I am not a model or a celebrity, but my image has been stolen from me. When I was 17, a high school boyfriend disseminated the nude pictures I had sent him to what felt like everyone I had ever met, as well as a number of people I hadn’t. The prurient Facebook messages that flooded my inbox were daily reminders that my body was not my own. It belonged to men on the internet; I only lived inside it.
What happened to me also happened, albeit on a much grander scale, to the famously desirable model and actor Emily Ratajkowski. As she recounts in her debut essay collection, My Body, a fashion photographer who took nude pictures of her when she was young, drunk and vulnerable persists in selling books of the Polaroids.
He is far from the only man to profit from Ratajkowski’s beauty: as she explains in Buying Myself Back, perhaps the best piece in her thoughtful and accessible book, the artist Richard Prince featured one of her Instagram pictures in his so-called “Instagram Paintings” series, which consists of “images of Instagram posts … printed on oversize canvas”. In order to recover the photo, Ratajkowski had to purchase the artwork; ultimately, she found herself in the bizarre position of buying herself – or at least the image that had usurped her self – back.
Few women are this prominent, and even fewer turn out to be unwilling fodder for celebrated artists – but on the whole, what is striking about My Body is not how different a renowned supermodel’s experiences are from those of an everywoman, but rather how continuous. At first, I suspected this made the book boring. My Body is more of a non-linear memoir than a compendium of essays – though Ratajkowski’s musings are nominally organised into discrete sections, they seem to bleed into a more general autobiographical jumble – and many of Ratajkowski’s reminiscences date back to her adolescence. She recalls her fixation on Britney Spears, her childhood home in San Diego, and, above all, her relentless objectification at the hands of various romantic interests and employers. As I rifled through accounts of inappropriate advances and catcalls, I wondered why Ratajkowski chose to devote so much space to relatively common degradations, rather than focusing on the more exotic indignities that she endured as she became famous.
But as I read on, I realised that the depressing familiarity of the abuses that Ratajkowski chronicles is precisely the point. The anecdotes in My Body dramatise what is always true, if often implicit: that women can neither fully escape nor fully inhabit bodies that men are bent on appropriating. Though Ratajkowski grasps that her allure is a form of power, she also understands that “whatever influence and status I’ve gained were only granted to me because I appealed to men”. Her body is valuable only insofar as it functions as a commodity, “a tool I use to make a living as a model”. When she strips for a shoot, she “disassociates”: “I don’t even really recognize my body as me.”
Still, for all her self-awareness, Ratajkowski stops short of exploring the full implications of her alienation. The very phrase “buying myself back” presupposes women’s bodies are products designed to entice male buyers. Ratajkowski’s appearance is just that – a product – yet she writes, for the most part, as if it were a natural endowment, a gift that has been “passed down” to her by her mother like a “piece of bequeathed jewelry”. “I haven’t done anything to earn my beauty,” she concludes.
But of course, like all models, she has done a great deal. For one thing, she has dieted, a fact she mentions only sporadically throughout My Body. At one point, she remarks offhandedly that she booked more shootings after contracting the flu and losing 10 pounds in one week; later, she notes in passing that she “started smoking cigarettes and skipping meals to maintain a tiny waist”. As the former model turned sociologist Ashley Mears writes in her incisive ethnography of the fashion industry, Pricing Beauty, a model’s “work – and the work of her agents, clients, their assistants, and their whole social world – gets juggled out of sight.”
What My Body neglects to explore is Ratajkowski’s elaborate stylisation and its social foundations. As she explains in a mesmerising tutorial video posted on Vogue’s YouTube channel (but fails to discuss in her book), her everyday makeup routine involves 15 steps and the application of 11 products. In other words, she wears more makeup to dinner with her friends than I have worn in my entire life. My point is not to shame her – on the contrary, I admire and envy her artistry, to say nothing of her patience – but rather to note that, in a book about female desirability and injustice, it is worth emphasising that beauty requires time, skill, money and effort.
In other words, being beautiful takes work. For many women, it feels compulsory, and for most of us, it is unremunerated. Models or not, we have no choice but to see ourselves through the prism of our bodies; we are all forced to endure the conflation of self with appearance; and we are all at pains, in one way or another, to buy ourselves back. The rub is that many of us still cannot afford to.