A picture is worth a thousand words, as the famous adage goes. Never has this saying been more apt than within our modern and digitally obsessed world. Rather than living in the moment, millennials live to be “liked”, shared and posted. To our shame, endless hours are spent curating a picture-perfect Instagram. Individuals become re-fashioned as personal brands, utilising social media for marketing opportunities. Often morals are set aside for those all-important teeth whitening sponsorship Ads – a lucrative market. Long deleted are embarrassing photos featuring oversized sunglasses that characterised year nine. Our image forms a large part of our identity. So far, so validated. What, then, happens when we suddenly lose control of the version of ourselves we have so tirelessly created? What happens when our image ends up in the wrong, ill-intentioned hands? Suddenly, it is no longer a product we can wield ownership over.
Enter Emily Ratajkowski. Model, activist, actress, household name – even my dad has heard of her (the same sadly can’t be said for “Kerry Kardashian”). She starred in iCarly and later shot to global fame in Robin Thicke’s 2013 Blurred Lines music video. She was named Esquire’s “Woman of the Year”. Aimed at the teenage boy demographic, the award is based on the genetic lottery and not philanthropic efforts or tangible achievements. Emily Ratajkowski has been on the ascent ever since.
Emily’s emotive essay, “Buying Myself Back, When Does a Model own her own image?”, was published in New York Magazine, sparking a furore of debate. Essentially, she discusses how her image has been exploited and abused by artists, photographers, the public and her inner circle. An alarming number have, in short, profited from her social media posts and intimate photographs. She discusses how she may go about reclaiming her image.
The issues Emily raises, both consciously and inadvertently, are incredibly nuanced. They include but are not limited to emotional abuse, gaslighting, sexual assault and the unrelenting male gaze. She highlights how, as a society, we still have a long way to go in terms of progress. As a disclaimer, I am under no illusions that I will even begin to scratch the surface of such vital topics. I feel moved by her words and the vulnerability she so eloquently expresses, despite being one of the most successful models worldwide, amassing a net worth over $11.4 million. Even though I do not resonate personally with her experiences, I remain in awe of her bravery and how candidly she writes about being repeatedly exploited. Here is an internationally renowned model using her enormous platform of 26.8 million Instagram followers to provide a space for critical issues at the expense of her privacy. What a feat. What a woman.
Narcissus, in love with his reflection, testifies how society has long been infatuated by ideals of beauty. We are but a superficial species. Generally speaking, most of us are not highly sought-after models and do not have a captive online audience. Realistically, no one cares how many beers deep you are on a Friday afternoon, or which DJ set you live-stream. You are just not that interesting, in the grand scheme of things. And so, for most us, there are no real consequences of having our image plastered all over the internet. Subsequently, we often forget about the control we forfeit once we press send, post or upload.
Emily Ratajkowski recognises that ‘[her] image is not [her own]’ and speaks of the disconnect she feels when confronted with it. An artist, Richard Prince, used her blown-up Instagram image as an exhibition and solely for his selfish gain. He profited from the image of Emily Ratajkowski, and yet she describes in her essay that she was expected by her boyfriend to be flattered that she was the chosen subject, bestowed with great honour.
Photographer Jonathan Leder also snatched the rights to her image. He leaked her polaroids, publishing a book titled Emily Ratajkowski, without her prior knowledge or consent. To avoid giving Leder undue publicity, Emily initially resisted the urge to speak out publicly. This is deeply uncomfortable. Imagine not even being able to address wrongdoing, for fear the perpetrator gathers momentum. Shockingly, when confronted with the sexual assault that took place, Leder stated, ironically in true man-child style, that Emily was “childish…You do know who we are talking about right? [Emily Ratajkowski] is the girl that was naked in Treats! magazine…You really want someone to believe she was a victim?”.
It is hard even to consider his implication that nudity alone permits sexual assault. Yet, as petulant as Leder sounds, some do fail to see how Emily is a victim. This camp argues that she is the one posting photos, and she is the one that uses her looks to forge a successful career. Some take issue with the fact that, activism efforts aside, Emily Ratajkowski monetises the very thing she condemns: the unrelenting male gaze.
However, Emily recognises and utilises her sexuality as a commodity, which she employs to her advantage. There is a considerable danger in conflating her work life with her personal life. I find it unsettling that in some instances she cannot be considered a victim simply because of her stunning and lucrative looks. I would hazard a guess that dealt the same genetic hand as Ratajkowski most would seize the opportunity to capitalise it. Being extremely beautiful and successful is not enough to protect us from the perils of greedy individuals and relentless parasites. How can someone so attractive be so vulnerable? That, I believe, is what truly frightens us: even beauty cannot protect us from evil.
Link to Emily Ratajkowski’s essay: https://www.thecut.com/article/emily-ratajkowski-owning-my-image-essay.html
By Lucy Summerton