On this week’s episode of The Cut, executive producer Hanna Rosin talks to model Emily Ratajkowski about her new book of essays, My Body, as well as starring in Robin Thicke’s infamous music video for “Blurred Lines” and her recent pregnancy. Following Ratajkowski’s widely read personal essay for the Cut from last year, about a harrowing experience with a photographer, the model discusses growing up with a woman’s body and taking control of how that body is viewed now.
To hear more about the Ratajkowski’s ideas of control, desire, and the physical self, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.
Hanna Rosin: I have to bask in the weirdness of this moment for one second of being live and having people here — Hi, everyone! People are here, so exciting! [Audience claps.] Thank you for coming to Washington.
Emily Ratajkowski: Thank you for having me, thank you for being here.
Hanna: This book is so personal. There’s a whole section of the book that, in my head, I think of as the miseducation of Emily, or the signals that you received. I want to talk about that, even in your teenage life, the interesting thing about that part of the book to me was normally when people are going through puberty or pre-teens, it’s like the signals that come from inside that are confusing to you. But I feel like in your case, even before you were conscious of it, it was the cues that came from outside to you. Can you talk about that a little bit? When was the first time you realized that, or not necessarily the first time, that your body was a thing, that people started to send that signal to you from outside?
Emily: Yeah. I think that I developed really young and I had a woman’s body before I even understood or knew what sex was. It put me in a really strange position. One of the first essays I ever published was something called Baby Woman because I was truly a baby, but I was perceived. Now I look back at pictures and I’m like, “really people thought I was an adult? I looked like a child.” But I did look older.
I started to have this experience of both feeling really self-aware in a positive and also in a negative way. In my middle school, feeling the attention that I got from boys, which meant that the popular girls wanted to be friends with me and I thought like, “Oh, that’s a good thing.” But then also, I had a vice-principal snap my bra strap …
Hanna: I always remember that. That image sticks in my head — that sucks.
Emily: She was a woman, interestingly. I don’t think I specify that in the book.
Hanna: What’s the point? What are you supposed to do?
Emily: I think in her mind, it was — I mean and this is kind of that essay in general, Baby Lessons. I’m interested in exploring the ways that women try to protect other women by teaching them the hard way or teaching them about the world and the way that their beauty and their sexuality and their bodies are going to be consumed.
For example, that vice-principal thought she was saying to me, like, “you should watch out, you should be aware of this.” And like, “if I don’t snap your bra strap, somebody else will.” I don’t think she was doing it necessarily in a malicious way. I don’t know. But in general, that was the purpose behind that essay.
I had an ex-boyfriend whose mom was a very cool lady and she only had a son. At one point we were talking about if she’d had a daughter and she said, “well, I would have obviously made sure that she stayed thin.” And I almost spit up my lunch because I was like, “Wait, what? Like, you’re a smart lady with cool politics. And you’re talking about how you would make sure your daughter stays thin? Like, that’s, you — come on, you must know that that’s like a recipe for an eating disorder.” I realized that in her mind, it was her thinking that would be protecting her daughter and ensuring her daughter a good future and love because thin women are loved more.
Hanna: But your own parents, I feel like there are weird mixed messages in there. There’s a thing that sticks in my head that your dad said to your mom when people complimented her on her beauty.
Emily: Yeah. Her father, not my father.
Hanna: Oh, it was her father. Can you say what he would say?
Emily: So that’s part of why I included that in the essay. My grandfather would say to my mother, “you shouldn’t say thank you when someone compliments you on the way you look, because you’ve done nothing to deserve it.” And he was a really serious person. I think that he made her feel ashamed for the way she looked and her body particularly, and it was a source of shame for her and her family, which is why I think in some way she took the other route of “celebrate your beauty. A boy’s looking at you.” She was kind of saying that this should be a source of pride. But in a lot of ways, it made me very aware of the way I was perceived. And I write about this in that essay, like praying for beauty when I was very young, like six.
Hanna: And what did you think it was? Was it a source of power?
Emily: Yes. It was definitely a source of power. This wasn’t just in my family. I grew up in the early aughts and the age of the most powerful women to me were Britney Spears and pop stars and beautiful women. And not just my generation, my parents loved older movies. We’d watch Marilyn Monroe. And it was like, okay, so there are men who can be powerful because they’re presidents or they’re comedians or they’re rock stars. But to me, it seemed that the most powerful women were always the ones who were most desired by men. I think that as a very young person, instead of praying for money or intelligence or safety, it just spoke. It said so much to me when I looked back on that and thought, how did I learn that that should be the thing that I prayed for and wanted?
Hanna: Yeah. I really want to talk about the “Blurred Lines” portion of the book, because I — have you rewatched that video? Do you ever watch it?
Emily: I rewatched it when I was writing the essay.
Hanna: It’s so weird to think about that and think “that’s what propelled me to fame.” It’s such an odd moment, such a specific artifact of the culture.
Emily: Yeah. What I wanted to convey when I wrote the essay and truly how I feel about it is that I don’t feel that connected to it. It was a job that I showed up to for a day. So even choosing to write about it was strange for me because so much of the rest of the book is so personal and this was definitely a moment of using that video and what I represented in the zeitgeists to sort of giving an inside look at my experience and my approach to modeling and the kind of power dynamics that were at play on that set. I think it was an interesting time because people were sort of already feminist. People were kind of talking about, “Okay, maybe things in the past haven’t totally been great for women, but like, how can they be great for women while still being hot?” Essentially.
Hanna: Well the interesting part, which I did not know about that video, is that the person setting up the video was trying to create a good vibe for you guys. It almost had this weird sisterhood vibe in the room.
Emily: I think that another reason I wanted to write about that experience is because it was a female director. It was a female DP. There were tons of young women on props, makeup, set, design, whatever. At the time, I think I was 20 or 21, and I had been working as a model, which I describe in the book. I had this really hard-headed, kind of like, “This is my industry. I’m working. I’m a mannequin. It’s not fun. It’s not glamorous” mindset. And when the video was criticized, I think there was a certain amount of pointing fingers and like, “how dare you be a part of this misogynistic thing.” I felt really protective of the women that I had liked so much on set and how much fun I had had onset compared to like front side, back of a shirt, or shooting with some creepy group of guys. I was like, “wait, I made friends on that video. They asked me how I felt. That’s why I danced the way I did because I was having fun.”
Hanna: And did you feel tricked after that or did you feel sincere like “they were with me?”
Emily: I felt sincere. I felt also defiant, which is sort of why I wasn’t saying that the guys with who I shot it were kind of assholes because I felt very protective of the experience that I’d had with that director and with those other women. I wanted my politics to align with how I wanted to see myself and feel.
Hanna: Wait, what do you mean by that?
Emily: I wanted to feel powerful. I didn’t want to feel small. I didn’t want to feel like a mannequin. I wanted to say, “look, I worked this system. I have this commodifiable asset, my body. And I had a great time on set.” Maybe that does mean power. I think that’s true of a lot of the ways that our beliefs are often about our identity and how and what we want to see and feel about ourselves. This was why it was so important for me to also write about the full experience of what it really was like, and also inspect why I was defiant and why it felt so important for me to feel powerful as the naked girl in a music video.
Hanna: I think that’s the whole trick of the book as something we see generally on the surface. We’re just seeing your Instagram or we’re just seeing you in the video. The pleasure of the book is that you get the internal thoughts of what that experience is like. That’s what’s interesting about it: it’s like a heart, it’s like a hard line to walk because it’s not you commodifying your own body yet. You’re just getting paid to show up for a few hours, and some other people are telling you you’re being objectified, but you’re trying to somehow feel powerful.
Emily: Yeah. I would say that my relationship with Instagram at that time actually felt the same way. It was similar to the way that I felt about that video and the environment that was on set, which was that I was in control in some ways. Models in the nineties didn’t have a way of dictating what images they were putting out, it was just left up to the magazines and whatever editor and blah, blah, blah. And I was like, “wow, I can curate my identity online myself. I can control that.” And that felt really good. It felt like control.
Hanna: On the other side of the scale is there are moments in the book when you realize “wait, if this is my path to power, money, control, I’m kind of dependent on men. The men who want this, it’s like their desire I’m playing to.” What is that realization like?
Emily: A lot of the experience I had as a young person, as a model, but also with interactions in my personal life was like, “oh, it’s because I’m young and I’m desirable. I’m the one who has the power.” I think that even the men that I was interacting with felt that way. Some of the instances that I write about in the book, they almost felt like they were reclaiming their power by kind of doing these disrespectful things because it felt like, “this young, beautiful girl, she’s the one who is actually emasculating me in some way, because she has the power here because she’s desired.” Even though now I look back and I’m like, “I was actually so young. I was a kid and you were an adult.” The situation, the power dynamic, was very different than what I thought. That’s part of the revelation of “Blurred Lines “and charting my relationship to that video and my memory of that video and how it’s also representative of the evolution of my politics.
Hanna: This is a risky thing to do in the book. The thing you wrote about, your trip, or when you start to commodify yourself. It’s hard to be that rich and successful and ask people to inhabit your mind or feel sympathetic. That feels like a risky thing to do. Did you ever think about that and like, “will they feel sorry for me? No, they won’t feel sorry for me because I am rich” or whatever?
Emily: I didn’t write any of the essays looking for sympathy. I wrote them because I had questions about my own existence and my own contradictions in my own life that I wanted to explore and maybe try to come up with some answers. But also to have an investigation and a record of that investigation in an essay, so then people could tell me what they think about these things. What are their thoughts? What are their politics? What do they make up of these experiences? And what does it say about the world we live in that you can be paid to go on a vacation and the ways that I’m kind of trying to take back control. When you say commodifying yourself, I hear you. But at the same time, my experience from Blurred Lines to doing that feels like the same thing. It’s taking a check, you know?
Hanna: What do you mean? It feels like in the book, there’s a moment when you actually make the decision. Like, “why would I wear a bikini for somebody else’s bikini company? I might as well do it for myself, post it on my own Instagram.” And that feels powerful, but that’s not the end.
Emily: I think it’s just about having more control as a model and as a commodity and using my body in that way. But I don’t know if it is power. One of the questions of the book is what is empowerment? Is it financial success? Is it a feeling, is it fulfillment, is it fame? Is it in feeling wanted or is it in not feeling wanted? What does empowerment really mean? It’s a word I hear so much when it comes to women, especially in pop culture, and in my own experience, I’m like, “wait, can we just go back? Can we define that?” That’s sort of one of the larger questions in the book.
Hanna: The most powerful essay in the book, which everyone talks about, is the assault that happened to you when you were younger— should we tell that story? I never know how much people know. I mean, that’s the story that was on The Cut. We’ll explain it very briefly, but to me, that is the thing that happened that would lead you to take control of your own body, commodity, destiny, whatever.
Emily: Let’s tell a story. We’re not speaking in inference. There was a photographer who shot me when I was like 19 and it was a pretty uncomfortable situation. And then he went on to publish multiple books using the images and my…
Hanna: It’s galling, like years later, they just show up and he’s such an asshole as it’s happening. And then like — sorry, I mean, it’s a truly…
Emily: You know, it’s funny that you say that it’s so clearly wrong because, at the time, I turned to the internet and tweeted about my experience and how I didn’t want the images to be out there. Nobody felt like it was wrong.
Hanna: But it just feels morally outrageous that someone could essentially trick a young person in this completely weird setup into taking these pictures, be totally dismissive of them, and then years later, like when you’re worth something, come back and publish pictures of you and make a ton of money off of it. No contact — it feels so outrageous that that could happen.
Emily: I hear you, but for me, that was an experience I had a ton of shame around. I thought I acted a certain way. I didn’t protect myself. I wanted to impress him. As he dismissed me, I tried even harder to impress him. I did take those pictures. So for me, it didn’t feel clear — it still doesn’t feel totally clear-cut. I felt complicit in the situation and I had a lot of shame around it.
Also in that essay, I write about paparazzi, like the least relatable thing to anyone. When I published the essay, I was like, “I don’t think anyone’s going to like this” because I was sure that my experience up until that point was that people had not been sympathetic with those things, even though they had been out in the public. I had already written about 50,000 words of the book, but I hadn’t edited it, but it was really encouraging to have that piece go out into the world and see that writing could be a medium where people could at least think about the questions that I was posing in a way that I was communicating something that gave me control. Writing the book is an act of control to try to take back my narrative.
Hanna: Yeah. It’s interesting that you say you’re not looking for sympathy because I think the reason that essay resonated so much is that it feels real. You put it out there in the circle of internal thoughts that you had about that situation, including feeling complicit. So even though your experience is extremely particular, it’s not like a million people have had that experience, it’s still relatable because everybody’s been in a situation where they feel complicit or they’ve looped around or they don’t know if it’s their fault or not. So maybe that’s why it was received so well.
Emily: I’m interested in being very honest rather than trying to make people feel a certain way because I’m not totally sure how I feel about all of these things.
Hanna: I was just looking at your Instagram before this event and I was thinking, almost as an addendum to My Body, are the kinds of pictures you’ve posted lately, like the pregnancy series and the breastfeeding series. I was wondering about whether those were freeing? I mean, there’s a beautiful picture of you naked and pregnant. How does that moment of your life relate to everything you’re writing? There are a few breastfeeding pictures and what was that about for you?
Emily: I was curious about how the pregnancy was going to affect me, talk about lack of control. You wake up every day and your body’s just doing something completely different and you don’t know what’s going on. You really don’t and you’re just kind of growing and everything’s changing, but I found I really enjoyed it.
So much of my life has been related to my body as a tool, and as a tool to guarantee lovability and to guarantee financial success. It didn’t feel like a tool, particularly in birth and in pregnancy, because it required me to let go of managing that tool. It was just doing something on its own and then even more so. In that last essay, honestly, the biggest moment for me was the bike ride that I take with my husband and my friend, and just sort of being able to appreciate my body as a thing that takes me through life. Which is what a body is.