You can read Emily Ratajkowski’s original essay “Baby Woman” here.
Lena Dunham’s website Lenny Letter recently featured a piece written by model and actress Emily Ratajkowski. The personal essay is titled “Baby Woman,” and in it, Ratajkowski discusses her pubescent years as a “baby woman”—a 12-year-old with D-cup breasts. She expresses the complicated nature of accepting her developing sexuality and later learning to “own” it. Ratajkowski reflects on her experience as a maturing young woman and blossoming model to tackle some pretty heavy issues: the sexualization and objectification of the female body, the male gaze, and the implications of telling young women to “cover up.”
At one point in the essay, Ratajkowski considers the body-related guilt that often plagues women: “I think of mothers trying to explain to their daughters that while it wasn’t their fault, they should cover up next time.”At 22, I’m still being told to “cover up” by my mom. On a recent vacation, I opted to go bra-less underneath a few of my dresses at night, mostly for aesthetic purposes. I felt like bra straps would look silly and out of place beside the delicate straps of my dresses. Admittedly, I’m very comfortable not wearing a bra so I didn’t think twice about this decision— at least, not until my mother pointed it out quietly to me before dinner. “You should be wearing a bra,” she told me, worried that my very obviously bra-free breasts would send the wrong message.
I certainly don’t fault my mom for saying this to me. There is a generational difference at play that favors a stricter, more conservative approach to sexuality. I understand that, and I know my mom understands that, too. I also believe that it’s a mother’s nature to protect her daughter, and in the case of suggesting that I conceal my lady lumps with a bra, that’s exactly what my mom (and many other moms, for that matter) felt that she was doing— protecting. But the question is: protecting from what?
Whether they are coming from a mother, a friend, or a significant other, those two seemingly harmless words “cover up” are a symptom of a much larger cause: the problematic, hyper sexualized way in which the female body is viewed. The female body isn’t necessarily sexual until it’s met with a sexualized gaze. “Protecting” a woman by suggesting that she cover herself implies that the female body is criminal in a case of objectification. Ratajkowski confronts this realization in her essay, writing that “people’s reactions to my sexuality were not my problems, they were theirs.” And she’s right. If objectification comes from the other—from the outside—then it’s the gaze that holds the smoking gun.
If the gaze is the culprit, then the focus should be on reconstructing the ways in which the female body is viewed. What we absolutely cannot control is the form and appearance of the female body, and yet it is the body that is controlled, contained, manipulated, shamed. I find this notion of misplaced projection very difficult to accept—the idea that merely existing as a female has the potential to welcome unwarranted objectification.
As a woman, I have a right to make choices about my body. Unfortunately, I don’t have a right to choose how others view my body. As Ratajkowski writes: “Even if being sexualized by society’s gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.” In the case of my bra-less vacation, the act of not wearing a bra was in no way intended to be viewed as a sexual one. But I was still opening myself up to a sexualized gaze—despite the fact that it was completely against my own will. This powerlessness complicates and threatens a female’s relationship to her body and to her sexuality. How does a woman choose sexuality when the choice never seems to be hers at all?
Many people have called Ratajkowski a hypocrite. Though she makes it no secret that she’s a model and actress, she also doesn’t acknowledge the extent and nature of her work. She’s posed either nude or semi-nude for publications like Sports Illustrated and GQ, explicitly marketed to men. In short, she’s willingly been an object of the male gaze that she so ferociously denounces in her essay—in fact, she’s profited off of it. But part of me also thinks that we have to believe Ratajkowski knows exactly what she’s doing when she gets in front of the camera. It’s possible that she enacts these beliefs through her profession, feeling fully in control of her own body and “choosing” the space of her own sexuality, thereby refusing to be submissive to the male gaze.
Regardless, to call Ratajkowski a hypocrite is to overlook the most obvious aspect of her writing. She may not exactly be practicing what she preaches, but she could also be saying nothing at all. By simply grappling with an uncomfortable issue in a very public way and revealing her own confusion about her body (“I hear the voices reminding me not to send the wrong message”), I think Ratajkowski quietly acknowledges the complicated and “messy, messy” nature of her position. I applaud her for attempting to unravel the complexities of an issue so deeply engrained in our society, despite her profession.
I called my mom before writing this article, because I didn’t want to offend her or imply that she’s a perpetuator of gender bias. As I suspected, she was extremely receptive and open to my ideas. When I hung up, all I could think about was the young woman I may one day raise. Will I find myself telling her to “cover up” out of fear that she might be looked at the wrong way? How will others view her? How will she view herself? I know that my opinions straddle a very fine line, and neither Ratajkowski nor myself have the “right” answers to these questions. No one can guarantee that the women of tomorrow will reign over their bodies and their sexuality—but asking the tough questions is a good place to start.
Abi Conners, Editor-in-Chief
Image: Emily Ratajkowski’s Instagram