January Cover Star Emily Ratajkowski Talks Feminism, Criticism & Being Controversial

Emily Ratajkowski
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Browbeaten for being beautiful and criticised for her self-expression, American actress Emily Ratajkowski is a twenty-first century conundrum. But her quest for liberty is one we should all respect

When Emily Ratajkowski answers the phone, the first two words we exchange are the kind of ice-breaker a journalist dreams of. “Nice name,” she laughs about our collective moniker. The customary awkwardness of a phone interview, where witty face-to-face repartee is lost to crackling phone lines and long-distance pregnant pauses, is replaced with a lucky common ground that sets the tone for an insightful and amiable telephonic tête-à-tête.

Derived from Latin, Emily means ‘striking... eager... rival’, and I’m keen to know which might characterise her most aptly. “I don’t think all Emilys are born the same,” she proffers back. She has a point.

Emily Ratajkowski

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Emily Ratajkowski (silent ‘j’, FYI) is a 26-year-old American A-list model-cum-actress with a side-line in design, living a charmed life in LA, with movie premieres, catwalks and 15.9 million Instagram followers. I, on the other hand, am a 39-and-three-quarters mum-of-one living the quiet life in Dubai, with Spinneys shops, nursery runs and 3,684 Instagram friends. Incomparable, I know. But what I learn through the course of our interview is that there’s one thing that binds Emily and I, something that transcends continent, age and social convention, and that’s a mutual and unwavering belief that women are awesome and that we should be allowed to be exactly who we want to be. Full stop.

On this matter, Emily Ratajkowski is an unreserved feminist. A loud and proud campaigner, whose views are liberal and whose commentary is deliciously unfettered. Her Twitter account shoots straight from the heart, and she’s a no-holds-barred kinda advocate who gets up in people’s grill for all the right reasons.

Her approach to feminism isn’t singular or particularly radical, in fact, in essence, it’s beautifully simplistic... Women should have choice, believing nobody, and certainly no man, should be able to dictate how a woman chooses to live her life, what she says, what she wears, or what she does. 

Emily Ratajkowski

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It’s a viewpoint she advocates and defends in equal measure, and often on a daily basis. You see, Emily came to fame in Robin Thicke’s controversial 2013 Blurred Lines video, in which a scantily-clad Emily rollicked around in a rather suggestive manner. Likewise, her @emrata Instagram account is strewn with semi-dressed selfies, including a provocative photo with Kim Kardashian West that went viral last year. It is a palpitating juxtaposition in which a woman wantonly flaunts her sexuality whilst fighting for freedom. Would Emmeline Pankhurst salute her spirit or fear for the female-driven future she fought so hard for?

And it is here that the complexities of the discourse begin. Because, how can someone who labels themselves a feminist brandish their body so brazenly? Oh, the hypocrisy. I’ll let Emily explain... “I think a lot of people really feel that the idea of a woman being sexual or being sexualised is the opposite of feminism,” she says, “When I feel like, in some ways, that conversation itself can be oppressive to women, because you’re telling them how to dress and how to act, which is actually the opposite of feminism.

Emily Ratajkowski

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The idea that you have to adjust because of society’s ideas of a sexualised woman or because of a patriarchal standard of beauty and sexuality is again putting pressure on women to change rather than the outside culture changing. However, if that makes a woman feel good, then likewise, who is anyone to tell them that they shouldn’t do that? Women should be able to do and say what they want without the burden of judgment from other people. Young women, in fact women of any age, shouldn’t have to feel judged or limited. However, I think younger women have this idea about feminism, that it’s like some kind of burden. It’s what Roxane Gay’s book Bad Feminist is all about, what does it mean to be a bad feminist?

For example, you like a song that’s somewhat misogynistic, and the guilt that can be induced, especially in young women who are already under so much pressure, is awful. And that’s something I’ve made my cause about.” 

Emily Ratajkowski

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Having had an “interesting introduction into womanhood”, maturing physically far earlier than her peers, Emily has spoken openly about the additional pressures placed on her as a young woman. “I was a 12 year old [with D-cup breasts] but people looked at me as a 21 year old,” she explains. “It was really difficult for me to understand and to come to terms with – that identity, people’s perception of me... It’s hard for a 12-year-old girl, who is basically feeling like ‘Why don’t you just leave me alone’, because I don’t see men having to justify what they wear or how they express themselves.”

“The fact that I didn’t feel I should have to change who I am for someone else” is down to her mother, who counselled Emily wisely. “She told me, ‘wear whatever you want, do whatever you want, it doesn’t matter, that’s just your body and that’s who you are so it’s not your issue.’ There was an acceptance there.”

Emily Ratajkowski

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But naturally this scrutiny had a lasting effect, one which she describes in Baby Woman, an essay she penned for fellow actress Lena Dunham’s weekly feminist newsletter, Lenny, in which she writes: ‘Surprisingly enough, dealing with the world outside the [modelling] industry was the toughest part of my adolescence and young adulthood. Teachers, friends, adults, boyfriends were more often the ones to make me feel uncomfortable or guilty about my developing sexuality.’

That over-scrutiny eventually spilled over into her career, with a move into the entertainment industry where she found “a separation between being smart and being a woman who can talk about feminism, someone who is intelligent but also sexy and happy to flaunt her sexiness. That’s just sexism,” she resolves. “I think women should be able to be however they want to be with their body and their sexuality, and that shouldn’t be in any kind of opposition to what they want to say.”

Emily Ratajkowski

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Being sensual is liberating, Emily says, explaining that she finds a certain beauty in being happy with who you are. “Absolutely. But I don’t think I’m an extremely sensual person every day. I’m just a human being and that’s something very personal. I feel all the different ways throughout the day – sexy, goofy, smart... And that’s the kind of life I would want for a young woman growing up. I would want her to feel all those different things in the span of 24 hours, and to feel empowered by that.” 

Not everyone agrees, of course, and when you’re in the public eye as much as Emily is, criticism is fait accompli. The more you post, the more you say, the more you open yourself up to criticism. Last summer British journalist Piers Morgan slammed Emily’s photoshoot in Harper’s Bazaar US’s August issue, which saw her riding a white horse sans vetements. Piers tweeted: ‘Do you want me to buy you some clothes – you look freezing.’ Emily’s acerbic retort... ‘I don’t need clothes as much as you need press.’ 

Likewise, in February this year, she spoke out against ‘slut-shaming’ when a New York Times reporter called America’s First Lady Melania Trump a ‘whore’. Taking to Twitter, she wrote: ‘Sat next to a journalist from the NYT last night who told me ‘Melania is a hooker’. Whatever your politics, it’s crucial to call this out for what it is: slut shaming. I don’t care about her nudes or sexual history and no one should.’

Emily Ratajkowski

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Emily won’t be silenced, but then again, why should she be? “Again, to me, women don’t have to or shouldn’t have to adjust their behaviour to make other people, men in particular, feel comfortable.
Or uncomfortable. Women are doing their own thing, they’re not asking for anything when they dress a certain way or when they post certain things on Instagram. And even if they are, it’s their life, they have the ability to make those choices.”

Her views on feminism are black and white. Choice is right, taking power away from a woman is wrong. “To me that’s what feminism is all about.

So the idea of putting limitations on women is the opposite of feminism. Even if it comes from a place of trying to dismantle the patriarchy. If you’re telling women how they should dress or how they should be... I think that you’re making a big mistake.”

We discuss the difference between the East and West, the history of cultural constraints, perceived societal suppression, and the preconceptions many have of how Arab women dress – or are forced to dress.

She seems to understand the conflict, tweeting an illustration last September of a figure of a woman – on the left, the woman wears an abaya, on the right, a swimsuit – entitled, The Lottery of Indecency. “It’s about all the names that both of these women will get called, because I think to me, it’s very much the same,” she says of the illustration that calls out people that criticise a woman for what they wear, how they wear it and how they choose to portray their body. “A woman deciding to be covered up is ultimately as much a feminist choice as her choosing not to be,” Emily opines. “I think it’s different for every woman and that’s how it should be. Whatever you feel comfortable with and however you want to show your sexuality or not show your sexuality is empowering as long as it’s your choice. I just spent some time in Morocco and it was really interesting to see a wide gamut of women choosing different ways of dressing. I really respect that.”

Last October Emily also tweeted an illustration of a woman in various guises of clothing – from a dress to a bathing suit to an abaya and so on. Underneath, the text reads: ‘Rape is never the victim’s fault.’ With the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfacing in October, the tweet was well-timed and impactful. “Nobody was surprised by these allegations,” she ventures, frankly.

Emily Ratajkowski

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It’s a delicate subject, but I want to know whether she has ever been in a position where she felt uncomfortable or objectified? “Yes. I don’t know a woman who hasn’t felt that way in this industry. If you think about Salma Hayek’s op-ed in the New York Times last month where she talks about trying to make a movie and the sort of pressure and the position she was put in as a sexualised woman... She had a horrible time in the industry. But you know, as an actress, or anyone who’s worked in the industry, I feel the same way. We’ve all seen it... My male friends, who I think are feminists with great ideas about equality, they were very surprised [about Weinstein]. But none of my female friends were shocked. I think people need to wake up and realise there’s something deeply disturbing [about the industry]. I think that there are a lot of power dynamics that have been deeply sown from the very beginning of the industry, where there are very small things that even as a woman you are so used to, that you don’t realise how wrong they are. But I hope the culture is changing.”

It’s a difficult time to be living in America, with the Weinstein allegations and Trump’s anti-feminist objectification of women both constant hot topics. “You know, I think it’s always been difficult, but now I think it’s just more visible. In some ways it’s a good thing when it is visible because you have to be really organised to really stand for the things you believe in and have something to rally against. I don’t think that the difference in a president changes cultural issues, because all these things were happening with Harvey [Weinstein] under other political reigns.”

With her own rallying cry so emphatic, how else does she think the world – and entertainment industry – should move forward to a more inclusive and celebratory society that truly embraces women? “It’s really about women supporting women. But it’s more than just saying ‘me too’, it’s about saying ‘I believe you’, and really getting behind someone.

We need to say, ‘I believe you, I believe your experience, your truth and your feelings, about what it means to be a woman.’ We need to take the responsibility off women to change how they have to act and behave, and instead look at how we can unite against the cultural issues that have lead us to where we are.”

All this social injustice is just kindling that sparks even further rhetoric for Emily. While there’s this cause, Emily will take a stand. Of course, strong viewpoints elicit strong reactions. Haters gonna hate, so the saying goes. “I really try to live by the idea that other people’s reactions are not my problem,” she says. “But there are definitely times I would just love to lay in bed and hide under the covers and wish I didn’t have access to the internet, you know.” Do her critics fuel her still further? “Yes, I think so. I mean, I have moments of feeling really great about being outspoken and then I have moments of feeling really beaten down by it and misunderstood and misinterpreted, where things are taken out of context or in a different direction that I don’t believe in, and that can make me feel like, ‘What am I even doing?’”

I wonder who it is that usually misconstrues what she says, men or women? “Generally men,” she says frankly. “I think a lot of women feel like that all the time. But I think if you don’t have haters or if you’re not somewhat controversial, then you’re not standing for anything in general and that’s something I think about a lot. So I’d rather be p***ing people off than just everyone liking me. I feel strongly that I’m right about a lot of the things I’m saying and that eventually the world will come around to that, and to me, and that’s worth all the frustrations that come with being criticised and being in the public eye and having people say that you’re basically full of s**t.” Well, you don’t want to be vanilla after all,
I say. “No,” she smiles. “I’ve got no interest in that.


Prices approximate. Photographer: Pamela Hanson at LGA. Hair: John Ruggiero at Starworks Artists.  Make-up: Jo Strettell at Tracey Mattingly. Manicure: Nettie Davis at The Wall Group.

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Emily Ratajkowski
Emily Ratajkowski, Cover Star, November, Feminism, Interview
Emily Ratajkowski
Coat, Dhs10,600; dress, Dhs2,430, both Marc Jacobs
Emily Ratajkowski, Cover Star, November, Feminism, Interview
Dress, Dhs12,500; necklace, Dhs15,000, both Louis Vuitton