the pool at her step-dad’s mansion. But overall, it’s a compelling portrait of loneliness, loss and the spiritual cost of choosing to pick up the tools you were handed to play by someone else’s rules.
I caught up with Ratajkowski to talk more about the themes of My Body, the double bind of being both exploited and envied, and stepping into the role of artist after spending so long as a muse.
VICE: As you write in the introduction, My Body is a way of working through your own thoughts about your body and how it is viewed – both by others and yourself. But writing is its own form of nakedness. How has it felt releasing the book, and experiencing people react to your thoughts about your body?
Emily Ratajkowski: Totally. It's a different type of exposure, but very similar in some ways. It’s felt really amazing to connect to so many women – young women in particular – and it's also felt like ‘wow, I really put a lot of myself out there into the world’. Overall, I'd say it feels really good to have made something that feels really honest, and I’m enjoying that part of it – knowing that whatever anybody might feel about the book, there's just so much honesty in what I made.
The position you assume throughout the book is one of a muse. You're always in front of the lens, being observed. How did you find the process of stepping behind the camera so to speak and writing these essays?
It wasn't until the book was finished, and I was doing the audiobook, that I sort of realised that it was written into the text – this desire that I've always had to be the artist rather than the muse. Even when I left college and started modelling, it was with this idea of like, ‘well, I'm gonna make enough money so that I can be an artist and so I can make things’. That's why I even started to really model full time. So it feels extremely gratifying and fulfilling to now be the person who's created something, rather than a piece of someone else's vision.
There was a detail in the book that really struck me, where you mention that growing up your parents didn't really encourage you to watch TV or anything like that, which suggests that you were sort of left to develop your own interior world. Who or what did you look to for inspiration for these essays?
I think being an only child without an easy, ‘turn on the TV’ kind of entertainment [set-up], I was always reading, or had these really involved imaginary play worlds. One of the novels that made a huge impact on me as maybe 10 or 12-year-old, was The Great Good Thing. And I read all the classics – Walk Two Moons, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and To Kill a Mockingbird, which my mum had kind of talked about as a super important book.
I’ve always been an avid reader, but when I knew that this was going to be a book of essays, I only read essays. Whenever I was having a day with some kind of block, or trying to figure out the book in general, I would read books of essays – Trick Mirror, The Empathy Exams, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Even, like, Best American Essays, that collection that's released every year. I would look to writers I admired, like Ann Patchett, and read their nonfiction, and really try to be influenced by as many essays as I possibly could while thinking about how I wanted the book to come together as a whole.
You make some interesting points in the book about money and choice feminism, specifically in relation to using your body as a tool for making money – often for other people, more than yourself – and where the power actually lies in that exchange. As someone who was told from a very young age how beautiful they are, I'm wondering whether you see becoming a model as 100 percent your choice, or whether it felt like that's what you were supposed to do because of how often the value of your looks were reinforced?
It's so hard to say. Like, what is ever 100 percent anyone's choice to do anything? I now have a son and I'm thinking about whether he'll be interested in the same things that his parents are interested in, because that will be what he knew, and I think there's just some truth to that. There were definitely a bunch of factors that came into my decision to model, and some of them were just cultural, not even personal – like the stuff I write about the way I looked at Britney Spears, and the way I thought about powerful women as being “attractive” – that I think made modelling appealing.
And then yeah, personally, it was also the timing. I graduated high school in 2009, right after the economy collapsed, and money was really on my mind in maybe a way it wouldn't have been had I not kind of lived through that. So I think it was a culmination of things. I did choose it though. My mom always tells this story of me being 13 and saying, like, ‘Okay, I'm ready, I want to try modelling’. And that was my choice. But also, as a 13-year-old, I probably didn't totally understand what I was saying I was ready to try.
I'm curious whether you feel a sort of double bind in terms of your position. You write about patriarchal power structures that you've been unable to escape. The biggest criticism of the book – and it's worth highlighting that it has been reviewed overwhelmingly by women – is that you don't offer any solutions to these structures, or that you perhaps minimise the role you play within them.
My personal feeling is that there's maybe a kind of resentment baked into this criticism because of how women are pitted against each other in terms of beauty standards. In that context it's easy to see you as the one with all the power. But, as you write in the book, those standards have power over you too. It seems to me like a potentially lonely position to be in, trapped between desire and envy. Were those criticisms something you were anticipating, and how do you handle other women's desire to look like you?
I actually really wasn't expecting those criticisms, partly just because I feel very connected to a kind of younger version of feminism, like what I see on TikTok and Instagram and Twitter – more Gen Z/millennial thinking about the way we talk about sex workers, and women who use their bodies in other ways to work. Criticising women for wearing make-up and for posting sexy pictures – I just felt like we had moved past that, and that everyone had realised that it’s not beneficial to slut shame women for the way they might appeal to patriarchal ideas and standards.
For me, the baseline of the book was like, well, obviously everyone is playing into the same attention economy that I have benefitted from – even those people who are reviewing the book, these women, because they're writing about my book because I have a name and an amount of followers, because of the way I've capitalised on my body. So I think there's a little bit of a denial there about how much we’re all functioning and are part of the structure that I'm talking about.
I felt like the reaction I’ve gotten in other ways, and anticipated more, was like, ‘Here's a woman that I thought was in this one position and had kind of done it well, or had the right tool AKA body to succeed in this culture, and damn, even she feels these things. What does that mean about our world?’ But I was surprised to see women – particularly older, I'd say like 35-to-50-year-old women, take what I think is a little bit of an old school approach. That’s been a little hard for me. And I actually feel that defiance that I describe in the introduction of having in my early twenties – I feel more connected to that now than I did when I was writing the book, because I kind of imagined that women would respond well to hearing my story, and instead I feel like I was picked apart for just having the life and the body and the career that I've had.
But I always just say the same thing, which is that I would never tell a young woman not to try to have success in this world in the way that I have, because now I've written this book, and I've been able to talk about it, and I have become the artist that I wanted to become – but with a much larger platform than I probably would have had I just gone straight into writing or whatever. And that's the reality of the world we live in. And I don't think it's helpful to shame women for capitalising off of the way they look, or anything else.
One of the chapters that really resonated with me was when you were talking about growing up, starting at a new school, and falling in with this crowd of skaters and a girl called Sadie, who I guess you could summarise as a "tomboy". You express regret that you weren't able to form a particularly deep friendship, because you were both busy performing a sort of masculine aloofness in order to fit in with a group of boys. That was really refreshing to read, as female friendships are so often portrayed as nothing but intimate sleepovers and deep secrets and synchronised periods, which is something I feel like I missed out on. Do you feel a sense of loss there too, and are female friendships something you've actively had to work on in adulthood?
There were other friendships that I had, even in high school, that ended up being more fulfilling and more real than the one I had with Sadie. But definitely that hasn't always been my experience with women, especially in the industry and with women who feel a sense of competition with each other. I think that, of course, as an adult, I've really prioritised and surrounded myself with friendships that don't feel like there's a competition ingrained into them. That being said, I do feel like every time I meet a woman there's this sort of moment where we're both assessing each other, thinking ‘Is she gonna be nice to me?’, ‘Is she on my side?’, ‘Is she trying to compete with me?’ And I think that's too bad, and actually goes back to the last question you asked.
I think in general women really do feel like we have to compete with each other in order to have power, because we think that there’s scarcity. We think that there's one man that we’re all fighting for, or we have to be special in a certain way, and distinguish ourselves from other women in order to be that way. This is kind of random, but I was watching this movie on the plane back from London, with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz –
Yes! Okay, so I didn't get to finish it, but it was so shocking to me. The whole thing is about like, ‘You’re different than other girls, you're not like the rest of them’ – and for both characters, too! There's this moment where Kate Winslet is told, like, ’You're not the best friend, you're the main character, and you need to start acting like the leading lady instead of the best friend’. I was like, Jesus, everything in our world tells us that there's only allowed to be one woman. You can't be successful in a group of women. Even when you’re bonding with other women, I feel like there's still a thing of talking about different women and saying, ‘Oh, can you believe this or that about her’, to try to delineate yourself.
So yeah, of course this book doesn't have answers on how to solve the patriarchy and misogyny, but definitely in my personal life I’ve been making a conscious effort to not do that song and dance. But it’s weird. You have to kind of catch yourself, because sometimes being mean about women literally comes out of a desire to connect to other women. And I don't think it's just because, like, women are bitches. I think it's because we've been taught that that's how to survive.
There's so much detail and colour in your writing, especially about your formative years. Did you keep a lot of journals growing up or do you just have an amazingly good memory?
Thank you, that's really nice. I definitely did not keep journals! I have a memory of starting a journal – even at the age of seven – and re-reading what I had written and being like, ‘Ugh, this is not good’, and throwing it away. So I think it speaks to a lot that I ever wrote anything as an adult, because that self-critical nature has carried on with me. But I wrote about things that I had really vivid memories about, so I think that helped colour the writing.
My takeaway from the book was a real sense of loss and loneliness at the heart of beauty – as it's been ascribed to you from the outside. You write so often about keeping painful things to yourself, pushing your feelings down to make room for other people's interpretation of your appearance, whether it's your mum, a high school boy, or a client. The book has been really well received overall. I'm wondering, has it changed the way you feel "seen"?
Yes and no. When I’ve done various signings, or if I like dip into my DMs and see people reading the book and reaching out to me, or even just our conversation and feeling like you really connect to the book – that feels so gratifying, and I feel like there's some clarity about the world in general that just feels really, really satisfying to me.
But one of the things about the book is that I knew I wasn't writing from a place of a totally healed, enlightened woman that, you know, looks back on these times with all kinds of regret or any type of feeling, honestly, other than a lot of different feelings. And I think that a lot of the things that I write about in the book I'm still sort of wrestling with, and playing them out on a relatively public stage. But what does feel nice is that people can now read the book, and read about the contradictions and the complexities and the nuance that I feel around my position in the world.
You end the book really beautifully, with the birth of your first child. Has the experience of motherhood changed your feelings towards your body, in that it does sort of belong to someone else now – but in a way that's unconditional, rather than transactional?
It's strange – I mean, you put that so beautifully. In some ways, your body is still a tool when you're pregnant and when you're giving birth, like it's a way of getting someone into the world. But for me it was more about the trust I had to have for my body that I’d never had. Obviously a big theme in the book is control, and in pregnancy and motherhood in general, you sort of have to let go of control in order to be happy, and also for your child to be happy. It was this really strange experience to wake up every day and be like, ‘Okay, my body is growing, there's all these things happening and there's no way to know exactly if it's doing exactly what it should be doing, if my son is totally safe, if I'm totally safe.’ And I had to kind of let go of control, and release control, in order to enjoy my pregnancy.
With birth, the more you trust your body, the more you are likely to have a better birth experience, because you just relax. So I did that, and it was a wonderful lesson in the release of control. As for feeling connected to my body – that's an everyday thing. I try to do that, but I don't always do it. The other part of that last essay is the bike ride with my best friend and my husband. That, to me, was such a gorgeous moment that I don't think happens enough, but I'm hoping will continue to happen more and more as the way that I think about my body evolves.
The New York Times-bestselling My Body by Emily Ratajkowski is published by Quercus in hardback, out now.