The Emily Ratajkowski You’ll Never See
I’m not going to tell you what the hostess said to Emily Ratajkowski. Instead, I will tell you this: We are having lunch at a restaurant. We consult the restaurant’s menu, which boasts many items. Ratajkowski, a model who first became famous for appearing naked in a music video, orders something. I, who have never been in a music video but have been naked many times, also order something. We remark casually on the restaurant’s ambience, noting its proximity to various locations. I turn on my recorder. Each of us is wearing clothes.
We are here to talk about Ratajkowski’s new book, “My Body.” In it, she reflects on her fraught relationship with the huge number of photographs of her body that have come to define her life and career. The book’s marquee essay, “Buying Myself Back,” which describes how Ratajkowski ended up purchasing a print of her own Instagram post from the appropriation artist Richard Prince, was published to great notice in New York magazine last fall. Ratajkowski also wrote that the photographer Jonathan Leder sexually assaulted her in his home after a photo shoot when she was 20.
At lunch, Ratajkowski explains that New York magazine took “Buying Myself Back” from her book proposal. In fact, she began working on “My Body” without anyone but herself in mind, jotting down notes on her phone as they occurred to her. One day she realized she was writing a book. Several times, Ratajkowski characterizes writing as a means of “organizing” her own thoughts — not as an act of branding but out of what strikes me as the genuine curiosity of a woman whom constant exposure has deprived of the possibility of self-knowledge.
But Ratajkowski knows she is in an impossible position as a model-turned-writer. Indeed, the author has spent her career dodging the backhanded compliment that she is the “thinking man’s naked woman.” Failure will be met with schadenfreude; success, with smug surprise. Someone recently asked her who her ghostwriter was. Others asked if her face is on the book’s cover. (It isn’t.) After “Buying Myself Back” came out, a journalist unearthed a 2018 profile in Marie Claire in which the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams lavishly praised her breasts while expressing surprise that she’d read Roberto Bolaño’s daunting novel “2666.” An irritated Ratajkowski tweeted her exhaustion with profiles that have boiled down to “She has breasts AND claims to read.”
We cannot see ourselves. This is an existential fact, as sure as death. Yes, we can look down at our limbs and trunks, but we cannot enter our own regard as subjects; we cannot see ourselves seeing. For a model, this existential fact is promoted, or relegated, to a professional one. “I don’t even know what I look like anymore,” Ratajkowski confesses to me. “I can’t even tell what’s a good or bad picture in the same way. It’s just another picture.” Sixteen years in the modeling industry — over half her lifetime — have left Ratajkowski burned out and grasping for narrative.
With “My Body,” Ratajkowski has created a new mirror for glimpsing her own reflection. Some essays recount the author’s hustle as a young model who often found herself in troubling situations with powerful men; another is written as a long, venomous reply to an email from a photographer who has bragged of discovering her. Throughout, Ratajkowski is hoping to set the record straight: She is neither victim nor stooge, neither a cynical collaborator in the male agenda, as her critics have argued, nor some pop-feminist empoweree, as she herself once supposed. Today she is just a girl, standing in front of 28 million Instagram followers, asking them to take her seriously.
Whether she’ll succeed remains to be seen. While Ratajkowski wrote “My Body” to reassert control of her image, publishing it will mean releasing yet another piece of herself into the world. “That’s the misery and the joy of it,” she tells me, comparing the process to giving birth to her son, now 8 months old. In the book, Ratajkowski remembers asking for a mirror when she was in labor, so she could see her body. “I wanted to witness its progress,” she writes. This is a modest goal, and equally profound, especially for someone who is looked at for a living — to regard oneself, without preconception or judgment.
Photography, for all its ambition, cannot bear witness; nor, for that matter, can the mirror, save perhaps in moments of rapture or deep quietude. Before the mirror, we had the mysteries of water to betray our forms; before that, the glowing eyes of another animal. Ratajkowski knows there is something hungry in the camera. It takes what it wants and holds it forever — “like a footprint or a death mask,” as Susan Sontag wrote. To cope, Ratajkowski has internalized the gaze; walking a red carpet, she hears the clicking of photographers and knows, as if by echolocation, what each photo will look like — and that none will capture the real her. Ever since her private photos were posted to 4chan by hackers, she has started to assume that every picture taken of her will become public, just to quell her anxiety. “There are no images that are just for myself,” Ratajkowski remarks sadly.
The phrase reverberates in my mind as we talk. “For better or worse, I’ve always been drawn to overexposure,” Ratajkowski writes in “My Body,” describing the thrill she still gets when uploading a photo of herself to Instagram. I’m drawn to exposure, too; I’ve written extensively about my own body, and like Ratajkowski, I’m ambivalent about the attention it has won me. (I can confidently say it’s why I was assigned this article.) “I knew that when I met you,” Ratajkowski discloses later; it’s why she feels comfortable talking to me. But if I’m sympathetic to her compulsion, I’m not doing her any favors by writing a profile about her, which is just another kind of portrait. Then again, she was the one who called it “My Body.”
Could we help each other out, one woman to another? In this context, the idea of equality would be a fantasy; we cannot step outside our roles and histories and meet, as it were, in the wild. But it could be interesting to try. I ask Ratajkowski if she would like to take some Polaroids with me. As I imagine it, we would take photos of ourselves, by ourselves, and then share them with each other — and no one else. Ratajkowski interjects. “It would be about the experience of taking them,” she says simply: how we felt, whether we could trust each other, whether we could see each other, ourselves. She agrees to the exercise, fascinated by the idea of a photograph of herself that, by some miracle, nobody will ever see. “I do love the idea of our bodies being in conversation,” she later tells me. I am struck by the tenderness of her remark. When I ask what we should do with the photos afterward, Ratajkowski smiles. “We have to set them on fire.”
Ratajkowski at New York Fashion Week in September.Credit…Caitlin Ochs/Reuters
Ratajkowski was born in London in 1991, but raised in Encinitas, Calif., a surf town outside San Diego. Her mother was an English professor; her father, a painter and high school art teacher. The house where she grew up, which her father built himself, was filled with eccentric details: mismatched doorknobs, exposed beams and walls that stopped short of the roof. “It’s an artist’s house,” her mother would tell guests sheepishly. As a girl, Ratajkowski would be awakened by “the rhythmic sound of my parents having sex” — or more often, their vicious screaming matches. She would sink onto the floor of her bedroom and play with imaginary friends until it ended. But even when the house was silent, Ratajkowski writes, “I could hear my parents’ thoughts.”
Early in “My Body,” Ratajkowski describes a diptych of herself and her mother as young girls; when guests see the photos in her parents’ living room, they ask who is who. From a young age, she sensed that her mother felt entitled to her beauty, “like a piece of bequeathed jewelry.” Ratajkowski’s parents, and especially her beauty-obsessed mother, took immense pride in their daughter’s modeling career, which began when she was 14. When, as an adult, Ratajkowski finally persuaded her mother to take down an ostentatiously placed print from an old photo shoot, the latter responded matter-of-factly, “You’re more beautiful than that now.”
This is a portrait of a young girl with no privacy and a single avenue for self-worth. In bed, Ratajkowski prayed for beauty, squeezing her eyes shut to “focus on the expanding spots of light behind my eyelids,” developing the wish like a photograph. As a teenager, she would scrutinize herself in her bedroom’s full-length mirror, which her father first hung for a ballerina ex-girlfriend. In her freshman year at San Dieguito Academy, where her father taught painting, word spread that “Rata’s daughter models.” After graduating from high school, Ratajkowski studied art for a year at U.C.L.A. before dropping out to pursue modeling full time, appearing fully naked on the cover of Treats, an artsy Playboy imitator, in 2012. She liked to tell friends that the French word for “model” was “mannequin.” “I’m a mannequin for a living,” she would say, shrugging ambivalently.
The Treats pictorial caught the eye of the recording artist Robin Thicke, who recommended Ratajkowski for the music video for his 2013 single “Blurred Lines.” The unrated version of the video, which YouTube censors removed within a week of its posting, featured Ratajkowski and two other models flouncing around in nude thongs next to Thicke and his collaborators T.I. and Pharrell Williams. “Blurred Lines” arrived at the peak of the feminist blogosphere — an unfederated group of scrappy writers and websites that approached the crude oil of personal experience with the blowtorch of moral certitude — and bloggers seized upon the video as an emblem of “rape culture.” “I know you want it,” sang Thicke, a declaration of predation putatively excused by the nudity.
The controversy rocketed a bewildered Ratajkowski to international fame. “I and, more specifically, the politics of my body were suddenly being discussed and dissected across the globe by feminist thinkers and teenage boys alike,” she recalls. When Ratajkowski told reporters she had found the experience “empowering,” some dismissed her as complicit in her own victimization — or worse, a clueless agent of rape culture. At the time, Ratajkowski responded defiantly; these days, she’s not so sure. She knows that her fashion-week invitations, brand ambassadorships and short-lived film career (she played Ben Affleck’s topless mistress in “Gone Girl”), to say nothing of her massive Instagram platform where she hawks bikinis and endorsed Bernie Sanders — this is all the fruit of male attention.
Perhaps. The language of objectification has followed Ratajkowski like a hungry dog for her whole career, waiting for her to let down her guard. Her reputation as thoughtful and well read, coupled with her support of socialist policies, has only heightened for her the growing expectation that famously beautiful women be able to justify, politically, the act of being famously beautiful. Caught in the wrong video at the wrong time, Ratajkowski became an effigy for the exhaustion of a pop-feminist framework; if the author of “My Body” cannot decide whether her success has been empowering or not, that’s because this is a trick question.
It is by transforming one’s body into an object that one can sell it; it is by selling it that one may gain food, housing, status, influence and, yes, “power.” This is as true for the poorest sex worker as it is for the most celebrated actress; it is also true, by the way, for Amazon workers, short-order cooks and (my neck hurts as I write this) magazine writers. I am not mocking our differences; I am saying that the experience of becoming an object for pay is so general as to be trivial. That the tiny sliver of this experience to do with female sexuality should be singled out by feminists for censure reflects, certainly in Ratajkowski’s case, a gratuitous inflation of male power’s scope and reach.
Accordingly, the best parts of “My Body” are when Ratajkowski realizes that the best way to stop thinking about the male gaze is to think about something else instead. “I’m very obsessed with women,” she tells me. When Ratajkowski arrived on the set of “Blurred Lines,” she was pleased to find that the director Diane Martel had stacked the crew with women; for many hours, Thicke and the song’s other co-writers weren’t even present. Ratajkowski remembers wiggling around in her platform sneakers “ridiculously, loosely, the way I would to entertain my girlfriends.” The “Blurred Lines” video, viewed today, is clearly self-parodic. If anything, with its mismatched props, barnyard animals and flat beige cyclorama, it depicts a group of attractive people amusingly failing to make a music video. “There’s something risky and sexy about relationships with other women when you’re aware of the gaze, but the gaze isn’t there physically,” Ratajkowski observes.
But the blurred lines between one woman and the next, unacceptable to misogynists and many feminists, too, will most likely disappear next to Ratajkowski’s allegations that a drunk Robin Thicke cupped her bare breasts during the shoot. “I felt naked for the first time that day,” she writes, ashamed that it would take her years to call it sexual harassment. The allegations have already leaked to the tabloids, which have cast Ratajkowski as a helpless victim. “Remind me why I decided to do this?” she texted me after The New York Post called her childhood “sad” and “sexualized.” (Representatives for Thicke didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
The book contains many accounts of violation, sexual and otherwise. In one essay, it is not until after the death of Ratajkowski’s first boyfriend, who she says raped her when she was 14, that she is able to whisper to herself, “Owen, no.” (Owen is a pseudonym.) In “Buying Myself Back,” Ratajkowski is incredulous when she is sued for posting a paparazzi photo to Instagram; horrified when hackers leak her nudes on 4chan; furious when Jonathan Leder, who she says digitally penetrated her without her consent, publishes Polaroids of her with an allegedly forged release form. (Leder has said that Ratajkowski’s allegations are “too tawdry and childish to respond to,” telling a fact checker for New York magazine, “This is the girl that was naked in Treats magazine and bounced around naked in the Robin Thicke video at that time. You really want someone to believe she was a victim?”)
But the author of “My Body” has no investment in herself as a victim. If the men who hurt Ratajkowski in “My Body” are predators, she does not depict them as predatory. On the contrary, they are small, insecure people desperate to prove themselves, as pathetic as they are powerful. As Ratajkowski is quick to note, her experiences are neither disintegrating, even when traumatic, nor especially unique; her point is simply that they are no one’s but her own.
Instead of focusing on her damage — she considers suing Leder, but says he isn’t worth the trouble — Ratajkowski would rather create. “My Body” is only one example of that. Last May, she cleverly auctioned off an NFT, or nonfungible token, of a photo of herself standing next to the Richard Prince print, coolly reappropriating Prince’s appropriation of her image. (The NFT sold for $175,000 through Christie’s.) There was cheerful wit here, and more deliberateness in her self-presentation than the model took earlier in her career. These days, Ratajkowski is not looking for vengeance, or even recognition, but something quieter.
For the book’s epigraph, Ratajkowski selected a lucid passage from the late John Berger’s influential book “Ways of Seeing,” adapted from the 1972 television series of the same name. “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you 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,” Berger wrote, addressing an Everyman painter. “The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.” The point is clear: If Ratajkowski is complicit in being looked at, the crime is ours for looking.
When I have told female friends that I am writing about Emily Ratajkowski, most have asked me some variation on the question “So how hot is she, really?” We often forget that, when we speak of women’s envy for one another, we are also speaking of the ever-present gap, hardly unique to women, between one’s self-image and one’s reflection in the mirror. Indeed, it is a particular cruelty of popular feminism to have mistaken the universally alienating experience of examining one’s reflection for a uniquely female one, solvable through self-love and political consciousness. “I hate women who compare themselves to other women,” Ratajkowski imagines yelling at her therapist in “My Body,” knowing she is talking about herself. But feminism can be just as competitive as any beauty pageant: yet another mirror in which to examine one’s blemishes, and yet another means — the irony is exquisite — of comparing oneself with other women.
For what is wrong with wanting to be beautiful? Pop-feminism, for its part, is so preoccupied with criticizing what we rotely call “conventional beauty standards” that it has surprisingly little to say about beauty. It may be tempting, given the evidence of Ratajkowski’s own career, to deny the possibility of a beauty that would transcend male taste, at least in this world. Of course, the imagined saturation of the beautiful by male preference is immediately disproved by the existence of at least one lesbian (me); but it is further refuted if we acknowledge that the envy that heterosexual women have for one another is indeed an authentic expression of female desire.
When Ratajkowski was 15, beauty’s name was Sadie. Tall and magnetic, Sadie was a cool girl in the “Gone Girl” sense — eating burritos, getting high, hanging with a crew of skater boys. Ratajkowski was in awe. “Sadie seemed dangerous,” she remembers, “like she was built of weapons she had yet to master.” That year she fell into the older girl’s gravity, catching rides with her to the Ford modeling agency in Los Angeles (Ratajkowski helped her friend sign) and attending drunken house parties where Sadie would play fight with boys until she collapsed on the concrete.
After high school, the two fell out of touch. Sadie went off to college in San Francisco, then to art school in Los Angeles. Ratajkowski, after a year at U.C.L.A., dropped out to focus on modeling, commuting from San Diego to Los Angeles for catalog jobs. When she was 19, she showed up at a casting for Treats. Waiting at the studio, Ratajkowski spotted a large poster for “Blow-Up,” the 1966 film about a fashion photographer by the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, his first English-language work. “I love that film,” she told Treats’ founder Steve Shaw, who excitedly produced a book of Helmut Newton photographs to show her the tasteful nudity he was after. Then he asked her to take her clothes off. “A mere mention of a pretentious film — it was so easy to subvert your expectations,” Ratajkowski writes in an essay addressed to Shaw. But she hadn’t feigned her admiration for “Blow-Up,” which she watched in high school, struck by the desperation of the film’s beautiful models. She even owned the same poster, which features the film’s protagonist straddling the German supermodel Veruschka as he searches for the perfect shot.
Later in “Blow-Up,” the fashion photographer, whose name is Thomas, wanders into a park and takes candid photos of a pair of lovers. When he enlarges the photos, Thomas is startled to notice a gunman hiding in the bushes, as well as what might be a dead body. But before investigating further, he is interrupted by two aspiring models who demand that he photograph them. When he gropes one of them, she panics and gestures at her friend. “She’s got a better figure than me!” she squeals. In the infamous sequence that follows, the girls end up rolling around laughing on one of Thomas’s paper backdrops while he peels off their nylons. “Much was made of the nudity in 1967,” remembered the late film critic Roger Ebert. “Today, the sex seems tame, and what makes the audience gasp is the hero’s contempt for women.”
But does the male gaze really have any more control over what it sees than Thomas does in the park? All photographs are clues in search of a mystery; they tell us something happened, but they do not say what. This is as true of “Blurred Lines” as it is of “Blow-Up,” right down to the possible crime. “I don’t know that a woman giggling sheepishly means what these male directors think it means,” Ratajkowski says to me, wondering how the actresses must have felt on set. The sequence is far too chaotic to be choreographed. The models tug at each other’s bodies, crunch awkwardly on the paper beneath them. They are as interested in each other’s bodies as they are in the photographer, who remains mostly clothed; when they first wrestle each other to the ground, Thomas is not even in the room. What kind of sex the models have offscreen with him — or with each other — is left to our imagination.
When I ask if she thinks her friendship with Sadie had a sexual charge, Ratajkowski is hesitant. “I don’t know if it was true homoeroticism because I do think it was about male desire,” she answers, recalling how much the boys at school liked seeing the two of them together. When they were alone, Ratajkowski was unsure what the older girl could possibly want from her. On the weekends, the two friends would crash with Sadie’s boyfriend, Mike, the three of them crammed onto one bed together. One night, Ratajkowski awoke to the feeling of Mike’s hands on her bare breasts; Sadie lay beside her, still asleep. Ratajkowski rolled over out of his reach, and never told Sadie. “I told myself that in choosing to reach over Sadie’s body to touch mine, Mike had complimented me,” she writes. “I knew that if Sadie found out, she’d blame me.”
Ratajkowski, Sadie, Mike — this is a classic triangulation. But what does it mean? “Did it give me some power over her?” Ratajkowski wonders in retrospect. “I even started to convince myself that I liked the feel of Mike’s touch. Maybe I was into it? Turned on even?” Mike had crossed a line, yes. But if anything was arousing, it wasn’t his attention but the prospect of Sadie’s jealousy. “Your boyfriend likes my boobs better than yours,” Ratajkowski imagines needling her friend. And as for Mike? If the author’s teenage attraction to her friend indirectly expressed the lust of skater boys and male photographers — that is, if Ratajkowski liked Sadie because boys liked Sadie — then it is equally plausible that Mike’s fumbling betrayed the intuition that his girlfriend’s relationship with Ratajkowski had, at root, nothing to do with him. (Sadie and Mike are pseudonyms.)
My point is that heterosexual male desire — that vaunted juggernaut of psychic space — is just as often a convenient vehicle for women, gay or straight, to reach one another. I ask Ratajkowski if she has seen “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” the 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel about a love triangle. (She has.) In the film, a photographer named Tereza asks her friend Sabina, an artist whom Tereza correctly suspects of being her husband’s mistress, to pose nude for some photographs. Initially meek, Tereza begins to order Sabina around, pushing her naked body into the carpet; behind the lens, Tereza is crying. When they are finished, Sabina slips on her robe and snatches the camera. “Take off your clothes,” she says, pinning Tereza to the couch and miming sex. By the end of the sequence, the two women have collapsed in laughter.
Ratajkowski remarks on the husband’s absent presence in the scene. “There’s this very clear power thing where the women are both aware of how men look at them, and specifically one man,” she says, “and yet they also have their own relationship.” Then she asks me for my reading. I tell her that the women are trying the camera on like an article of clothing, experimenting with the gaze, seeing if they can see each other. They are nervous, titillated, ashamed, jealous, vicious. They role-play as Tereza’s husband; they role-play as each other. They want to humiliate each other, and they almost have sex. Their laughter, like the laughter of the groupies in “Blow-Up,” expresses both the futility of escaping and the fact that, somehow, they already have.
I arrive first at the studio, a cavernous space with massive windows overlooking SoHo. Before the official photo shoot for this article, Ratajkowski and I are going to take the Polaroids we discussed. In the dressing room, I take a seat in front of a vanity lined with glowing light bulbs and exchange a few halting words with Ratajkowski’s publicist and stylist. In my tote bag are two lighters, a box of matches and a little brass pot, for fire safety. The night before, Ratajkowski told me she was excited to destroy the photos. “The chemical inside the Polaroids is sticky,” she texted.
Ratajkowski walks in a few minutes later. Unprompted, she tells me she’s been meaning to read “Camera Lucida,” a book on photography by the French writer Roland Barthes that I mentioned to her in passing. Barthes built the book around an old photograph of his mother as a young girl standing in a glass conservatory. Discovering the photo while sorting through her possessions, the grieving writer felt that he could glimpse in the faded image the full being of his late mother. Nevertheless, Barthes refused to print the photograph in the book. “It exists only for me,” he told his readers. “For you it would be nothing but an indifferent picture.” Shortly after the book was published in 1980, Barthes himself died after being hit by a laundry van in Paris. “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to us,” Ratajkowski quips.
We retire to the greenroom upstairs with a vintage Polaroid camera provided by a crew member. Ratajkowski suggests that we photograph each other in addition to ourselves; I agree. To decide who goes first, we play rock, paper, scissors. “Paper covers rock,” she says triumphantly, before realizing we hadn’t specified what winning meant. She’s up, I say. “You just want me to go first,” she teases, picking up the camera. I step outside, closing the door behind me, and sit at the top of the stairs. I can hear echoes of the crew setting up for the shoot below.
The door opens. Ratajkowski hands me the camera, grinning. “You’re up.” Alone, I hop up on a long table opposite a full-length mirror and take two shots before letting Ratajkowski back in. With childlike solemnity, we place our undeveloped Polaroids facedown on a small bench in the room’s odd glassed-in corner, which looks out onto the studio like a private box at a stadium. Then Ratajkowski directs me to sit in a chair. I laugh when she points the camera at me, because I do not know what else to do. I know how my face will look — and that I will not like it. When it’s my turn, I position her against a dark mahogany wall. “Tell me what to do,” she says. “I like being directed.” I say, “Look away. Don’t look at me.”
We seat ourselves in the glass corner. There are now eight Polaroids total: four of her, four of me. I pick up the photos Ratajkowski took of herself, and she does the same with mine. For a moment, we look. The first thing I notice is that the vanity she chose has caught the glass window across the room, producing a ghostly series of mirrored lights. I try to describe her expression to her, but to my frustration I cannot find the words. “You know, I’m about to have a million pictures taken of myself,” Ratajkowski explains, gesturing at the studio below. She decided to make these different.
Ratajkowski turns over the photos we took of each other. “Oh, whoa,” she mutters. We forgot that the vintage camera didn’t have a flash; without the luminescence of a mirror, these Polaroids are dark and ethereal. In some, we are not recognizable. To my surprise, Ratajkowski can’t bring herself to destroy the photos, suggesting that we exchange them instead. “It feels nice to take each other’s picture and then take them away,” she explains. “Like a handshake or a hug.”
I’m not going to tell you what Emily Ratajkowski looks like in the Polaroids she gave me. Instead, I will tell you this: Like millions of people around the world, I have seen many pictures of Ratajkowski. Now I have seen a few more. These, no one else will ever see. Does that make them any more real than the thousands of other Emilys that Ratajkowski describes in “My Body,” dispatched into the world with the click of a shutter? “Everybody is going to write about me in terms of what I represent in the zeitgeist,” she says wistfully as I end our final interview. “The real Emily will get lost.” She leaves to get dressed for the big shoot and I decide to stay. I watch her pose in front of the camera, disappearing once more behind herself.
Andrea Long Chu will become the book critic at New York magazine this month. Her book “Females,” about a lost play by the woman who shot Andy Warhol, was a finalist for a 2020 Lambda Literary Award. Her essay “On Liking Women” is considered essential reading in gender-studies classes across the country. Amanda Demme is an artist and a creative director based in Los Angeles and New York. She was previously a music supervisor and nightlife producer.