Emily Ratajkowski photo credit Credit Katherine Mendenhall 5894b

Emily Ratajkowski is famous. Like, really famous. Like, 28-million-Instagram-followers famous. The supermodel is so famous that street sightings of her dog Colombo, a husky/German shepherd mix, get shared on celebrity gossip feeds like Deuxmoi, even if she’s not the one walking him. One day, she was doing catalogue work and posing free for indie magazines just for the exposure; the next, she was the strikingly sultry girl in Robin Thicke’s viral “Blurred Lines” video that everyone was talking about, dancing goofily, red-lipped, and frequently topless. And then she was everywhere—magazine covers, supporting roles in TV and film, major ad campaigns—as her notoriety snowballed. Especially since it came with a side of outspoken politics. In a world that mostly views models as living mannequins, she’s been determined to rise above the stereotype. Now she’s a regular at the Met Gala, takes selfies with Kim Kardashian, and has strutted the catwalk for just about every major designer including, most recently, Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty Fashion Week show. 

Ratajkowski also considers herself a staunch feminist. In 2018, she was arrested while protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. She appeared in the September 2019 issue of Harper’s Bazaar flaunting a full armpit of hair (unheard of in a magazine that mostly pretends women don’t have any). Later that year, she walked the red carpet for the Uncut Gems movie premiere with “Fuck Harvey” Sharpied on her arm after news broke that the movie mogul had settled out of court with his accusers, circumventing admission of any wrongdoing. She officially endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2020 election, citing the attacks on Roe v. Wade as one of her main motivations. And yet, that endorsement was followed by a GQ cover featuring Ratajkowski sporting Bernie’s famous “Rage Against the Machine” shirt—with nothing but undies underneath. And that’s where things get tricky. Her rise to fame, and even her maintenance of it, can sometimes feel decidedly un-feminist. It’s a contradiction best inadvertently captured by a 2016 article on Vogue.com: The headline reads, “All the Times Emily Ratajkowski Fought the Patriarchy,” just above a photo of her very famous body in a very tiny bikini. 

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The 30-year-old knows she’s a polarizing figure. She also knows that her level of fame is why people listen when she talks about feminism and the issues women face in the first place. It’s something she delves into deeply and intimately in her new book of essays, My Body, which came out November 9. “I wouldn’t have been able to write any of these and be really honest with myself had I thought about what the world would think of them,” she admits, when we chat over Zoom. That’s probably because much of the book is personal and revealing, chronicling her childhood, her budding adolescent sexuality (and sexualization), and the casual degradation she sustained in her early modeling days. She also turns a thoughtful eye on herself, investigating her desire for attention, the power it has both afforded and taken from her, and how her feminism has evolved in its wake. 

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“Would anyone care to read what I write if I hadn’t impressed men like you?” she writes in the essay “Men Like You,” an excoriating admonishment of Steve Shaw, the editor of erotica magazine Treats, the cover of which featured a nude, 20-year-old Ratajkowski. In the essay, Ratajkowski recounts how the shoot’s photographer, Tony Duran, tried to send her home, seeing nothing special in her. But knowing she needed more editorial work to forge a successful career, she appealed to Shaw, engaging him in conversation until he suggested she undress. When she did, he gawked at her body, then walked her right back to the photographer. “I suppose that, from your perspective, this should be the moment I thank you for. When I was younger, I would have thought so, too,” she writes. “Besides, some part of me figured, I love being naked, who the fuck cares? I’d just started to learn that, actually, everyone seemed to really, really care.

I was beginning to understand that I could use this attention to my advantage. I wanted to test the waters: What is the power of my body?”

She soon found out. It was this cover that caught the eye of Diane Martel, the director who then cast her in the project that would catapult Ratajkowski to fame: Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video. The song was inescapable in 2013, sparking a firestorm of backlash against its rape-y, objectifying lyrics, and the video fanned the flames. In it, Ratajkowski, along with two other models, is mostly naked, dancing around Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I., while also cuddling…farm animals? In the essay “Blurred Lines,” she writes that at the time, it felt like an empowering project, dancing and owning her sexuality on a set that was made up mostly of women.

But then she recounts how a too-drunk Thicke groped her breasts on camera, a violation of her autonomy it took years for her to fully acknowledge. “Suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt the coolness and foreignness of a stranger’s hands cupping my bare breasts from behind. I instinctively moved away, looking back at Robin Thicke,” she writes. At the time, she was embarrassed, “desperate to minimize the situation…I was also ashamed—of the fun that, despite myself, I’d had dancing around naked. How powerful I felt, how in control.” But as she writes, now she can see it for what it was: “With that one gesture, Robin Thicke had reminded everyone on set that we women weren’t actually in charge.”

“[My shift in thinking] came with age and experience. What I want to capture in that essay is the two sides of the coin—there was this joy in the experience of shooting that music video, a kind of silliness and fun, but it was not power in the way that I thought it was,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got older that there was an unhappiness that I had to address in the way I saw myself—the way I internalized some of the work I had done—and the way that the world saw me, that made me have to take a harder look at what my experience was like.” 

Ratajkowski grew up in Encinitas, CA, raised by creative, progressive, political parents—her dad is an artist and high school art teacher, her mom is an English professor who taught Women’s Lit and Gender Studies classes. “[Feminism] was just a part of my life,” she says. “But I didn’t really feel like I understood.” It wasn’t until later, when puberty hit, along with all its patriarchal trappings, that feminism felt personal. “I started to understand that there were things that made boys notice me, but I also needed to cover up. That was where the root of a lot my early ideas about feminism started. I was mad that there was a dress code, that a vice principal could snap my bra strap because it was slipping out of my tank top, and that that was allowed. There was all this shame around my body. And I felt very headstrong about [subverting that]. It was also a way for me to emotionally protect myself as I started to model. It was a way to say, No, I wanna do this stuff, it’s going against this puritanical way [society’s] telling me I’m not allowed to [look]. Like, I wanna have agency over what my sexuality is and how to use it, and I like that. That feels powerful.” 

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That’s what she calls “point A” of her feminism. Now, after more than 15 years of modeling, some acting (including roles in Gone Girl and I Feel Pretty), marriage (her husband is film producer Sebastian Bear-McClard), motherhood (she gave birth to her son Sylvester in March), and a meteoric rise to fame, she realizes it’s not that simple. “In my early 20s, it had never occurred to me that the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place,” she writes in “Blurred Lines.” “Those men were the ones in control, not the women the world fawned over.” This idea gets at the crux of Ratajkowski’s collection, and seemingly, the next stage of her feminist evolution: What does it mean to feel empowered within a disempowering system? 

This evolution has played out beyond the pages of Ratajkowski’s book, into real life, and even into the courts—shifting her idea of what empowerment truly means as she fights to assert ownership over her own image. In 2016, Ratajkowski was sued by a paparazzi photographer for posting a photo he took of her to her Instagram stories. A couple years before that, she found out that she was the subject of two “paintings” in a show by artist Richard Prince—images from her Instagram feed that Prince had commented on (“Were you built in a science lab by teenage boys?” he wrote on one), blown up, and printed on huge canvases that sold for $80,000 apiece.

Even more violating was the succession of “art” books released by Jonathan Leder, a photographer who shot a magazine spread she’d posed for early on in her career. An essay she wrote for The Cut, “Buying Myself Back” (which also appears in My Body), details the sketchy encounter she’d had with Leder, during which the photographer convinced her to strip, got her drunk, and sexually assaulted her. Once she became famous, and without any consent from Ratajkowski, he took all of the shoot’s outtakes, many of them nudes, and published them. “That experience was one I was super humiliated by and felt really responsible for and had so much shame around,” she says. “I felt like, Oh, I didn’t make the right decisions in my life and that’s why these things have happened to me. Like I was stupid. It took a lot for me to offer myself a little bit of generosity and compassion.” 

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All those decisions have brought her to where she is now. A woman with a global platform and the ability to make a difference. I can’t help but ask if continuing to capitalize on her looks while catering to the male gaze feels contradictory to what she ultimately wants to accomplish. “I think it’s a really great question. It’s not unlike capitalism, which I think a lot people agree is really bad for the majority of people, but we continue to want to succeed in the framework that we live in,” she says. “I do not judge any woman for trying to hustle her way through this system, because one of the truths of my life and of the book is that people wouldn’t necessarily read my words and [care about] my experience had I not commodified my image in the way that I did. It’s up to personal choice whether you want to use your sexuality to get ahead or not. But ultimately, you’re a woman living within very specific confines and the people who have power are generally men, and that’s that. It’s like, don’t hate the player, hate the game.” 

One of the reasons she wants people to read her words is to jumpstart the cultural conversation around the topics in My Body—sexuality, consent, objectification, control, and power dynamics. “I’m really interested in nuance. I think there are a lot of complex things that are part of being a woman in today’s world,” she says. “I feel like those conversations happen in very quiet, private moments between women who trust each other, and I want those conversations to happen on a larger stage, and I want men to be a part of them, too.”

Top headshot photo by: Katherine Mendenhal

Middle: Courtesy of Emily Ratajkowski

This article originally appeared in BUST's Winter 2021/2022 print edition. Subscribe today!

 

Lisa Butterworth is BUST’s West Coast editor, soaking up the eternal sunshine in Los Angeles. She’s probably eating a taco right now. 

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