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‘Buying Myself Back’: Emily Ratajkowski and the Male Gaze

Zobia Haq shares the lessons learnt from Emily Ratajkowski's powerful essay.

Emily Ratajkowski’s essay published in September, entitled ‘Buying Myself Back: When does a model own her image’ is a beautifully written piece tracing her increasing awareness of and struggles with the stark insistence of others in holding a claim to her image. A claim to their own version of Emily, as she calls it, asserted by photographers, artists, and ex-boyfriends alike. In the essay, she details her sexual assault by photographer Jonathan Leder, at her first and only shoot with him in 2012, when Ratajkowski was 20 and Leder was 40 years old. Leder later published several books of her nude Polaroids without her consent, and without informing her.

There was one detail that stuck with me long after reading Ratajkowski’s words: her innate feeling of being visible. She writes that, when Leder picked her up from the bus station to go to his house for the shoot, she remembers “feeling watched, aware of our proximity and my body and how I might appear from his driver’s seat.” The exhausting feeling of being watched is one that I believe is familiar to most women. In 1972, sociologist John Berger published ‘Ways of Seeing’, a book based on his BBC television series, where he explored what it means to see, and the relation between the art of gazing and the establishing of our place in the surrounding world. He writes:

“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men…A woman must continually watch herself…Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually…And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman…Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”

Is my shirt rumpling up as I sit down? Do I look sloppy as I eat my sandwich on the tube, eyes to the floor, shameful, for daring to do such a thing in public? A distinct picture of the tiny wrinkle that appears between my eyebrows when I frown, emerges in the back of my mind almost simultaneously to the frown flooding my face. Such images, questions and checks accompany women almost constantly throughout the day, myself included, until I reach home and shut the door – and even then, I am somewhere dimly and instinctively aware of my silhouette as I hunch over, head bowed, to make an evening cup of tea.

The problem with feeling so visible, with a constant running stream of scrutiny in your head, is that it leads you to start doubting your credibility. I am female; I am different; therefore, am I wrong? Ratajkowski in her essay describes wanting to “impress” her disdainful photographer. She describes explaining to him that modelling “was just about making money” for her, an insistence that she wasn’t “dumb”, that she knew “modelling has its expiration date”, and that her true intention was to save money to “go back to school or start making art” – an explanation that she “was used to defining myself with…to men especially.” When Leder dismisses this ambition, stating that she would never be able to save enough money as “you girls always end up spending too much money on shoes and bags”, Ratajkowski doubts herself and starts believing him despite not even in the habit of buying expensive bags. “What if he was right? What if at the end of this I really would have nothing?” This is symptomatic of a society that ridicules women for being women, that insidiously makes women insecure simply for assuming the connotations that come with being a woman. Leder, at another moment in the shoot, also sneers at Ratajkowski for being “’obsessed’” with Instagram when she turned to open her phone. How ironic, then, that he first posts his prized Polaroids of her on that very same medium.

When the feeling of self-consciousness and visibility is synonymous with experiences as a woman, this opens the door not only to doubting your own credibility, but to allow others to also doubt it for you. If a woman commits the crime of being ‘sexy’, her sexuality becomes all-defining, the essence of her very being, and consequently is used to perversely negate her capacity to ever be sexually assaulted. When Leder heard of Ratajkowski’s allegations against him, he dismissed them not by defending himself but by describing the ‘type’ of girl she supposedly is: “You do know who we are talking about right? This is the girl that was naked in Treats! Magazine, and bounced around naked in the Robin Thicke video at that time. You really want someone to believe she was a victim?” And here, I think, is the most devastating aspect of this lived ordeal: existing as a woman in a patriarchy, where the male gaze intrudes on all areas of life, completely delegitimises your experience in favour of any man’s definition of you. This toxic undercurrent to issues of consent is what leads to police confiscating phones of sexual assault victims in order to pass judgement on their private life, and to female and male commentors alike on Instagram claiming that the fact that Leder published a book of nude Polaroids without Ratajkowski’s consent doesn’t matter, because she could have just kept “’her clothes on’”.

And this is pervasive throughout society: I am reminded of Jimmy Kimmel’s 2009 interview with Megan Fox, another woman revered and reviled for being ‘sexy’, where she shares her experience of being sexualised and sexually exploited as a 15-year-old on the set of Bad Boys II. Kimmel responds with a crass joke and the insinuation that all men would have sexual fantasies of an underage Megan Fox. Another reminder is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘scandalous’ leaked video, intended to humiliate her as she was sworn in as the youngest ever US congresswoman in 2019, which depicts her simply dancing on a roof in college. Writer Rebecca Solnit relates that such acts are intended to give a stark warning to any woman wanting to publicly achieve: “You thought you were a mind, but you’re a body, you thought you could have a public life, but your private life is here to sabotage you, you thought you had power so let us destroy you.

What can we do to remove the male gaze from our lives and imagination, and move forward into a world where being attractive, working, or dancing on a roof, whilst simultaneously a woman, are not inherently offensive? I’m not sure. Ratajkowski wonders: “what does true empowerment even feel like? Is it feeling wanted? Is it commanding someone’s attention?”

She describes Leder publishing the book of her revealing Polaroids without her consent as a “violation”, the “using and abusing” of her image for profit. In a tweet at the time, she decried the act as a perfect example against what she stands for: “women choosing when and how they want to share their sexuality and bodies”. What is striking is her emphasis on the amount of attention she naturally paid to her violation as it happened. She staged a “very public protest” at the book’s publication, and shares how she looked him up occasionally thereafter, checking in on a part of herself, the part “he now owned”: “it was intoxicating to see what he’d done with this part of me he’d stolen”.

With time and distance, Ratajkowski recalls feeling a “deep twinge of shame” at her “posturing” and her desire to impress the photographer with highbrow talk of art-making and culture, as he subtly and disdainfully dismissed her. By promising herself that she “wouldn’t look him up anymore”, she begins the work of reclaiming her image. Despite the multiple reprints of his book, posing as high art so long as it bears his name as the creator, and despite contemplating the possibility of draining herself to entangle him in a legal lawsuit, she concedes that expending her resources on Leder would not be “money well spent”. Perhaps this is what real empowerment is: a focus, however taxing to maintain, on one’s image as whole, and not on the fragment that was stolen long ago. Whilst Leder will run out of his “crusty Polaroids”, Ratajkowski will forever remain as the “real Emily”.

As you consider these questions for yourself, read Ratajkowski’s essay. Here is an example of a woman who has sought to reclaim her image, deafen her quiet inner second-guessing by speaking out loud, and as she puts it, “carve out control where she can find it.”

Artwork by Emma Hewlett.

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