Ratajkowski owns her experience in ‘My Body’

Image courtesy of Macmillan Publishers.

“My Body” is an exhalation. In her debut collection of essays, Emily Ratajkowski finally breathes out: repressed memories, indignation, youthful ambition. The result is profoundly personal, reading more as something she needed to write for herself than for anyone else.

Ratajkowski is a multi-hyphenate, with model, actor and business owner among her titles. She added New York Times bestselling author to the list with the 2021 release of “My Body.” The essay collection explores Ratajkowski’s relationships with her mother, her industry, her partners, her adolescence, her pain and herself. She dances between assertive commentary on damaging power dynamics and observant, uncritical acknowledgement of her past.

I devoured the essay collection while home last winter break. Now that I’m about to go home again—and the book is waiting for me on my desk shelf—I’ve been thinking a lot about Ratajkowski’s writing. I have loved a lot of books in my life, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so seen by a piece of writing as I did with “My Body.” My life is nothing like Ratajkowski’s, and yet I found a piece of myself in her image, her words and her wonderings.

Thus, while readers may not have the same relationships as Ratajkowski, they have their own versions. There is a universality to Ratajkowski’s experiences and commentary on her body image, despite her inherently non-universal position as a public figure. It is easy to catch glimpses of yourself in reflective slivers of narrative. The rawness of her direct writing style invites readers into her world, only for them to realize that it resembles the world they themselves are living in.

While each essay could stand alone, reading the collection cover to cover weaves elements of Ratajkowski’s patchwork narrative together. Ultimately, all essays lead back to the title of the collection: “My Body.” Ratajkowski is unafraid to profess love for her body. She is equally unafraid to protest her body and the challenges of living in it. Her writing validates both categories of experience, allowing them to coexist in conversation with one another. Both are equally worthy of her recognition.

In many ways, “My Body” feels like Ratajkowski’s attempt to gain control over her own body. This is especially relevant in the essay “Buying Myself Back,” which was published in New York Magazine prior to the book’s release. The essay, which became the magazine’s most-read piece of 2020, searches for answers to the weighted questions: Who owns an image? Who gets to control what happens to that image? And what does this say about who holds power? 

Unsolicited paparazzi photos, expensive artwork created using screenshots of Instagram posts or explicit Polaroids used for more than their agreed upon purpose all reveal that subjects often have very little say over the future of their own likenesses. Ratajkowski grapples with the emotionality—frustration, sadness, distance, desire—that this lack of control breeds, writing: “I will remain as the real Emily; the Emily who owns the high-art Emily, and the one who wrote this essay, too. She will continue to carve out control where she can find it.” This book is the only version of her body that Ratajkowski fully owns, and she takes full advantage of this. Unlike a two-dimensional image, which is inherently limited in its ability to depict multifacetedness, these essays have depth. 

Here, she finally becomes both muse and artist. She paints herself in different lights and does not hold back in favor of presenting a pretty image. “My position brought me in close proximity to wealth and power and brought me some autonomy, but it hasn’t resulted in true empowerment,” Ratajkowski describes. “That’s something I’ve gained only now, having written these essays and given voice to what I’ve thought and experienced.”

“My Body” is fiercely self-aware. Ratajkowski does not ignore the opportunities her career, and her body, have granted her. “Would anyone care to read what I write had I not impressed men like you?” Ratajkowski poses in an essay responding to a photographer’s presumptuous email request. To answer her question: perhaps not. The initial allure of reading “My Body” is largely due to Ratajkowski herself. There is an undeniable intrigue in reading the thoughts behind such a recognizable face, the result of her successful career. After all, as Ratajkowski acknowledges, her career skyrocketed because influential men deemed her worthy (i.e. provocative, sexy, interesting, valuable) enough to have one in the first place.

Or perhaps people should care to read what Ratajkowski writes regardless of the men she has impressed. They should read her words because she skillfully strings them together. Because “My Body” is timely and sharp and relevant. Because you don’t have to be a model to have a contradictory relationship with your body and 21st-century beauty standards. Because even though these 12 essays are Ratajkowski’s relieved exhalation, we all know what it feels like to finally let go and breathe.

 

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