Things I Just Read

My Body by Emily Ratajkowski

When I went to buy Emily Ratajkowski’s essay collection My Body, Amazon autocompleted “Emily Ratajkowski book” in the search bar. The first result was the right one, but immediately underneath it was a possibly unlicensed 2022 calendar dedicated to the model, her name in bold letters barely covering her breasts. I think Ratajkowski would have found the humor in this. My Body is tasteful text on a cream background. It looks like it could be a Maggie Nelson or Eve Babitz book from a distance. Not only is it not sexy, but it’s not visually billing itself as any kind of Celebrity Book. EmRata knows that most people are approaching her, looking at her Instagram, or following her career to see her body, not to read her thoughts on her body. Her book announces from the cover that, sorry, you have to put up with the mind inside it.

My Body is a weird book. I don’t mean this in the most insulting way, which is that some people think it’s funny to be aghast that a supermodel wrote a book. This interaction even appears in the essay “Pamela,” where a fellow guest at a high profile party can’t seem to believe EmRata is working on a non-ghostwritten book. They compliment her on her success with her swimwear brand iNAMORATA, though, because that seems like the more believable side hustle. Ratajkowski already knows that her fame puts her in a complicated position as a debut author. She has name recognition that is exceedingly rare for models and usually restricted to Victoria’s Secret Angels, 90s runway supers, and Kate Moss. If my older brother knows a model’s name, they are really, really famous. And while all models are known for their bodies, EmRata’s fast track to stardom came from dancing nearly naked in the music video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” The song’s title is also the title of one of the book’s essays. “Blurred Lines” is one of the essays I started unconsciously sorting into “behind-the-scenes” versus those that are more traditional personal essays.

These are interesting but less poetic, written in the style of a propulsive tell-all. “Blurred Lines” provides biography of EmRata’s struggles as a model before her fame. We go through a history of failed auditions, low pay, and eventually the music video gig that Ratajkowski was interested in when she learned the director and most of the crew would be female. In the last few pages of the essay, EmRata realizes that Robin Thicke has blocked her on Instagram and she recalls a half-suppressed memory from the shoot involving a petulant Thicke groping her. The harsh lesson she leaves us with is that despite the confidence she felt around other professional women and the fun she genuinely had with the project, a man can overwrite it in an instant. Saving that insight for the end allows readers to experience that rug-yank along with her. It is, to me, the best of these behind-the-scenes essays, but still exhibits a tension that runs throughout the book.

So much of the content of My Body seems to premeditate questions and criticism. Ratajkowski writes in “Blurred Lines” that after the initial rush of celebrity, she got tired of always being associated mainly with the video and of always being asked how it felt, if it was empowering, if it was subversive, etc. Even with that exhaustion, she knows that readers are going into her book with the question of “ok but what was it really like?” In “Men Like You,” Ratajkowski addresses a former colleague who belittled her both to her face and in interviews. There’s power in it, but these chapters made me wonder what she truly wants to write about. She has taken great pains to insist, rightly, that she is a serious author and that My Body is just as meaningful as any of her other professional endeavors. Idon’t doubt that she enjoys and is dedicated to writing, but I wonder what her ideal book would be. What would she write if she didn’t have to defend herself against real and imagined critics? I can sympathize greatly with why she feels like she needs to set a lot of records straight but the instances when she lets herself simply be an essayist are the book’s strongest writing.

I’m a little torn on the nonfiction trend of essays being lists and fragments but I liked the book’s opener, “Beauty Lessons.” Recounting an early childhood experience of telling her beautiful mother than women were “just jealous” Ratajkowski observes, “How had I understood so early that my remark would provide my mother some solace for the unkindness she experienced?” In this essay, she grapples with difficult questions and dynamics surrounding beauty, particularly with her mother. It’s thorny and affecting and she captures the pain of learning warped lessons from someone you still love very much. She writes about feeling sick to her stomach at a high school boyfriend, and later her husband, talking about other women’s beauty. She chides herself for her insecurity, and her jealousy at war with the desire to be an ally to other women reads as a natural development from her relationship with her mother. I am not nearly as hot as EmRata, to make a giant understatement, but there is a lot to relate to here. (“They’re just jealous” was a popular refrain in my upbringing that has turned out to be both less and more true than my mom would have had me believe.) There are other strong essays that deal with EmRata’s chosen themes in vulnerable and personal ways that exist outside the context of her fame. “My Son, Sun” is about being sexually assaulted by a high school sort of boyfriend who dies of an overdose in young adulthood. The ambiguity and grief in this account of harm and betrayal is much more artistically compelling to me than the sass, albeit reasonable, of “Men Like You.”

In the introduction of My Body, Ratajkowski writes that she aims to “examine the various mirrors in which I’ve seen myself.” She admits that earlier writing and interviews she’s done where she appears unapologetically sex-positive and empowered are not the full truth. She writes that she is “still grappling with how I feel about sexuality and empowerment.” I think My Body, for its faults, is pretty ballsy. It does the thing that almost no writing by women is allowed to get away with, which is a writer calling herself beautiful. It dares to correctly insist that being hot is its own misery. EmRata is like…a few months older than I am and in her self-contradictions I see one of the major struggles of my cohort of millennials. We’ve had to ride out a few waves and micro-waves of feminism in a short amount of time. I truly believe the sex positive fever pitch of our teenage and young adult years has left us with brains that are confused at best, broken at worst. A book written by someone living through a turbocharged version of that whole struggle is bound to be a little confused too.

Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style by Cintra Wilson

Fashion writing occupies a strange place in nonfiction. Like any kind of art, writing about fashion ends up being about human nature. Some of the most trenchant insights come from this sector, from intentionally literary and serious works like Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless to irreverent and half-accidentally brilliant books like The Official Preppy Handbook. But for all its aptness and intelligence, fashion writing is still a niche. It often has to convince readers to take it seriously before it can accomplish anything else. Otherwise, it stays in the realm of inside baseball, passed around among a relatively tiny subset of writers and readers.

As the former New York Times’ Critical Shopper columnist, Cintra Wilson had a relatively huge platform. This wide readership backfired when Wilson covered a JC Penney store opening in midtown Manhattan with sarcasm and, to many readers, snobbery, classism, and body shaming. She apologized, and we can see how it would easy to make this particular fumble: she is a niche writer who covers mostly NYC-based fashion happenings. She usually has no reason to remember that the New York Times is read by people from all over the country, of all walks of life. Wilson’s cultural criticism/road trip memoir Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style seems to be a way to prove herself to multiple audiences. For the critics of her JC Penney piece, the book shows that she can turn a sensitive eye to American culture outside of her cosmopolitan milieu. It’s also a chance to show NYT Styles devotees that there are fascinating things to say about American style in the South, the West, the flyover states, and everything in between. The Midwest chapter, “The Iowa State Fair/The Butter Belt,” is placing itself unavoidably next to David Foster Wallace’s essay about the Illinois State Fair. You can read a condensed version of it here. It’s a chapter that’s in turns delightful and obnoxious, and I think the obnoxiousness comes from a critical difference with Wallace: Wilson is not from Iowa, as Wallace was from Illinois.

The chapter that follows the Midwest is “The Belle Jar/The Bible Belt,” about the South. It’s hard to resist writing about both of these, since that’s where I come from, in that order. Both regions are especially good choices if you want the biggest contrast to New York or Los Angeles, but the South interfaces more with one of Wilson’s main themes connecting the disparate expressions of American style: how clothes are conduits of power. In the case of the South, specifically Birmingham, Alabama and the Ole Miss campus area of Oxford, Mississippi, Wilson writes about feminine soft power. Both chapters also serve as avenues for Wilson to reflect on the parts of American life she feels she’s lost touch with or the parts of womanhood she feels she can’t relate to. “The Belle Jar” beings with the admission, “nothing has been more complicated or difficult for me to wrap my head around and write about than the sartorial choices of the Southern Belle.”

The sequence of these two chapters highlights why I think it’s easier, whether through fashion or another point of culture, to write about the South as an outsider than the Midwest. Fashion is a game of signifiers and the signals and rules of the South are more codified both in fiction and real life. A woman Wilson meets in Alabama describes the construction of the Southern Belle as “a delicate ballet.” Wilson cites Judith Butler’s description of their femininity as “regulatory fiction.” In just a short period of time, Wilson is able to grasp the foundational elements of Southern feminine style despite her confessed difficulty wrapping her head around it. This is also, in a way, a testament to the clarity of purpose women in the South possess. If it’s easy to understand the signals they’re putting out, it means they’ve done a good job following the rules. Later, when Wilson asks a Southern Belle for advice on emphasizing her own femininity, she realizes that a huge cultural difference is that in the South, it’s not an asset to style oneself in an enigmatic way, never mind toughness or unapproachability. Ultimately, though, the shortcomings Wilson identifies in herself are a strength, hammered in at the end of the chapter. She concludes that “these choreographies are really quite dangerous.” We can see the same trick in so many political discussions today: the South is an easy target if you want to paint a clear picture of something backwards. Maybe there’s truth in it, but elaborate, gendered choreographies happen in New York City too.

The Midwest proves less easy to capture. It’s another pitfall of outsider writing. Where the South reliably provides a contrast in culture to an urban writer’s norms, the Midwest often represents a (perceived) lack of culture. This chapter is “The Butter Belt,” but it could have been the corn belt or the wheat belt or a similarly colorless and neutral foodstuff. Wilson starts in the airport, wondering whether the body diversity of the Midwest reflects its landscape: fatter bodies matching the “rural abundance of lateral space.” Wilson then follows up with a full paragraph parenthetical to explain that this theory is not “intended to be fat-bashing,” which seems like a holdover from the controversy over her JC Penney takedown.

Wilson has mostly good, if a little patronizing, things to say about Iowans. The state fair attendees strike her as open, wholesome, and friendly, the paragons of “family values” that are always being attributed to anonymous Midwesterners by politicians. She is delighted to see many older couples at the fair together. The most fashion forward moments tend to be provided by men in well-constructed jeans and cowboy shirts or boots with elaborate embroidery. These characters inspire a reader to wonder how similar these items are to the status signaled by investment pieces you might see in Manhattan: fur coats, tailored suits, Gucci loafers, et al.

In a different way than in the South, Wilson self-reflects on the lifestyle of Iowa vs New York. She is struck by the moon over the fields on a drive back to her hotel. The natural beauty and space that is so rare in this quantity in a city makes her question her reliance on urban conveniences and rituals. “It was so generous—this earth, this ravishing abundance of beauty, feeding us, embracing us—that it made me cry like a child,” she writes. By the end of the chapter, she has more of a philosophical conclusion than a sartorial one, because the “point” of Midwestern fashion still escapes her. She decides that it’s about a humble acceptance of the body and the intrinsic value of life, or about the journey to reaching that point. There’s something sweet about that optimism, but I still think it’s indicative of a strange inability to perceive complexity in the Midwest. It gets off easier than the South because there’s less to criticize, but that in itself is a sort of insult. Attributing a straightforward contentedness to a region that couldn’t be more different from Wilson’s upbringing and current environment seems more a way to comfort her own bafflement than it is a valid conclusion about the Midwestern mindset.

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