Emily Ratajkowski, for those unacquainted, is an actress and model – with the kind of face and body that has defined her whole life. She rose to mainstream fame in Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video, and has since starred in Gone Girl and graced the catwalk at countless fashion shows. Her body has made her a millionaire, but it has undoubtedly come at personal cost.
These essays, better described as a loose memoir, are her attempt to reclaim the narrative, use her voice, and work through the sticky complexities that come from being in her line of work. Her perspective is fascinating, vulnerable, conflicted. She is articulate about the challenges of selling her image while wanting to retain ownership over it. In ‘Buying Myself Back’, an essay previously published in The New Yorker, she writes about a sleazy photographer early on in her career who took nude photos of her, ostensibly for a magazine shoot, only to publish the rest of the roll of film years later when Emily had risen to fame – in glossy coffee-table style books for which she didn’t earn a penny. The distinction may not be visible to all, but it’s an important one. So what, people might think – she was a willing participant in the shoot, why does it matter what the photos are used for? But it does matter, in a world where the power is so frequently taken from women and wielded by powerful men.
She is unflinchingly honest about her experiences as a victim of sexual violence, writing in a clear-eyed way about the self-doubt and self-loathing that creeps in in the aftermath. In fact, the whole book is unflinchingly honest about all sorts of things: how she felt her mother place her value on her beauty from a young age, how modelling became a vehicle for influence and not just money (against her better judgement), the serotonin boost at seeing hundreds of thousands of likes tick up on a single Instagram post.
‘Through the years, I’d developed a necessary and protective immunity to the frequent disappointments and rejections that came with modelling… I didn’t care if my image ended up on a billboard or in a magazine as long as the check cleared. I wasn’t interested in fame or notoriety, just the cash, or at least that’s what I told myself. In New York, I broke my own rules; I let myself imagine the power, beyond money, that other women seemed to have gained by becoming successful.’
The essential problem is that the money and power necessitates playing the game. However much it is a feminist act to commodify your body and use it to make a living and build a public persona (which I wholeheartedly support – make that money!) you are still essentially doing so within the oppressive white, patriarchal power structures of that industry.
‘The women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place.’
I won’t be the first person to point out where this book falls a little short: it’s her perspective alone, and doesn’t always scratch much beyond the surface. If you’re going in expecting a searing interrogation of western beauty ideals, the (fe)male gaze, and what can be done to make the industry fairer, you’re not going to find it. But it succeeds in being a frank first-person account of a life very few of us will ever truly understand.
I know it gets a bit silly to fractionise ratings in this way, but I went back and forth on how to rate this and so settled on 3.75 stars: not quite illuminating enough to be 4 stars, but well-accomplished as an articulate and thoughtful perspective we don’t often hear.
P.S. I picked up a signed copy of this book in Finsbury Park’s delightful Book Bar. If you’re in London, be sure to pay them a visit! Emily had recently stopped by for a signing and they have lots of events with high-profile authors.