In September 2020, Emily Ratajkowski published a personal essay in The Cut titled “Buying Myself Back.” The essay was beautifully written, and detailed a darker lens on her rise to fame. She candidly laid out the twisted ways in which she does not own her own image — from being sued for posting a paparazzi shot of herself on her Instagram story, to having to buy back a piece of art that is a giant screenshot of her own Instagram post, to the sexual assault she faced early on in her career while visiting a photographer who later sold her images once she catapulted to fame. “I’ve become more familiar with seeing myself through the paparazzi’s lenses than I am with looking at myself in the mirror.” Ratajkowski wrote. With the lesson being “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own.”
I wasn’t expecting to be moved by the essay, and yet I was. Here was a woman who was considered to be objectively beautiful, something she acknowledges as her source of power. And even then, she had no control over her commodification. A month after the essay was published, it was announced she would write a memoir, My Body, which, according to her publisher, would detail “What it means to be a woman and a commodity, how men treat women and why women permit it.”
Ratajkowski and I are both 30 years old. I grew up believing that the same beauty standards she so seamlessly fit into were the apex of what it meant to be attractive. But while Ratajkowski moved through the world leading with her beauty, I spent most of my life believing nobody but my family could possibly consider me beautiful. I saw myself as invisible — a late bloomer in every sense. Once, while working retail as a teen, an old man told me, “You are very beautiful, but the type of beautiful nobody will understand until you’re 25.” I was scrawny and tall, but not graceful. And being a young, Black woman who has been covered in a hijab since my early teens and who attended a high school where girls like Ratajkowski were everywhere, I felt I understood my place in the world. I didn’t hate how I looked. I just accepted it, leaning into becoming a funny girl with a strong point of view.
As I grew into adulthood, my being an outlier to whatever Western beauty standard was gaining popularity felt more like a form of protection. I am not a white girl in a magazine, and I never will look like one nor do I ever want to. I love the way I look, regardless of who thinks I am beautiful. The need to worry about being universally beautiful did not seem to matter to me in the same way as it did with my white friends. But with that knowledge comes with the acceptance that my appearance and identity as a black and Muslim woman means I will always be underestimated, spoken over, or fully overlooked — not to mention the target of violent hate crimes. There is a whole other set of standards beyond desirability that shape my reality as a woman. I inhabit a universe that’s rarely on the minds of most people.
Ratajkowski’s experience runs counter to this. Growing up in San Diego, Ratajkowski describes her first day of high school like an episode of Degrassi. “On the first day of my freshman year, I put on a thin red tank dress over a push-up bra,” she writes in My Body. Once her classmates found out she was a model, her status at school was cemented. “It wasn’t just the way I looked that made the boys notice me, it was also my perceived status in the outside world as an attractive girl,” she writes.
Ratajkowski explores this time in her life with an understanding of how she innately knew beauty meant power — with the downfall of Britney Spears now showing her how unforgiving the world can be towards young women. “By 13, I’d learned through the hierarchy of middle school that girls who were considered hot got the most attention,” she writes. “Britney was like that — she commanded a type of power that, through modeling, suddenly seemed attainable. I want to be one of them, I thought.”
I understood the same hierarchy and “power” Ratajkowski writes about. The difference is that for Ratajkowski it was attainable and for me the idea was laughable. The tropes we were fed as young women about power and beauty were taken as proof for how the world worked. Ratajkowski acknowledges how much pain this idea has caused her, not because she deserved punishment for the only way she knew how to move through the world, but because the power beauty affords young women has destructive consequences.
So I devoured My Body, a book describing an adolescence so contrary to my own. I am still fascinated by the traditionally pretty girls I went to high school with — every so often I pore over their social media accounts to see if they stayed as beautiful as I believed they were then. And Ratajkowski’s words seemed like a promise of understanding not only what it means to have been beautiful, but the experience of commodifying that into money and fame. “Money meant freedom and control, and all I had to do to fund my independence was learn to become someone else a few times a week,” she writes.
Ratajkowski acknowledges that she has benefited immensely from this toxic system. “I have been undeniably rewarded by capitalizing on my sexuality,” she writes. “In other, less overt ways, I’ve felt objectified and limited by my position in the world as a so-called sex symbol.” She understands that her success and power comes from the male gaze, and that simply being aware of this has not directly translated into so-called empowerment. Her book serves as her way to grapple with how she sees herself versus how she has been commodified.
Writing about the worst types of pain, which she does repeatedly, is no easy task. In an essay titled “My Son, Sun,” Ratajkowski writes about her first boyfriend, who raped her. She never felt safe with him, and the experience was a lingering shadow, something she wanted to escape but could not overcome: “This was high school, this was being an adult: scary and out of control just the way everyone said it would be. I wanted to rise to the occasion, prove I was ready to handle it.”
An essay titled “Bc Hello Halle Berry” is a dark look at her daily life. On a sponsored vacation in the Maldives with her husband Sebastian Bear-McClard, she compulsively checks her Instagram likes and comments after posting a photo of herself in one of her bikinis from her brand Inamorata. While most celebrities rarely speak of their obsession with how they are perceived, Ratajkowski’s honesty almost feels refreshing. “I’m still addicted to the sensation I get watching a post go crazy with comments and likes on Instagram,” she writes. “Casually snapping a picture and uploading it for 27 million people provides a pretty serious high.” For just five days of posting photos at this resort, she admits she makes, “multiple of the average American annual salary.”
I saw myself in this essay, although not necessarily in a good way. Ruminating on what makes the world take women seriously, she notices a group of women at the beach. “Four women, all dressed in long-sleeved black tops and pants and skirts and headscarves, talked among themselves, gazing down at their feet in the sand,” is her description of them as they trail behind their shirtless husbands in shorts, smoking cigars.
She wonders about them with a fleeting curiosity — it is clear to me she may have never really spoken to or known a woman who wears a hijab. Is this how she sees women like me? That we cover ourselves to be taken seriously? Ratajkowski doesn’t go deeper on this topic — she’s soon back to refreshing her Instagram — but it hints at her worldview. There’s a larger spiritual element to covering that exists far beyond the perception of men that she simply cannot understand because her experiences are centered around desirability.
At times I asked myself if it was fair of me to expect more from Ratajkowski, who isn’t claiming to have any answers or solutions for how Western society treats and objectifies women. Instead, her analysis of the world she inhabits begins and ends with her experience, not looking through a wider lens to see where she fits into the equation beyond brief observations. Ratajkowski acknowledging that she benefits from “the system” doesn’t absolve her from how her success may contribute to perpetuating it, the same way a white person simply acknowledging their privilege does nothing for me. I don’t think Ratajkowski sees herself exclusively through the eyes of how men treat her or have treated her (or how they continue to treat her). But so much of her lived experience and success has been in the hands of men that I wonder if she will find the space in her life to think beyond that.
In the end, Ratajkowski understands the personal consequences of being a public figure, but that doesn’t mean she cannot point out how she has continuously failed within the system she takes part in. Even with its flaws, My Body is a wonderful collection of essays, and not just because a model wrote a book.