Image:
Instagram.com/Emrata

Emily Ratajkowski tackles image, power and ownership in thought-provoking essay

By:
Jeevan Sangha (@jeevanksangha)

CW/TW: Sexual assault

 The first time I read Emily Ratajkowski’s essay “Buying Myself Back” for New York Magazine, I felt numb. 

The second time, I wept.

Last week, 29-year-old model and actress Emily Ratajkowski’s essay about image, consent and power was published in New York Magazine. Ratajkowski details the ambivalence towards her own image due to the loss of ownership of her image at the hands of the art world, the internet and the men in her life.

“I’ve become more familiar with seeing myself through the paparazzi’s lenses than I am with looking at myself in the mirror. And I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own.”

Ratajkowski discusses a legal dispute in which she was sued for posting a picture of herself on her own Instagram page that was taken of her by a paparazzo. 

For Ratajkowski -- a model whose image had become so widely distributed -- her Instagram was a place where she had agency.

It was the one place where she was able to choose which picture goes up and how she is presented to the general public.

In addition to the paparazzo, however, this agency was stripped from her by art gallerist Richard Prince, who was selling a screenshot of Ratajkowski’s own Instagram picture -- one that was shot for a Sports Illustrated cover, a shoot she was paid a few thousand dollars to do -- for $80,000. 

She split the cost to buy it with her boyfriend and after they parted ways, he found a way to hold on to it.

This is only a small piece of the many stories that Ratajkowski grasps control of in her essay. 

Ratajkowski also endured her private nude photos being exposed to the world without her consent, and shares a haunting account of sexual assault while working with photographer Jonathan Leder.

Her story of working with Leder reads like a slow nightmare, as if we can see a young and impressionable Ratajkowski before us, eager to impress the artsy, older photographer who yet again controls her image.

Her story feels like an unsettling inevitability of the modelling world that simply should not exist. 

It’s a narrative that is all too familiar, a young woman who is forced to navigate the toxic work environment created as a result of the stark power dynamic presented by Leder.

As I read this section of her essay, I was infuriated that no one was there to protect her. I wish the makeup artist stepped in and shielded her from all she was about to experience that night. 

This reality is what makes the story so afflictive -- confronting us with the harsh reality that all too often there is no one to step in. 

The onus however, does not fall on the makeup artist and certainly not Ratajkowski herself, it falls on Jonathan Leder and the industry that enabled a situation like this to arise in the first place.

“My body felt like a superpower. I was confident naked — unafraid and proud. Still, though, the second I dropped my clothes, a part of me disassociated.”

Leder took sexually explicit polaroids of an only 20-year-old Ratajkowski, with a caption that commented on her body and infantilized her, where he called her, “iCarly”-- the Nickelodeon show that she was in as a teenager.

Years later, without her consent, Leder published a book with a compilation of polaroids from that night of a young Ratajkowski, ones that Ratajkowski asserts he forged their signatures to claim the rights on.

A moment of vulnerability was turned into a spectacle for Jonathan Leder’s profit, a man in a position of power in the art world.

The essay is a stark contrast, as a moment of control, consent and power for Ratajkowski -- as if she’s taking back the images and narratives that have been stolen from her throughout her career.

Ratajkowski’s story reminds me greatly of an interview between Megan Fox and Diablo Cody where they discuss the experience of creating the now cult-classic horror film, Jennifer’s Body. 

Here, Fox speaks at length about how she was sexualized in promotions of the movie and how her image as a sex symbol became so big that she had such little control over it.

I think of that interview as akin to that of Ratajkowski’s essay, which represents a space for control and a form of healing -- a way to buy yourself back.

Both women rose to fame because of their talents and their beauty, and they were able to profit off of society’s intense desire to perceive women as sexual objects. 

These are two women I can think of who have embraced their sexuality openly and who do not shy away from sexuality as a superpower.

Despite this power, their images and their bodies were treated like public property,  prompting us to consider what exactly is left of oneself when one’s livelihood is built off of perception?

As women, our sexuality is used against us in so many spaces. It is used as a judge of character, virtue, honor. It has historically been controlled, and in many ways is still being used to control.

However in Emily Ratajkowski’s case, her sexuality is a tool of liberation, despite all that was taken from her.

In her 2016 essay for  Lenny, she remarks, “the implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men's desires.”

But, she goes on “.. if being sexualized by society's gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.”

This is where Ratajkowski’s liberatory form of sexuality stems from: the desire to create space where women can be proud of their sexuality outside of the desire for men to view them.

Honouring our sexuality is no simple feat, especially for women in the South Asian community.

While this essay has already been widely praised since it’s publishing, I can’t help but wonder what the reaction may have been if it was written by a Black, Indigenous or Person of Colour from the same industry.

Still, I see this essay as an important step not only for modelling industry but also for women to have role models who normalize owning their sexuality as a way to step into their power.  

Ratajkowski herself said it best, “Honouring our sexuality as women is a messy, messy business, but if we don't try, what do we become?”

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