My Body, My Choice? The Dissonance Between Feminism and Capitalism in Emily Ratajkowski’s “My Body”

1.24.2023

 

"In my early twenties, it had never occurred to me that the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place. Those men were the ones in control, not the women the world fawned over."

 

For many young women, the saying “beauty is pain” is an all-too-familiar refrain. It is as much an accepted aphorism for our lives as a pithy justification for what our bodies endure and what we do to our bodies in service of the male gaze. I hear the phrase reverberating from the social media posts that swear by the transformational power of a green juice or slimming diet; out of the articles that claim an exercise fad is the key to self-care; and among the girls in my own life when we discuss what to wear and how to act. When I poke and pluck and prod at my body, trying to mold it into something that seems pretty until I can’t tell whether I am doing it for myself anymore, “beauty is pain” is the earworm that I cannot get out of my head. 

To me, the maxim also represents a poignant reminder of the value of appearances in patriarchal and capitalist societies. The transactions we engage in to make a living do not always involve physical money, but there is always a currency to be exchanged– our time, our autonomy, our images, our bodies– and a steep price to pay, both for achieving and subverting conventional body ideals.


The management and commodification of women’s bodies in exchange for money, fame, and power is the central issue around which Emily Ratajkowski’s My Body revolves. The series of personal essays recall and reflect upon her experiences as a public figure constrained by the ways her body and its presentation have been portrayed, and in some cases, sold, to appeal to men. As an American model, a representative for internationally coveted brands, and a pensive writer in her own right, Ratajkowski occupies a unique position to evaluate the intersections between body politics and capitalism.

My Body is a thoughtful, if occasionally repetitive, reflection on how the author has experienced beauty as pain since childhood and changed her views on feminism. In a compelling way, My Body reads a bit like the monologue of an inner life crisis; the author is honest about the fact that she is presenting incomplete thoughts to her readers as she continues to develop her opinions on politics and young womanhood. It is undeniably a book that made me think, and her willingness to admit that she, like many of us, is still figuring it out lends the book an engrossing sincerity. 


This genuine reflection is palpable in “Blurred Lines,” an essay in which the writer considers how her perspective on the viral music video of the same name has changed. In 2013, Ratajkowski’s performance in the video invigorated her modeling career. Critics of the “Blurred Lines” music video, in which artist Robin Thicke croons “I know you want it” while dancing alongside women in nude thongs, denounced the performance for legitimizing rape culture and rationalizing wrongful acts of male entitlement toward the female body. Yet upon the video’s release, a twenty-one-year-old Ratajkowski told interested media outlets that she believed her participation in it was empowering, even feminist. The essay explicates her initial comfort with the project: with a largely female staff of makeup artists, set operators, and even a woman director, the invitation to act in “Blurred Lines” seemed to be an auspicious, paid opportunity to further her career while dancing “ridiculously, loosely, the way I would to entertain my girlfriends.” But as she looks back on the event in her late twenties, and discloses that Robin Thicke assaulted her while on set, the author finds that whatever power she thought she had derived from capitalizing upon her body and appearance in that situation was ultimately administered by and for the benefit of men. Her dancing was not an act of defiance but a concession to the expectations of the male artists, agents, and actors around her.


This realization, that men earned the greatest profit from the objectification of her body, is a common conclusion among the essays in My Body. Sometimes, the trades My Body condemns for exploiting her image involve actual money. In the essay “Transactions,” Ratajkowski receives $25,000 to attend a Super Bowl with a billionaire (who is later revealed to be an international fugitive). There was no written contract for her appearance at the football game, but the man’s behavior towards another model in attendance made clear that he wanted the author to proffer her body for his satisfaction. Other times, the arrangement promised career opportunities. The author’s lucid remembrance of a “party wrangler,” whose job was to lure young female models seeking “free dinners” to spend time with wealthy men for free admission to Los Angeles clubs and tickets to events like Coachella, is a striking example of this. In all instances, My Body’s criticism of these transactions feels exciting to read. They are emblems of the author’s evolution in thinking since the inception of her modeling career.


But Ratajkowski’s limited acknowledgment of her role in perpetuating some of the systemic hierarchies that she criticizes prevents My Body from being as intersectional and complex a meditation on modern feminism as comparable titles that address the subject, such as Roxane Gay’s 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist


“Bc Hello Halle Berry” provides a salient example of this narrow perspective. In the chapter, the author chafes at her husband’s joking suggestion that she has become a capitalist. Despite making “a shit ton of money just by vacationing” at a hotel worth $400 million and uploading pictures to her Instagram account, Ratajkowski distinguishes herself from the other, presumably wealthy guests at the beach as someone who “worked the system.” She confronts her husband by almost positing a false dilemma between profiting off of the image she presents of ideal feminine beauty and not making money at all. “What am I going to do? Go live off the grid?” she asks. “I have to make a living somehow.” By refusing to acknowledge that, as a model with a net worth of $8 million and a substantial public platform, the author now has her own pull within the system, she contributes to upholding it even as she finds fault with how it hurt her as a young woman. 


What is most frustrating about this lack of accountability is its neglect of the impact that profiting from body objectification can impart on the young women of today. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a young woman’s exposure to idealistic body images in media can affect her perception of her body and lead to self-harm. The recent shortage of Ozempic, a medication for patients with Type 2 diabetes, further reflects the pervasive idolization of the thin body. TikTok users purchased the drug in excess when clips of its “miracle” weight loss results among celebrities went viral.


This is not to say that individuals should not sell their image at all if it is what they desire, but that they should recognize that the ways they choose to market and sell their body as a commodity can have tangible consequences. When individuals who meet social conventions of beauty and have a significant social following, as in the case of the author, choose to publicize products using a body ideal, they risk promoting a conflation of the good they want to sell and the image of themselves that they are employing to encourage the transaction. It’s not just the skin cream or the diet tea or the model bikini they are advertising, but also the body standards that accompany it. 


Adherence to those body standards, though portrayed as effortless, is often achieved through pain. The author briefly mentions how she earned more money in modeling after losing ten pounds and smoking cigarettes to deter her appetite, but she does not expound upon these experiences nor the potential impact of the resulting images on young viewers. Those body standards are also not universally achievable: social orders that the author omits from her essays, including those of race, sexuality, able-bodiedness, and class, prevent women of color, LGBTQ+ women, disabled women, and poor women from being able to monetize their beauty and bodies in the same way as Ratajkowski. 


As the author writes, it is undeniable that the modeling industry has, at times, rendered her a “pawn” of capitalism and patriarchy. But the game is not zero-sum. Ratajkowski is also a player.

8 comments :

  1. Wow, that is one fascinating book.

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  2. This book has me intrigued! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

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  3. A really interesting post, Claire, and I appreciated the studies you've linked. I had no idea that there's been a shortage of Ozempic because of its weight loss effects. That is certainly a major symptom of a large problem within the world of social media, in which one thing goes viral and suddenly those who depend on something can't purchase it because everyone wants it. It's interesting to consider that those who purchased the drug because they wanted to lose weight aren't mainly to blame too. As social media consumers we are often manipulated by advertisements and certain narratives, and it's simply sad to see that so many people felt like they needed to purchase the drug in order to feel worthy of continuing to participate in social media's toxic culture.

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  4. This is so thought provoking. And as a guy I hesitate to comment because I've never experienced this, but at the same time I can relate to how capitalism sometimes makes us- or especially people like her, with a platform- part of the problem. so much to mull over here. Where do we draw the line between "working" the system and realizing the system is terrible?

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  5. As interesting as I think this would be, I'm not sure I would appreciate the way the author chose to present her views. Between the "monologue of an inner life crisis" and (in the author's own words) her "incomplete thoughts", I feel like I would struggle with the presentation. Even so, it's obvious this is a thought-provoking topic.

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  6. This sure sounds like a thought provoking read.

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  7. I have this on my TBR but reading your review makes me really excited to read it! I love how thought provoking your review is, especially on the topic of accountability from the author herself.

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