Emily Ratajkowski’s New Book Examines The Limits of Self-Awareness

woman in black tank top and black pants

My Body, the first collection of essays by the model, is thoughtfully written and honest. But is this enough?

Emily Ratajkowski took on a daunting task. It’s amazing that she was able to understand the complex, patriarchal and racist dimensions of beauty that have made her famous, 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 simply enjoy her slim body and the job it gave her, without having to think about how she got there.

The essay collection, due out Nov. 9, attempts to make sense her childhood, work as a model, value beyond her body and how men have treated her. The whole book is quite depressing. It’s a constant tug between Ratajkowski’s self-awareness, and the larger forces that have made her a commodity. Her beauty has made her a successful woman, but that also means she has never had any control over how others perceive her. Ratajkowski’s culture research into herself would ask: “Did I have control over my career and my perception of myself?” She’s not certain she has the right answer.

“Beauty was for me to feel special,” she wrote in “Beauty Lessons.” However, her relationship with Kathleen, her ailing mother is fraught. Ratajkowski has the body her mother wanted for herself. Kathleen encouraged Ratajkowski not to follow school dress codes. She taught her that she could present her body as she desired. This was a double-edged sword. While her mother’s body positivity was encouraging, Ratajkowski was often too focused on her physical appearance.

Ratajkowski’s clear, clean writing accomplishes what you need. 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). She writes that she didn’t have the same power as the naked girl in Thicke’s music video. “I was nothing but a hired mannequin,” she writes. “It’s true, and it feels like shit.”

Ratajkowski sees in hindsight that she didn’t have the control she believed she had. There are many things that can be powerful about a woman’s sexuality, and women having the freedom to use their sexuality in whatever way they choose. Ratajkowski is often taken advantage of by jealous men. She writes, “In my early twenties it hadn’t occurred to me that women who gained their power due to beauty were indebted to the men whose desire gave them that power in first place.” “Those men were the ones who controlled the world, not the women it adored.”

She loves her body but also punishes it. Ratajkowski recounts a story about her encounter with her agent, along with a few models at a restaurant. She had previously pierced a hole in her belt to tighten it more so that others would be able to see how thin her waist is. Later, when she gets home, she finds red welts in her flesh from the belt. Ratajkowski also recognizes in a few instances that her relationship to food is now more complicated than it was before. She reflects on an old photo shoot that she did in “Buying Myself back,” a reprint from her viral New York Magazine essay. “I was less concerned about my weight at that time. Freer.” She is a model. She is aware of the importance of a certain look to raise her profile. She worked hard for this life and for this body. Will she give up on that dream?

Ratajkowski fails to think critically about her place in the world. She is part of a continuum that includes women feeling ashamed about their bodies and being treated unfairly for them. Her body is used as a standard, not only by her but also by others who are trying to maintain the status quo in beauty – to shame those who don’t look like she. 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 is a white, thin, able-bodied woman. Although she has enjoyed the benefits of her body financially and socially, she doesn’t acknowledge that she can be used against others without these privileges. She is trying to see the whole thing in an intersectional, holistic way. It’s what has allowed her to live a comfortable, happy life. While I don’t mind her having low self-esteem and the people in her life who think she’s a mere body, it is a sad tale when viewed in the context of body-shaming, body discrimination, and fat-shaming. These topics are not mentioned often, and she always views them from a theoretical distance. This may make sense. You don’t want her to evangelize about the experiences she hasn’t had.

But, My body doesn’t provide any guidance or direction on how to deal with our self-pitying behavior or the way that men profit off women’s beauty. This book shows the limitations of this type of self-awareness. You can look at your past experiences and determine the factors that contributed to your success. But then what? It could mean turning down opportunities that are offered to you because of the privileges beauty offers. It is one thing to know how the deck is set against you. It is quite another to do something about it.

While few people will read My Body, they may be hoping it will end society’s body-shaming epidemic. There are others like Sonalee Rashatwar, The Fat Sex Therapist, and Aubrey Gordon’s Your Fat Friend that are better equipped to do so. The book lacks this larger context and leaves out some difficult questions.

Many people are happy with how their bodies look. Many of us share a little bit of Ratajkowski’s charm and attractiveness. What do we do? Few people want to lose their privileges or the benefits that go with them. Very few people can let go of their bodies and allow them to exist as they are. Ratajkowski isn’t open to letting herself gain weight or eat as she pleases. That’s not surprising. It would change her career in a fundamental way. Who is she, professionally, if not this body?

Ratajkowski is not right to have any answers as to what her body means. I also don’t know the answers. I am constantly thinking about my weight, even though I try to avoid negative thoughts. Although I enjoy eating what I want, I am still prone to guilt and obsession. Many of us who suffer from body anxiety and disordered eating know that diets don’t work. But we try, hoping to be the exception. Even subconsciously, we calorie-count and eat controlled meals that don’t give us pleasure, but fuel our efforts to tone, slim down, and work harder. Ratajkowski is one of many people who are allowed to be whatever they like, even though her body makes me feel terrible about mine. It’s not her fault – she is active in a system that lifts her up, and makes me hate shopping for jeans. This dichotomy is not evident in her reflections.

woman in black tank top and black pants

Ratajkowski wrote in “Buying Myself Back” that she has learned that her image, her reflection, is not her own. It’s about the tangible matter of losing her rights to images of herself, paparazzi photos, a shitty photographer making a profit off her newfound fame, but it’s also about being a woman living in the world. You don’t belong to yourself. You are being consumed regardless of what you wear, how you act, or what you ask for. You don’t need to snap a picture or make yourself look commodified by professional modeling.

It’s not like she’s having so much fun. In “K-Spa” Ratajkowski writes about how she “dissociates” from being observed. She says, “I don’t even recognize my body as me.”

My Body is semi-defeatist and does not seek a new system. Ratajkowski is able to see the flaws, but she accepts the world as it stands. She works within the system and offers her body up to consumption in ways that she cannot control. While she can be proud of her appearance, that doesn’t mean she is immune to the double burden of capitalism. This is a problem for anyone, especially women who work in the beauty industry.

She writes in the last essay, “Releases,” about her pregnancy with her son and how it changed her view of herself. She experiences an epiphany while riding a bicycle during pregnancy. She writes, “It doesn’t matter how I look. I wanted to scream: Thank you! It’s amazing how joyful life can be in this body!” It’s still a tool, but it can be difficult to integrate into her self and separate from it. She writes that she didn’t know how to marry the identity she kept distant as possible from the the work one that labeled her a sex symbol.

Even though the details of are unclear, I believe that a better world exists. Although there is no winning, perhaps this means that there is no real losing. Any art, writing, or attempt to free ourselves from the grimy trap of body-shaming is progress.

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