As a young model, Emily Ratajkowski knew her most bankable feature was also a limitation. Her large breasts and small frame were “valuable and rare”, but she would never be high fashion. She was a nameless “ ‘commercial swim’ girl” until, aged 21, she appeared in the 2013 music video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”.
Ratajkowski attracted Thicke’s notice because of a shoot she’d done for highbrow lad mag treats! She almost wasn’t cast, as the magazine’s founder later crowed in an interview laying claim to her success, because she was a low-rent catalogue model who came in wearing a loose black dress “like a bin liner”. He nearly sent Ratajkowski away until she surprised him with her knowledge of Antonioni films and he asked her to undress. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. “Where were you hiding all of that?”
Ratajkowski wasn’t angry when she read his words, she writes in her new collection of personal essays, My Body. She agreed with him. “I didn’t know how to dress. I’m short. I’m nothing special unless I’m naked.” But she did feel shame – not at having “hustled” the man “to get on in life”, but because she felt she had “betrayed and fetishized” herself in using art she loved to win his attention.
This is indicative of My Body. It’s not so much what she agreed to sell as all the things she didn’t. Ratajkowski feels relatively little compunction in having used her body “to get on in life”. This is what we are all doing, in the end. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been painful, destabilising and bizarre for her sense of self.
Few of the essays are as strong as “Buying Myself Back”, which appeared in New York magazine last year. “Bc Hello Halle Berry” posits vague questions about privilege and complicity and leaves them there. The book is best when Ratajkowski examines herself in relation to specific people and events. For example, she identifies an inner conflict between her happiness at her husband’s hard-won success in the film industry and the fact that it implicates him professionally and socially with the misogynistic men she hates.
In “The Woozies” she describes growing up an only child in a small, whimsical cottage. Her artist father built it himself, without floor-to-ceiling walls. Ratajkowski’s mother was an English professor and a renowned local beauty. As a girl Ratajkowski is aware that her mother prizes and envies her looks – like the narrator, I thought, of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. Alongside Ratajkowski’s early experiences with boys, she learns the lesson young: to be beautiful is to be desired. But it can also mean being something to which others feel entitled, crowding out everything else you might value about yourself.
Quercus, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "My Body, Emily Ratajkowski".
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