Book review

The defining motifs of this social-media-centered era are “content creation” and “identity politics.” Where they converge, you get a figure like Emily Ratajkowski, an ultrafamous model who has made millions in part by posting selfies with hashtags like #liberated. With a following of 28.5 million on Instagram, Ratajkowski has found massive success, leveraging the platform into multiple homes, paid vacations, luxury brand deals and her own clothing line, all while insisting that the ability to profit from her sexuality is a feminist act. Now, at age 30, Ratajkowski is interested in reckoning with some of the more complex, less hashtag-able realities of her life as a model and influencer.

“I had made a practice of dismissing experiences that were painful or incongruent with what I wanted to believe: that I was the living testament of a woman empowered through commodifying her image and body,” Ratajkowski explains in the introduction to “My Body,” her debut book of essays. “Facing the more nuanced reality of my position was a difficult awakening — brutal and shattering to an identity and narrative I’d desperately clung to.”

More

“My Body” is meant to signal a shift in Ratajkowski’s public persona, and to a certain extent, it does. She no longer seems quite as interested in convincing the world that there is political virtue in being sexy online. She seems to regret the many ways she’s ceded control in the pursuit of personal empowerment. She recognizes that the circumstances that have allowed for her success have also limited and demeaned her. Yet her gaze is provincial, rarely extending past the confines of her own skin even when she is critiquing systemic issues.

The essay as a medium is built to hold contradictions and incongruities. Its greatest practitioners — Montaigne, Barthes, Sontag — recognized its discursive potential and used it to contend with their own competing ideas. Its potential still holds, but a recent boom of confessional writing, mostly published on the internet, and mostly by women, has shifted the bounds of the genre. In recent incarnations, it seems as though personal disclosure is both the medium and the message. Supplying an eager public with vulnerability and insisting on the feminist value inherent in the act have proved successful for many at Ratajkowski’s level of fame, but to readers whose analytical impulses extend past “Yas Queen!,” these confessionals can come across as opportunistic and hollow.

At their worst, Ratajkowski’s essays belong in this genre. She supplies details that seem designed to evoke sympathy, but read as rather strange and tone-deaf. “​​I hadn’t made enough money to comfortably spend $80,000 on art,” she discloses in “Buying Myself Back” before explaining that she split the cost with her boyfriend at the time. In another essay, she mentions a time early in her career when she had to model for brands she thought were “lame.” In the most bizarre essay of the collection, “Bc Hello Halle Berry,” she laments to her boyfriend that she is merely “a pawn” to the Qatari billionaires paying her to stay at a luxury resort in the Maldives with her husband — and post a few pictures, of course. Later in this essay, with one swift and earnest gesture that epitomizes the philosophical underpinning of her collection, she pulls out her phone to show her husband a screenshot. It reads, “[Expletive] capitalism, but until it’s [expletive], keep getting that bag.”

Ratajkowski has lived an extraordinary life, and some of these stories demand to be told. She’s been sued for posting a picture of herself. Her Instagram posts have been sold at art galleries. She was once paid $25,000 to attend the Super Bowl with someone who is now an international fugitive. It is also clear that there is plenty her wealth and status have not shielded her from, particularly during her days as an ingenue model. But an extraordinary life does not necessarily birth extraordinary insights, and banality is what “My Body” ultimately suffers from.

Advertising

While Ratajkowski does recognize that something has gone awry in the particular flavor of #GirlBoss feminism she championed for years, she seems unable to put her finger on it. In the end, the place where she lands is just another kind of memeable politics. “The whole damn system is corrupt and anyone who participates is just as guilty as I am,” she argues.

What is conveniently elided here in light of the nuance she seeks is any examination of her own influential place in these systems. You can critique a culture that commodifies the bodies of women, but when you’re a willing and active participant in that culture, even in the name of subverting it, you’re no passive beneficiary. The mere ability to recognize the rottenness of patriarchy and capitalism also does not exempt you from perpetuating these constructs. Ratajkowski’s is a reassuring system of logic because it ultimately asks nothing of her beyond her comprehension.

In that way, “My Body” isn’t that different from Ratajkowski’s Instagram feed: It’s provocative enough, but safely curated enough to remain brand-safe.

NEW NONFICTION

“My Body”

Emily Ratajkowski, Metropolitan Books, 256 pp., $26

More