book review

‘What Is the Power of My Body?’

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Publisher

Over the first 60 seconds of visual artist and writer Hannah Black’s 2014 short video My Bodies, a chorus of Black female vocalists — including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ciara, and Mariah Carey — croon the phrase “My body,” as a montage of images of smiling white men in suits dominate the visual frame. We don’t see the women themselves; their bodies never appear to take custody of their voices. Black would later tell Artforum that the project was “partly a critique of the white-feminist conception of the body, the heritage from the ’60s and ’70s which involves the affirmation of white nudity, displaying the agency of white naked bodies.”

In Emily Ratajkowski’s debut memoir, My Body, she writes about Black’s video in an essay about a vacation she took to the Maldives, one sponsored by a hotel group owned by a “super-rich guy from Qatar.” Struck by a wave of self-consciousness, she frets about her position as a pawn in a system of capitalist patriarchs. The actress and model turns to Black’s work for solace and self-reflection. “‘My body!’ I sang out loud in my best Rihanna voice, thinking of Hannah Black’s piece as I stepped in the water, adjusting my wet bikini to wedge it further up my ass,” she recalls. Her body had paid her way to the island with the promise that her photographed presence might generate a man’s profit — she knows she’s “an advertisement, not a vacationing guest.” So as she stages her sponsored photos for social media, she seizes the opportunity to promote her own business, cleverly opting to don her own bikini line for the post. After all, she writes, if any one was going to make money off her body, shouldn’t that person be her?

Throughout the 12 essays in My Body, Ratajkowski hovers over questions of beauty, abuse, and power, trying to reclaim her image through narratives of self-discovery and feminist evolution. “I’ve become more familiar with seeing myself through the paparazzi’s lenses than I am with looking at myself in the mirror,” she writes in “Buying Myself Back,” an essay from the collection that was first published in New York last year. The essay, which recounts Ratajkowski’s experience of being sued for posting a paparazzi photograph on her Instagram, as well her efforts to recoup her image from an ex-boyfriend and a predatory photographer, wrestles with the elusiveness of personal empowerment and the (im)possibility of self-possession in a digital age. Its publication inspired a flurry of discourse about the plight of women in toxic professional and personal relationships with men and the need for a redistribution of power.

Amid the praise, there were, of course, inane underestimations of Ratajkowski’s intelligence. Yet as the discourse marched on it prompted more serious critiques — such as the one articulated by writer Haley Nahman, who questioned whether our “broadly deeming her piece politically expedient revealed something about how we currently define activism.” Now, with the publication of My Body, it’s clear that Ratajkowski is working with a more self-interested line of questioning — one that proves not to be in conversation with the questions Black’s work invokes regarding race, gender, class, and the corporeal. Turning inward rather than outward, the memoir sets aside the question of bodies and situates an individual body at its center.

My Body opens with a quote from art critic John Berger’s series Ways of Seeing, in which he questions the figure of the nude woman in western art: “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.” Before Ratajkowski was in that “Blurred Lines” music video, two Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, and Gone Girl, she was a UCLA undergraduate student with a burgeoning passion for art history. Finding her art education to be “arbitrary” and wanting more, she dropped out and turned to a more embodied and economically promising art practice: modeling. With My Body, Ratajkowski places herself within the Bergerian dilemma, giving voice to her lived experience as a “naked woman” of the 21st century. “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own,” she writes.

Ratajkowski’s sentences are clear cut, reflective, and declarative; external and internal dialogues sit next to one another without apology. In subject matter, Ratajkowski is archival, looking back in the hopes of moving forward. Where the come-up story of an always-beautiful woman could risk alienating readers or further the flattening of Ratajkowski’s public persona, her stories about her childhood, early years as a full-time model, and musings on motherhood and marriage rescue the project from that fate. Her writing shines brightest in anecdotes where she allows the narrative to breathe without elaborate explanation. In “Beauty Lessons” — the chapter that perhaps best represents her skill for storytelling and capacity to play with form — she recounts 23 moments in which she was instructed in the social capital of beauty. “Beauty was a way for me to be special. When I was special, I felt my parents’ love for me the most,” she writes. Much of the essay centers on her mother’s teachings about how brutal and beneficial assessments of beauty can be, and Ratajkowski proved to be a quick study: When a random woman mistreats her mother, the author, at age 3, already knows how to remedy her mother’s shift in mood: “They’re just jealous, Mama!” she declared. Now she wonders: “How had I already been introduced to the concept of competition between women before I had even learned to read?”

She may want to situate her experiences within a broader western feminist discourse, but she is in conversation, first and foremost, with herself. Each of the short recollections in “Beauty Lessons” reveal her interest in tending to the memories that made her on her journey toward reeducation. Ratajkowski frames the development of her political consciousness as a process born of self-consciousness, a cancerous and consuming view of the self that the writer argues was pushed on her by patriarchal capitalist society. She’s on a quest to both see herself differently and be seen differently.

This is evolution as a series of self-edits, and the writer she examines most closely is herself. In 2017, she published an essay in Lenny Letter called “Baby Woman” about coming of age and cultivating sexiness as a means of self-empowerment. That piece ends, “I struggle to find the space between as an artist, as a model, and simply as a woman — a space where I can have ownership and enjoyment of my gender. Honoring our sexuality as women is a messy, messy business, but if we don’t try, what do we become?” Revisiting those words years later in the essay “Blurred Lines,” Ratajkowski now admits that her argument was shortsighted. “Today I read that essay and look at those interviews from that period of my life and feel a tenderness toward my younger self. My defensiveness and defiance are palpable to me now. What I wrote and preached then reflected what I believed at the time but it missed a much more complicated picture,” she writes. “Whatever influence and status I’ve gained were only granted to me because I appealed to men. My position brought me in close proximity to wealth and power and brought me some autonomy, but it hasn’t resulted in true empowerment.”

As she grapples with the realization that “women who gained power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place,” Ratajakowski resolves to forgive herself for all such “debts” to men whose valuations of her helped build her career. In “Men Like You,” a chapter addressed to a photographer named Steve — whose nude photographs of a 19-year-old Ratajakowski put the then-teenager on the radar of both Robin Thicke and Adam Levine — she recounts those who attempted to make a “muse” out of her and the aftertaste those exchanges left behind. Of these moments, Ratajkowski asks herself, “What is the power of my body? Is it ever my power?” She turns her resentment into a righteous declaration: “I will proclaim all my mistakes and contradictions, for all the women who cannot do so, for all the women we’ve called muses without learning their names, whose silence we mistook for consent. I stood on their shoulders.” Where Steve is concerned, Ratajkowski asserts, “I do not believe I owe you anything.”

But what of the women whose shoulders she stands on? The flip side to refusing indebtedness is that the collection ends up suffering from an aversion to citation. As she retraces her feminist evolution through pop culture and personal experience, Ratajkowski avoids thorough consideration of the writers and thinkers who facilitated her journey. Even her reference to Black’s work, which seemed to inspire the book’s title, is given only a few lines. Ratajkowski’s body has served as a site for debate, desire, and derision; as she reconstructs and reclaims herself, it’s unclear how she became intellectually equipped to even attempt such an endeavor. My Body mostly omits the wider dialogues on desirability politics, media, labor, and power that make the book feel timely, carving out a vision of becoming that prizes the singularity of the author. The result is a story of beauty and alienation, the narrative of an only child. It is the tale of a woman who serves as a lucrative source of inspiration for others and yet finds her own quest for inspiration to be far less fruitful.

Though at times its small scope causes the pulse of the collection to grow faint, My Body finds its heartbeat again when Ratajkowski describes feelings of exhaustion. These moments require acknowledgment of her body’s existence beyond its perceived beauty. In one essay, she remembers how, during an intense bike ride with her husband and best friend, a pregnant Ratajkowski lagged behind her companions, tired and consumed by thoughts of her own disheveled appearance. But then: “It doesn’t matter what I look like, I realized.” Pushing past her own appraisal of her body, Ratajakowski rejoices, reveling in the pumping of her blood and the burn in her thighs. “What a joy life can be in this body,” she writes. My Body relies on these bursts of energy and intrigue. With each essay, Ratajowski flexes her capacity for self-narration, a musculature of the mind built by years of watching herself “being looked at.” She understands that any memoir is a vanity project, settling into this tradition without shame. Ratajkowski sets her own timer and poses for her literary portrait.

‘What Is the Power of My Body?’