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“My Body” – What we can learn from Emily Ratajkowski’s debut novel

Mila Strivec on the pressure of social media, beauty standards, and the influence of Emily Ratajkowski’s debut novel.

It’s not an easy task for a young woman to log onto social media. Today, perfectly sculpted bikini bodies and effortlessly tousled hair fill Instagram feeds across the world as users bid to turn social media networks into a lucrative money-making enterprise.

When Emily Ratajkowski released her debut collection of essays ‘My Body’ last year, I couldn’t help but look the other way. Part of me felt resentful, for over ten years Ratajkowski has made a living commodifying her body and flaunting an image of unattainable beauty to young women in the name of high fashion.

Having finished the book – a collection of essays that read almost like a diary -I can now say that while ‘My Body’ does not present any answers to the question of ethics in the influencer/modelling sphere, it was refreshing to hear Ratajkowski acknowledge the power dynamics that exist between models and their impressionable fans.

The daughter of two academics, Ratajkowski begins her book by talking about her childhood, and the mixed messages she received from her own family on how to present herself. On the one hand, her grandfather made sure to remind her that her looks owed more to genetics than hard work or talent, on the other, her parents wanted her to be proud of her beauty and she was encouraged to model from a young age. “It seemed important to them both, especially to my mother, that their daughter be perceived as beautiful”

One of the most obvious yet startling points in this book is that for women, physical appearance matters. Ratajkowski is the first to say that many of the opportunities and life experiences she has had can be directly attributed to her looks. Never has this been taken advantage of more than with the rise of the social media influencer which has seen a huge spike in women using their physical appearance for profit – and it’s hard to blame them. The cost of living continues to soar, far quicker than the living wage does and influencing provides relative job security with people earning often obscene amounts of money in return for comparatively little work.

The fact that these social media networks are detrimental to our mental wellbeing is no secret, but the deliberate addictiveness of the scroll makes it that much harder to take back control. Our ability to connect with the wider world, from making plans with friends to networking with future employers, has been monopolised by the tech giants, turning all aspects of life in the 21st century into an exercise in profit.

People like Emily Ratajkowski, Molly-Mae, and the new generation of influencers appearing on our feeds have learnt how to capitalise on this market themselves, but should we accept it?

A tricky question, I know but regardless of whether we should even be asking this, the tide is beginning to change. In the media this week came the news that the UK Advertising Standards Authority has forced Boohoo, a clothing brand marketed towards young women, to remove ‘sexually suggestive’ images of their models wearing lingerie as part of a campaign to sell oversized t-shirts. The watchdog criticised Boohoo for the obvious overtly sexual marketing they had employed to sell their clothes to an impressionable consumer base. It is a breakthrough case for advertising standards and points to a real change taking place in the way clothing companies will be able to cash in on the female body to prey on the insecurities of its market.

Whether or not the modelling industry as it exists online, from commercial modelling to social media influencing, should continue to exist in its current form lies at the intersection of choice feminism, mental health, and economic freedom.

Ratajkowski dances around these ideas throughout her book, taking a definitive stance in one chapter before revoking it in the next but I would argue that while her refusal to commit to an opinion can be frustrating at times, it also makes her work feel more realistic and therefore, compelling. Ratajkowski’s personal reflection on ten years in the modelling industry is essential reading, if not as a manifesto for change, then certainly as a conversation starter, and a long overdue one at that.

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