As a self-proclaimed bookworm, I read and listen to countless books each year. Memoirs are my favourite, because they often include a “gotcha” moment. Even when you think you know the author, you find out you really don’t.
This year, I listened to the audible version of Emily Ratajkowski (also known as Emrata)’s book My Body.
In her memoir, Emrata examines the patriarchal structures that have brought her to a place in her life where she feels that her body is a commodity. She slowly peels back layers of power, sexuality and control that have been moulding her since she was a child, and examines how they have led her to this moment in her life.
She shares how she is always a model and a muse before she is seen as anything else. She is also the subject of pictures she does not own.
She went into the modelling industry wanting to feel control, and instead, she realised she never had any control or power to begin with. The power instead was found in her youthful skin and the size of her breasts, but no one actually cared to look beyond that.
This collection of essays dares the reader to look beyond the sexualized image that we have been accustomed to consuming, to see the real woman reckoning with her loss of control and power before she even had the words to understand what this all meant.
As a South Asian woman, I too have struggled with my body. When I think of my body, I often think of control.
There is no part of me that has ever felt within my control. In this experience I found common ground with Emrata.
What I wear, how I speak, what spaces I feel comfortable in, have been dictated both by my cultural background as well as the influences of Western society.
We are both women who want control over bodies that society has attached strings to from the moment of conception, because we are women and this often involves receiving partial treatment.
Emrata discusses how being a woman has felt synonymous with having no power and the pain of fighting for a voice that felt lost but maybe was never there in the first place.
Power and sexuality are messy issues, made messier by the fact that women of colour from different classes and with different emotional and physical struggles manage this complexity in varying ways. Emrata’s stories of exploitation are hard to take in. and as a South Asian woman reading the essays, I could not help but think of the many voices missing in this discussion.
We almost never hear South Asian women talking about their relationship to sexuality, power and control, despite these issues playing a crucial role in our everyday lives.
It’s often not a topic we feel comfortable deconstructing.
Emrata’s essays examine how the discussion of her body has always been a one-sided conversation—expectations are outlined but never explained, the lines are drawn by invisible male hands and she has been expected to adapt.
This parallels the experience of many South Asian women. Other people control our bodies and because we are women, we don’t always have the voice, the means, the experience or the support to fight this control and take back power and autonomy.
When our breasts form, we are told to wear looser clothes, when our hips become shapely, we are told our jeans are too tight. If we gain a little weight, we are told to take better care of ourselves.
Most women have spent their lives being small, digestible, watered-down versions of themselves. It starts with our bodies but bleeds into other areas of our lives as well.
There are moments in Emrata’s book that echo my own experiences and those of women in my life. When Emrata discusses her first sexual assault she wonders about where and when and how she lost her voice.
As a woman who also reckons with her own concept and need for control, I struggled to listen to the particular chapter that recounts that story, entitled “Buying myself back.”.
In this chapter, Emily details being young and working with a photographer, Jonathan Leder, who took pictures of her for a magazine. The photography session was in his home.
She recounts that she stayed the whole day and slept in his house. She said how he gave her wine and made vulgar comments about her body and the bodies of other women. She was a young girl in an industry with no rules it seemed, and so she stayed.
Later, when he assaulted her, she said nothing. Years later when he published nude photos from that shoot in a book and profited heavily, she finally fought back.
Critics will argue that she didn’t fight hard enough. That she had the means. That she should have done more. It takes a lot to keep fighting. It takes more than you can see.
At the end of the chapter Emily sobs and says "eventually Jonathan will run out of the unseen crusty polaroid’s but I will remain the real Emily, the Emily who owns the higher art Emily, the Emily who wrote this essay too, she will continue to carve out control where she can find it ".
She wonders about why it was more comfortable to stay silent than to speak up. There is guilt in not speaking up and anger in not knowing where, when and how our voices disappeared.
When she discusses power and sexuality there is also a discussion about Kim Kardashian that I found myself examining again and again. Had her sex tape not been leaked, would she still yield that same power? It ties me up in knots as I think of it.
As many of us know, Kim now works on the Justice Project where she advocates for criminal justice reform. Emrata asks the reader to consider if Kim would have this same platform if her sex tape was never released.
What does this say about our take on women and sex? What does it say about a society that so willingly eats up the sexual misfortunes of a young girl?
When we cut the strings of obedience by speaking out at oppressive patriarchal structures it is a radical and life affirming moment for us, but to the rest of society we are either invisible or too loud— not fitting into the box of what a woman should be. No one pats the back of a woman who took back her power.
Critics will say that the voice of a privileged, able bodied white woman should not be put on a pedestal. They will say that the power struggles at Hollywood parties don’t translate into the real world. But the purpose of this discussion is not to draw attention to Emrata and put her on a pedestal, but to talk about the many important and relatable stories she shares.
While she may be a privileged white woman, her story has echoes in the lives of all women. Her experience is also a reminder that gender inequality and the female experience around control and power is a cultural issue deeply embedded in the patriarchal make up of society.
Emrata is white and able-bodied and her stories of vulnerability and abuse were horrible and difficult to hear. Can you imagine how a disabled woman of colour would feel in this industry?
I know there are many issues with this book. Emily didn’t talk about how she is perpetuating an unattainable body image for young girls everywhere. She did not talk about how she is another cog in the machine that is driving consumerism and the industry that destroyed her sense of self is the same industry that has now given her this platform.
She has only written about what she has reckoned with; her body. She has now put it on sale on her own terms, in her own words and with a vulnerability that has nothing to do with her bare skin.
Her reckoning and her words are, at least to me, more powerful than any image could possibly be.
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