If you were to hear the name Emily Ratajkowski, you might think of the model who became famous for her nude appearance in Robin Thicke’s 2012 “Blurred Lines” music video. You might also think of one of the victims of the infamous 2014 nude photo leak. But you probably wouldn’t think of the writer of The New York Times bestselling collection of essays, My Body.
My Body, which is Ratajkowski’s debut book, sparks conversations around the relationship between beauty and power. It follows her experience of rising to fame while coming to terms with the power imbalance that exists between genders, which oftentimes makes it difficult for a woman to choose how to conduct herself.
After reading Ratajkowski’s work, one question lingered at the back of my mind: what is the relationship between empowerment, self-love, and the body?
Ratajkowski refers to the commodification of her image as a double-edged sword. On one hand, her beauty made her successful. Yet she had little to no control over her public image.
My first experience discovering the “double-edged sword of body image” — as Ratajkowski puts it — was on my first day of the seventh grade. It was tradition for my mom to take me shopping to find a back-to-school outfit. Before leaving my house, I felt confident, because my outfit made me feel beautiful.
But I also remember that, before recess, my teacher called me into the hallway in front of my class. I was embarrassed and thought to myself: what did I do wrong?
My teacher told me that I had to change clothes immediately. My shirt was a distraction for the boys in my class. But I didn’t — and still don’t — understand how my 12-year-old self could be responsible for how men reacted to my clothing.
From there on, I was conditioned to believe that I was responsible for how others perceived my image. At that moment, I was still attempting to discover what it meant to be a woman. Because my teacher judged me based on my appearance, I was no longer empowered by the way I looked.
Years later, during one of my first weeks of university, I was assigned to a group to work on a term project. During that experience, one of my peers consistently questioned my intelligence. He made remarks such as, “You don’t look like you’re really into academics.” I wondered what I would have had to look like for him to think I was “into academics.”
Every time I shared an idea while working on our project, this classmate smirked and brushed it off. His actions made me wonder, just like I did in the seventh grade: do women have the agency to present themselves however they want, or will their image inevitably be scrutinized?
It seems like feeling beautiful in one moment is often juxtaposed afterwards by shame and embarrassment. Living in a world where society subliminally tells me not to love myself — by dress-coding or having others guess my personality traits based on what I wear — has made self-love become a concept that’s more complicated than liking the way I look.
“I wonder how many people you’ve… written off, because you assumed they had nothing to offer beyond the way they looked?” Ratajkowski ponders this question in an essay, writing that she constantly finds that others won’t consider her opinions seriously. As an essayist, Ratajkowski is not defined for the person she is. As a model, she is defined for how she looks.
The knowledge that Ratajkowski imparts about self-love is incredible. Her vulnerabilities display courage, her questions ignite growth, and her intimate stories undoubtedly empower other women to control how they’re perceived.
A key aspect of loving yourself is understanding that the concepts of feminism and empowerment can apply to you in any manner you choose. Ratajkowski does not define feminism in the monolithic way that we’re often taught — the one that’s expressed through organized activity to promote womens’ empowerment. This is important because women are afforded different experiences with feminism based on ethnicity, social class, and sexual identity.
Instead, the purpose of Ratajkowski’s essays is to question the meaning of femininity and power. Writing these questions surrounding feminism and body politics gave Ratajkowski power because she could use her own language to relay — and therefore control — narratives regarding her body. Reading her work has taught me that empowerment is the ability to be whatever I want to be.
As women, we are more than our bodies, even when the world makes us feel like we aren’t. Expressing ourselves in any form — verbally, physically, or even through the way we dress — is a freedom that shouldn’t be controlled by others’ opinions.
Living in a world that curates perfection through beauty standards doesn’t always make it easy to love yourself. The elements of my life that once empowered me — such as what I wear — oftentimes became a breeding ground for self-doubt rather than self-love. However, reading My Body reminded me that evolving and questioning my surroundings is a powerful form of self-love in itself.
As women, we have to stop equating our worth with others’ projection of our appearances. Instead, self-worth should come from within.