Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Content warning: this article contains references to sexual assault.
“Most of what came next was a blur.”
These words are all too familiar after the 2017 #MeToo watershed. The ‘Me Too’ movement was a devastating but long overdue light shone on the darkness of sexual assault. It remains important in forcing us to continually analyse how abusers were able to get away with their heinous crimes for so long. One key factor in this is the sickness still at the heart of how women’s bodies are viewed by society.
The idea of the male gaze and body ownership has been brought into the spotlight once more in Emily Ratajkowski’s courageous essay on her own experience of sexual assault. Before the “blur” of the attack itself, Ratajkowski details how she went to the home of photographer Jonathan Leder for a photoshoot and was plied with alcohol despite being under the legal drinking age. She was then told to strip naked part way through the shoot having not been informed of this beforehand. After the shoot – in which Leder verbally disparaged her body – Ratajkowski recounts being sexually assaulted by the photographer.
It is a tough read, but not an uncommon one. Back in 2017, as the Me Too movement was gaining huge momentum, Harper’s Bazaar and Model Alliance published a video in which models detailed their experiences of assault by men on set. One young woman said the photographer “kept taking photos even when I was crying,” and another said she never spoke of it because she “didn’t want to disappoint anyone.” It’s hard to admit, but her logic works. In an industry built on connection and reputation, to speak out against a prominent name can have serious career ramifications, especially for someone just beginning. Without being established, these women didn’t have a chance.
What this shows is that, despite gains made towards female sexual liberation, there is still a disconnect from the reality of a woman’s ownership of her body once she gets in front of a lens.
Ratajkowski explores this issue of self-possession when she describes the complicated relationship between a model and her own photographs. Comparing past experiences, Ratajkowski makes the case that women, when put in front of the camera, lose a piece of their own autonomy. Or, rather, they have it taken from them. There is no clearer example of this than Ratajkowski’s on-going battle with her own abuser.
Years later, the photographs that Leder took of Ratajkowski, including the nude ones, have been turned into three photography books without her consent and for which she has received no money. Though this appears entirely unjust—not to mention cruel and traumatic in that a victim of sexual assault knows that their assaulter is profiting from their body and assault—it is legal. In almost all circumstances, it is the photographer, not the subject, who is the owner of a photograph’s copyright. Though a model can retain the right to deny certain usages of their images, all too often—as was the case for Ratajkowski—the model’s agent waives this right without the knowledge or consent of their client. They quite literally forfeit the right of a woman to own her own body so that she might get booked for more jobs.
The twisted and warped power dynamics which dictate women’s bodies in front of the camera are reflective of the fact that a woman’s body is still considered public property. According to (male) Instagram commenters, when Emily Ratajkowski posts a picture of herself condemning infamous sexual assaulter Harvey Weinstein she is “objectifying [her]self for […] male attention,” but when she shares her essay denouncing this sort of objectification she is “selling [her]self out” and merely vying for a gold medal in “the oppression Olympics.” In short, her body is not her own, but a site for public vitriol. The frame around her means she is no longer a person, but an object to be stared at and judged.
Do not be fooled! Regardless of what clothes she is wearing, what makeup she may or may not have on, her previous sexual history or the frame her image resides within, a woman is the one and only owner of her body. Ratajkowski’s essay, the testimonies of her fellow models, and all the accounts of people who have spoken the truth about their own abuse, are courageous acts toward dismantling the structures which seek to undermine this reality. Whether the lens is the physical one of a camera shielding an abuser or the metaphorical one of the patriarchy at large, women like Ratajkowski are seeking to shatter it once and for all.