Rewatching the music video for “Blurred Lines,” the totemic Robin Thicke song, is an interesting project. In 2013, when it was released, the song spawned a new microeconomy of commentary denouncing it as a distillation of rape culture, or fretting over whether enjoying its jaunty hook was defensible. (“I know you want it,” Thicke croons presumptively over and over, even though honestly, no, I do not want it at all.) In the video, directed by the veteran Diane Martel, three models dressed in transparent thongs peacock and pose with a baffling array of props (a lamb, a banjo, a bicycle, a four-foot-long replica of a syringe) while Thicke, the producer and one of the co-writers Pharrell Williams, and the rapper T.I. dance, goofy and fully clothed, around them.
As an artifact of its time, it’s a remarkably deadened and nonsensical thing. But what most surprises me now is how pitiable the men seem, pulling at the models’ hair and playing air guitar for attention, less musical superstars than jejune dads who don’t exactly know what to do with the women they’ve paid to be naked. This is the raw power of the female body, and yet what kind of power is it, really? At one point, Thicke seems to push the model Emily Ratajkowski against a wall, hollering into her ear while she gazes away from him, a picture of barely suppressed disdain.
“Blurred Lines” instantly made Ratajkowski a star. She commands the video in both the PG-13 and unrated versions like a supernova, a vortex of pulchritude and screen presence and sticky red lip gloss. “They were the talent; we were more like props,” Ratajkowski writes of the men in her new book, My Body, and yet the women are the ones viewers can’t look away from. They’re so casual in their nudity, so composed, so unperturbed by the antics of the men objectifying them. Their sexuality seems to exist somehow outside the range of the camera’s gaze, outside the atmosphere of mortal men. But, of course, it doesn’t. In My Body, a collection of essays in which Ratajkowski scrutinizes the blessing and the curse of her physical self, she writes that Thicke groped her during filming that day, and that she said nothing; the incident was, in her eyes, a reminder of “how limited any woman’s power is when she survives and even succeeds in the world as a thing to be looked at.” (Thicke has not publicly responded to the allegations.)
This book is Ratajkowski’s attempt to come to terms with her existence as a person who is, in the words of Derek Zoolander, really, really ridiculously good-looking. This experience is, she knows, particularly fraught for women and girls. Starting in middle school, Ratajkowski writes, she received mixed messages about her body—whether it provoked offense or pleasure, was too big or too small, made her strong or vulnerable. Commodifying it as a model at first brought her satisfaction. She writes: “All women are objectified and sexualized to some degree, I figured, so I might as well do it on my own terms. I thought that there was power in my ability to choose to do so.” Now? She’s not so sure, but nor has she entirely changed her mind.
My Body sits in this liminal space between reappraisal and self-defense. It’s a fascinating work: insightful, maddening, frank, strikingly solipsistic. Ratajkowski admits in her introduction that her awakening is still a half-finished one, and that the purpose of the book wasn’t “to arrive at answers” about the contradictions of selling her own image as a model, actor, and Instagram influencer with 28.5 million followers, but rather to “examine the various mirrors in which I’ve seen myself.” She senses, maybe, that she’s caught in an age-old quagmire (what the academic Sandra Bartky called “the disciplinary project of femininity”), but not that she’s become, by virtue of her fame and self-presentation, potentially complicit in the things she critiques. Writing, for Ratajkowski, seems to let her assert the fullness of her personhood and interiority, a rejection of the world’s determination to make her an object. But the narrowness of her focus—her physical self, essentially, and everything it’s meant for her—is limiting. Even her title, My Body, suggests conflicting things: ownership and depersonalization. What do you do when the subject you know best, the topic upon which you are the ultimate authority, is the same trap you’re trying to write your way out of?
The day I read most of this book was also the day that Ratajkowski uploaded to Instagram a series of photos published by the French magazine M. In the first, she holds a flesh-colored lollipop against her tongue. The third reveals her midriff, her nipple, and her leopard-patterned nails, but not her face. The cover line for the shoot reads: La Feminité à l’Offensive, with faux cils et ongles longs in smaller type, just to clarify that the aesthetic for the revolution is false eyelashes and long fingernails. Ratajkowski’s waist is tiny; her ribs are visible; her lips are pursed.
She has the right to find these pictures, this self-presentation, empowering. (“I love these images so much!” her caption reads.) But we also, as observers, have the right to interpret them—to wonder if doubling down on archaic tropes of female sexuality and the “tyranny of slenderness,” as Bartky put it, is actually good for anyone else. In her book’s epigraph, Ratajkowski pulls a quote on vanity from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a seminal BBC series and book that, among other things, crystallizes the bind women find themselves in as objects to be surveyed. The M pictorial made me think of a different Berger argument: Portraits are organized to reinforce the hierarchical status quo, and the women within them are arranged, he wrote, “to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.” Whose appetite is the lollipop feeding? Does it matter?
Ratajkowski doesn’t say much in the book about how women and girls might respond to images of her. That myopia is frustrating, because she’s so astute on the subject of how her body is interpreted by men. The project that became My Body began as an essay published last year in New York. In “Buying Myself Back,” the magazine’s most read story of 2020 (not exactly a quiet news year), Ratajkowski wrote about being sued by a paparazzo who took a picture of her on the street after she subsequently posted the photo on her Instagram, and buying half a Richard Prince “Instagram painting” based on an image of herself. She also alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a photographer who later published a book of nude photos of her without her consent. (The photographer denied the accusations to New York, saying, “You do know who we are talking about right? This is the girl that was naked in Treats! magazine, and bounced around naked in the Robin Thicke video at that time. You really want someone to believe she was a victim?”)
The essay was bracing and sharp. It distilled in careful prose the absurdity and powerlessness of being a product in the internet age. “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own,” Ratajkowski writes. To cope, she starts to think of herself in split form: the “real” Emily and the one whose picture is appropriated by men in ways she can’t control. If Marx were alive, he might refer her to his theory of alienation: Under capitalism, Ratajkowski has essentially lost control of the work she produces, and her sense of self is fragmenting as a result. (Even Marx might be stunned by the audacity of Prince charging $80,000 for a picture he ripped right off Instagram and modified merely with the addition of his own sleazy comment.)
That Ratajkowski’s response to so much injustice might be to seize back control (and the means of production) for herself is understandable. But burning down a house that you are still very much inside is hard, which is maybe why so much of the rest of My Body feels impotent. It’s less a rallying cry for structural change than a dispassionate series of observations by someone who still sees themselves primarily as a commodity. Its tone is measured and numb. In the essay “Bc Hello Halle Berry,” the author develops headaches during a stay in a luxury Maldives resort paid for by a Qatari billionaire (in return for some Instagram uploads). As she posts a photo of herself wearing a bikini from her own line, only slightly mollified by the hundreds of thousands of likes it receives in under an hour, she ponders the ethics of using her body for profit. “Money means power,” she thinks. “And by capitalizing on my sexuality I have money. The whole damn system is corrupt and anyone who participates is just as guilty as I am … I have to make a living somehow.”
It seems uncharitable to point out that she’s drawing a false dichotomy—that there are options in between trading pictures of herself for free vacations and starving on the street. But that’s not the point. The issue that kept sticking with me as I read was that Ratajkowski so clearly wants to have it all: ultimate control over the sale of her image; power; money, yes; but also kudos for being more than an object, for being able to lucidly communicate how much she’s suffered because of a toxic system—and is still suffering because of her ongoing participation. It is, as they say, a lot to ask.
To her credit, Ratajkowski seems to occasionally sense the innate hypocrisy of her desires, her impulse “to have my Instagram hustle, selling bikinis and whatever else, while also being respected for my ideas and politics and well, everything besides my body.” In the essay “Beauty Lessons,” a recollection of how her priorities and self-esteem were shaped in part by a mother with her own internalized misogyny, Ratajkowski recalls learning as a child that the suffering attractive women endure at the hands of the world “was actually a good thing, a consequence of being beautiful and having access to male attention.” The world, she realizes, “isn’t kind to women who are overlooked by men.” When she starts modeling, she can’t remember ever actually enjoying the process of it, but she does enjoy the money she’s able to make, and the things she can buy. But the industry and its nebulous edges also present new compromises. In the essay “Transactions,” Ratajkowski writes about being paid $25,000 in 2014 to go to the Super Bowl with a Malaysian financier, a deal brokered by her manager at the time. She’s troubled by the “unspoken task I’d been hired to perform: to entertain the men who had paid me to be there.” To be a beautiful woman, she seems to conclude, is to exist in the hustle between obligation and power, this particular “spectrum of compromise.”
Becoming an author allows her to reject this setup. Writing a book that’s effectively a literary portrait of your own physical self, though, is to risk reinforcing all the preconceptions anyone has ever had about you. Ratajkowski is a graceful and thoughtful writer, and as I read her book I longed for her to turn her gaze outward, to write an essay about marriage plots or coffee or landscape architecture or Scooby-Doo. Or, beyond that, I wanted her to risk fully indicting modeling as a paradigm—to not merely note that her career took off after she lost 10 pounds from stomach flu and kept the weight off, but to probe what looking at images of so many skinny bodies all day does to girls as delicate and unformed as her own teenage self. To wonder not just how the inherently flawed bargain of modeling has damaged her, but how it damages everyone. To risk letting herself feel or uncover something that might be a catalyst for not just observation, but transformation.
What would that kind of growth cost her? At the very least, perfection. In her final essay, “Releases,” Ratajkowski writes about how she has long resisted anger because she sensed that anger makes women physically repulsive. “I try to make anything resembling anger seem spunky and charming and sexy,” she writes. “I fold it into something small, tuck it away. I invoke my most reliable trick—I project sadness—something vulnerable and tender, something welcoming, a thing to be tended to.” Thinking about women’s emotions being modulated by the primacy of staying sexy isn’t exactly new, but it’s dismaying all the same. If Ratajkowski still can’t get angry, unpleasantly angry, even in writing, for fear of sacrificing her power, what about the rest of us?