Skip to navigationSkip to content
REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Empowerment vs. feminism.
BAD FEMINIST

Hey Emily Ratajkowski, not everything you do has to be ‘feminist’—and that’s OK

By Noël Duan

26-year-old model and actress Emily Ratajkowski does a lot in the name of feminism. She posed nude on a horse. She posed topless with Kim Kardashian West. She wore lingerie and writhed around in pasta. She supports Planned Parenthood. She clapped back when well-known misogynist and chauvinist, Piers Morgan, insulted her on Twitter—actually, she claps back eloquently whenever anyone tries to insult her. And this week, she became the face of hair care brand Kérastase, with a campaign shot by famed fashion photography power couple, Inez & Vinoodh.

What does being the gorgeously coiffed face of an international luxury beauty brand have to do with feminism? According to a recent interview with ELLE.com, it has everything to do with Ratajkowski’s concept of feminism. “Feminism is about the choices we make, and the freedom we have to make personal choices without judgement [sic] or retribution,” she explains in the interview. “For some people, their hair isn’t important to them, and that’s a totally respectful stance. I would never judge someone who feels that way.”

The interview is yet the latest proof that most of the public things Ratajkowski does has to come along with a dose of politics and feminism.  In this case, the interview— as with all celebrity interviews mediated by brands—involves as many platitudes for Kérastase as it did for women’s rights. “They weren’t just hiring a model because of a superficial image,” she explained. “They really like capturing what makes someone individual or a little bit odd. They’ll take a pretty girl and find what makes her unique.”

But as with all things Ratajkowski does, she received backlash for the campaign. The internet criticized her for alienating women, such as the 40% of American women who have visible hair loss by age 40 or women who have gone through chemotherapy, who don’t have the option of luscious, camera-ready locks. “It’s medusa, with a head of snakey insults to women. To cancer sufferers. To sufferers of alopecia,” one person wrote on Instagram. “It’s the utmost offensive and un feminist ad I’ve probably ever seen. This takes shaming and degrading in advertising to a whole new level.”

Ratajkowski wasn’t always so woke. In fact, she first went viral in 2013 for appearing topless in the controversial music video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” a hit song that was contentious not necessarily because there were naked women in the video, but because the lyrics trivialized sexual consent—so much so that more than 20 British universities banned the song from student functions.

But though it made Ratajkowski into a star, she regrets the role. “I wasn’t into the idea at all at first,” she told InStyle UK in 2016. “I think I came off as a bit annoyed in the video. Now, it’s the bane of my existence. When anyone comes up to me about ‘Blurred Lines’, I’m like, are we seriously talking about a video from three years ago?”

But here’s the thing, Ratajkowski: Not everything you do has to be construed as a feminist gesture—even if it can be a profitable marketing strategy these days. You can be naked because you fit into Western patriarchal ideals of beauty and you want to make as much money from this for as long as possible. In other words—you’re gorgeous. And I don’t blame you—in fact, it works for me: I’ve bought clothes from Reformation because you looked so amazing when you wore them first. I, a fellow 20-something-year-old woman, can understand the need to wave my feminist flag in public. I love, love, perversely love talking about being a feminist.

But there are things that card-carrying feminists do that aren’t necessarily feminist, either. We can only fight so many battles with our finite amounts of time, energy, and resources. Some of us get laser in hopes of becoming hairless. Some of us want to lose five pounds even if we’re at a healthy body weight. Some of us wear stilettos until we bleed—and even then, we keep walking in them. High heels, hair removal, and weight loss disguised as “clean eating” have all been marketed to us as feminist pursuits in recent years—even though they’re not.

Empowerment is not the same thing as feminism. They can be empowering or even pleasurable to us because they make us more confident in a patriarchal society that expects so much of women, but they don’t have to be feminist. And Ratajkowski confuses and conflates this politics-meet-aesthetics tension.

“It will take some time for society to adjust to Ratajkowski’s dreams of being known as much for her acting and political ambitions as for her body,” Lizzie Crocker of The Daily Beast wrote in 2017. “Until then, her feminist statements would be more convincing if she admitted they don’t always align with the sexy image she’s selling.”

“Being sexy is fun and I like it,” Ratajkowski wrote in an Instagram caption about the lingerie-and-pasta photoshoot she did for Love magazine’s 2017 advent calendar. “I should never have to apologize for that. My life is on my terms and if I feel like putting on sexy underwear, it’s for me.” She’s right—she shouldn’t apologize for what empowers her. And she shouldn’t have to justify every action of hers as an act of feminist, either.

As a cultural influencer, Ratajkowski has a responsibility to make make feminism inclusive. She is celebrated by gatekeepers like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar for her naked feminism because she is beautiful by cis-gender heteronormative standards. While women who are fat, or trans, or even non-white are often denigrated or ignored for the same thing. In fact, one of her favorite clothing companies, Reformation, which has a tagline of “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option,” was recently critiqued by Racked for not selling clothes for plus-size women.

Perhaps she—and the brands that pay her—want to have their cake and eat it, too by getting their rich, white, skinny model along with a dose of feminist values at the same time. But for many feminists, this would mean also acknowledging the complexity of actually being a woman, first. As Roxane Gay wrote in her bestselling book, Bad Feminist, being a feminist is messy because being human is messy.

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human,” she wrote. “I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect.” If feminism is about dismantling conditions of heteropatriarchy and gender norms, Ratajkowski’s posing naked as a celebrated beauty can be empowering, but not feminist. What makes Ratajkowski a feminist is her open support of organizations like Planned Parenthood—not her body.