Our society loves putting women in boxes.
Overly educated? Controlling. Married? Subdued. CEO? Bossy. Model? Stupid. Naked? Asking for it.
Why is it so hard for women to convince the world that we can be complex individuals with multiple facets to our personality? Why do we have to choose between being this or that? And why do men get that privilege? After all, nobody's ever asked a man how he's going to juggle fatherhood with his career. Men are allowed to be fathers, have a career, have a social life and interests outside of their lives.
Women aren't allowed to have the same control over their lives. Hell, they don't even have control over their own bodies.
Last year, model and actor Emily Ratajkowski was all over the news because she was being sued. Her offence? She posted a paparazzi shot of herself taken without her consent on her personal Instagram account. I remember seeing the photo and thinking, that's her way of taking the power back. But the lawsuit proved otherwise.
The fact that the legal system gave more importance to protecting a photographer's image rather than a women's consent sheds light on the reality of women's rights in 2020. In an essay published in New York Magazine, titled Buying Myself Back, Emily Ratajkowski opened up about how her own image is never truly her own.
Emily described in detail about how a well-known artist, Richard Prince, lifted naked pictures from her own Instagram account, and without taking prior permission from her, turned them into art. He printed those Instagram images on large canvases and put them up on sale for $80,000 a piece. Emily later purchased one of those pieces, paying an absurd amount to own an image of herself. "I was paid $150 for the shoot and a couple grand later, when the magazine came out, for the “usage” of my image," she recalled. A year and a half later, she would be paying her then-boyfriend half the amount for the image of herself after their split.
Later, her former partner even demanded $10,000 for a similar image of her--one that had been gifted to her. "All these men, some of whom I knew intimately and others I’d never met, were debating who owned an image of me. I was considering my options when it occurred to me that my ex, whom I’d been with for three years, had countless naked pictures of me on his phone," she wrote.
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I’ve been working on a collection of essays for the past year and couldn’t be more thrilled that @nymag has published “Buying Myself Back”. This is an extremely personal piece about image, power and consent. Thank you to the entire New York magazine team for this opportunity and all of their support. Link in my bio.
However, the most moving part of the essay was also the hardest to read as a woman--when she described a photoshoot she did for 'exposure' that ended in sexual assault. Back in 2012, when she was merely 20 years of age, Emily's agent signed her up for a photoshoot with a well-known photographer. It was an unpaid assignment, but he promised to pay for her bus fare and let her stay at his place. The reward? The photographs would be published in a popular magazine, leading to potentially better modelling offers in the future.
Emily recalled never being told that it was supposed to be a lingerie shoot. Later, the photographer, Jonathan Leder, asked her to strip naked for the camera. Emily didn't hesitate, because she knew it was part of her job and she was a professional. What she didn't see coming was that later that night, Leder would sexually assault her. She never told anybody about this incident, hoping to forget it. "Years passed, and I tucked the images and Jonathan somewhere deep in my memory. I never told anyone about what happened, and I tried not to think about it," she wrote.
Years later, those very images came back to haunt her. A well-known publication reached out to her hoping for a comment on her 'new book'. That is how Emily found out that Leder was publishing a book of her naked images for $80 a copy. It sold so many copies that it was reprinted three times.
"I wondered what kind of damage this would do to my career as an actress. Everyone had told me to shy away from being “sexy” in order to be taken seriously, and now an entire book containing hundreds of images of me, some of them the most compromising and sexual photos of me ever taken, was available for purchase," she wrote about the incident.
However, the only thing worse than Leder profiting off selling pictures of Emily without her consent, was that nobody found what Leder did problematic enough. Why? Because if she consented to pose naked, why would 'someone like her' have a problem with the images being distributed? Emily had only consented to the images being reprinted in the magazine. "A lot of people believed the entire situation had been my doing. I, after all, had posed for the photos," she wrote.
When Emily tweeted about what a violation this book was, she was flooded with replies that reminded her that it was all her fault.
“Using and abusing? This is only a case of a celebrity looking to get more attention. This is exactly what she wants,” read one Tweet.
“You could always keep your clothes on and then you won’t be bothered by these things,” said another. A woman, no less.
Leder later went on to display those very images of Emily in an exhibition, making even more money off her, without her consent. When Emily finally went public with the sexual assault, Leder said the allegations were “too tawdry and childish to respond to.”
“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?" he said.
When Emily discussed legal recourse with her lawyer (who was costing her tens of thousands of dollars), he told her that not much would amount out of her pursuing the case. Emily then decided that it was more powerful to forget about Leder and move on with her life than to spend thousands of dollars and mental energy trying to chase someone who wasn't going to cave.
"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," she wrote, concluding the essay on a powerful note.
Emily's essay left me moved but also gave me a stark reality check on my 'place' in this world as a woman. It feels like we are still aeons away from accepting that men don't have the right to a woman's body. Will our legal system ever recognise the importance of a woman's consent? And most importantly, will society ever stop blaming women for the perverse actions of men?
Featured Image: Instagram