If a Famous Model Can’t Control Her Own Image, How Can I?
In a groundbreaking movie of my youth, A Walk to Remember, high school bullies paste Jamie Sullivan’s face onto the body of a bikini-clad supermodel with the words “Virgin Mary?” and distribute the image on flyers all over school. Humiliated, she runs into the arms of popular rebel, Landon Carter. The message is clear: No matter how many ugly sweaters or buttoned-up flannels you wear, you can be sexualized and shamed without your consent.
Last week I read Emily Ratajkowski’s essay Buying Myself Back. I’m not a model. In fact, I feel like my greatest gift is my invisibility. When I go out into the world, I trust that it cloaks me, renders me unseen, unremarked, not worth noticing—pretty but plain, as one friend (a guy) told me in high school. How many times have I heard a version of the line, you'd be so beautiful if you knew how to do your makeup?
If no one sees you, they can’t hurt you.
All this to say, I’m more Jamie Sullivan than Emily Ratajkowski. But still, when I read her essay, I thought of the following:
I’m with a man at a coffeeshop in Koreatown. He invites me to Thanksgiving dinner with his friends after a few dates. At the dinner, the food is good and the people are nice, but one of his friends keeps mispronouncing my name and I feel too embarrassed to say anything about it. I remember that in the coffee shop, the man had pulled out his phone and taken a picture of me. He hadn't asked for permission.
“I want to show my friends my girlfriend.”
I’m not his girlfriend. When he drops me off at my apartment, I forget to take my Thanksgiving leftovers with me.
Ratajkowski writes, “Even the love and appreciation of a man I trusted, I had learned, could mutate into possessiveness.”
Months later, this same scene is repeated, this time with a good man, a man I trust, a man who pulls his phone out and takes a picture of me without asking.
In these moments, I freeze as if I’ve just been catcalled on the street by a complete stranger.
I feel that gap between who I am and my body, this dissociation that Ratajkowski expresses so eloquently. There’s the pain of feeling disembodied, of feeling disconnected from yourself, a face pasted on a supermodel's body. As a model, Ratajkowski is able to parlay the male gaze into money, an income, a living—even expensive art. But even that bargain eventually breaks down and she loses control of her own image.
Men wrest it from her with casual violence and make it their own.
Like I said, my greatest strength is invisibility.
But to write is to make yourself known, to make what is invisible, visible. I’m fascinated by this turn in Ratajkowski from modeling to writing, because writing isn’t safe. To write your story is to affirm your reality, to take control of your story. But to write is also to lose control.
You can’t control how other people respond to your writing. They might love you. They might hate you. They might want to fuck you. They might want to kill you. They might threaten to sue you. Or, they might just want to silence you because your story is an inconvenience.
I can remember how thrilled I was to be published for the first time a few years ago, only to receive an email from an ex-boyfriend shaming me for writing about our relationship.
He was my first lesson in love that turned into control. He was safe until he wasn’t. It took leaving to see how entitled he felt to love me and to hurt me and at the end, I didn’t feel like a person to him anymore.
If a man never threatens you for something that you’ve written, are you even a writer? Are you even a woman? If you write your truth as a woman and not a single man tries to silence you, did you really write the truth?
Here’s what I’ve learned as a writer and as a woman: Invisibility will not save you.
Men will still catcall you on the street or stare at you in ways that make you wish you could disappear. People will still misread you or worse, think that they know you, assume an intimacy with you that you don't feel.
Even in Ratajkowski’s writing, I can sense some of this bid for control. Her style is cool, clinical and concise. It does not wallow. It operates at a safe distance from what I can only imagine was intense emotional pain. It sets out the facts: this happened, then this. I do think this is good writing—and I applaud her narrative control. But I also wish that it didn’t take this level of artistry for a woman’s pain to be taken seriously, for her experience to be valid or worthy of empathy.
When I write, I am at my most powerful. But writing as a woman has never felt safe to me. There’s a vulnerability to writing, but there’s a vulnerability to just being alive.
Ratajkowski writes at the end of her essay:
Eventually, Jonathan will run out of “unseen” crusty Polaroids, but I will remain as the real Emily; the Emily who owns the high-art Emily, and the one who wrote this essay, too. She will continue to carve out control where she can find it.
This turn from first person to third feels triumphant, as if she is saying, you can objectify me all you want but I’m in control of my own image. There’s still that emotional distance there, that refusal to break.
I wonder if letting go of control is how you gain it—or if my own tendency toward vulnerability is a function of my lack of real power.
I hope that Ratajkowski keeps writing. I hope that she never stops. I hope that not even losing control stops her from writing about the things that she most wants to write about.
bell hooks writes: “No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much’. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’... No woman has ever written enough.”
And I agree.