“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “vanity”, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” – John Berger, Ways of Seeing.
Emily Ratajkowski, acclaimed model and actress, has recently released a collection of essays that grant us insight into the most private aspects of an otherwise wildly publicised life. The essays are equally shocking and enlightening in their exploration of whether your body is truly your own in an industry that makes it so accessible to everyone else. Throughout the book the relationship between men’s treatment of women and women’s rationalisation for accepting that treatment is debated. It opens conversations regarding our society’s infatuation with female beauty and sexuality, the often-perverse intentions of the media, and most importantly being confident in differentiating the often-blurred line between consent and abuse.
Firstly, it cannot be disputed that these essays are executed with immense clarity. They are vivid and captivating while also displaying when discussing the more sensitive issues raised. Ratajkowski discusses the commodification of a model’s body through a uniquely feminist lens, and it certainly feels like through the pages of this essay, Emily is attempting to claim back the body she feels was lost to an industry that abused the access she granted.
While Ratajkowski should be applauded for bringing these highly stigmatized yet valid arguments to light, some have criticized her inability to follow up on the issues she raises. She continues to participate in an industry she relentlessly bashes throughout the book, causing some readers to view her as hypocritical and at risk of compromising the validity of her argument. She is perhaps overly focused on public perception and the release of this book only solidifies this observation. A recurring thought I had while reading this book largely centred around the question of ‘what is the difference between feminism, and just perpetuating the objectification of women under the disguise of branding it as empowerment?’. Although this is a concept that Ratajkowski examines, she does so with limited depth. She criticises capitalism and patriarchy throughout the book and celebrates the fact that she has ‘cheated’ the system for her own financial gain, capitalising on her own body and men’s desire, yet still actively participates in the system she labels as oppressive. Therefore, in spite of her curating a whole essay collection condemning the system she operates in, it is unclear whether she cares enough to change it.
But perhaps this project is just a beginning. It is important to note that it’s not Ratajkowski’s job to unpack such complex questions surrounding feminism, that cannot all be answered in one book written by one woman. Perhaps it’s not her responsibility to redefine beauty, destabilise capitalism or overthrow the patriarchy, singlehandedly. But it is her responsibility to use her platform to raise awareness, and the very fact I am reviewing this book today proves she has been a catalyst in opening these topics up for debate in our society and for this she should be commended. Whether you agree or disagree with the polarising points she makes in this essay collection, one thing that should be agreed on is her self-awareness. She recognises that, with her following of over 29 million, she occupies a position of power to raise awareness, and she uses her platform to kick-start this vital conversation. Ratajkowski should be applauded for this. Another thing that she does acknowledge is her privilege as a white, cisgender, wealthy woman. In my opinion this is more of a personal memoir written in essay form and therefore it understandably foregrounds the personal experiences of its writer as a woman belonging to all these labels. However, when pondering if this is a book that portrays a perspective that can empower all women, from all walks of life, I would say potentially not.
In spite of this limited perspective lens, one issue that this book deals with is unfortunately prevalent in many women’s lives regardless of what they label themselves as. That issue is sexual assault and unlike many of the topics in this book, this is not up for debate. There is no alternative point of view when discussing assault and until our society realises this, we have an issue. Emily should be applauded for her bravery as in these essays she sheds light on undeniably traumatic experiences. With tenderness and honesty, Ratajkowski details the exploitation of her body on several occasions at the hands of those she had a right to trust. While I am critiquing some of Emily’s ideas about what it means to truly be a feminist, I am not critiquing her experiences. No one can comment on trauma they haven’t experienced and therefore these issues deserve to be heard without reprimand, without rebuttal, without objection. They should be heard with nothing but the understanding and sympathy they deserve. While these might just be stories on a page for us, for her they are very real and hold significant pain. We did not experience this, but she did, and therefore the validity of her trauma is not up for debate.
When answering the title question of this review, “can you condemn an industry you profit off?”, I would argue that if you feel like you have been done a disservice, then yes you can. People might question why Emily has returned to an industry she paints in such a negative light, but in my opinion, why shouldn’t she be able to? While it isn’t the typical 9 to 5 job you and I might be familiar with, Ratajkowski earns a livelihood of modelling, and it is a career that she deserves to pursue. It is not modelling that’s the issue and needs to be corrected, but the people in power in this industry, who exploit the autonomy their jobs grant them. It is those people that need to be reviewed, not the industry, and certainly not the victims and their decisions.