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All that glitters isn't gold: Emily Ratajkowski opens up about model exploitation

Emily Ratajkowski is a high-profile model with a large Instagram platform, who recently opened up about her experience with sexual assault and exploitation as a model. – Photo by Wikimedia

Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

The modeling industry is not what it may seem on the surface. It's far less of gorgeous people showcasing the best of fashion and beauty — and more about exploitation.

Supermodel and actress Emily Ratajkowski details her early modeling career, in a written essay for New York Magazine. According to the article, male artists and photographers paraded her body and face for profit and subsequently left her with nothing.

“I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own,” Ratajkowski said in her tell-all essay.  

Ratajkowski recounts a memory of when Richard Prince, an artist, chose pictures from her Instagram account to be used for his gallery show: “Instagram Paintings.” Prince printed the Instagram posts on to an oversized canvas. Ratajkowski caught wind of Prince’s art through her then-boyfriend's friend. 

To Ratajkowski's disappointment, she could not afford the $80,000 portrait of herself from her Instagram account at the time. Yet, the gallerist told Ratajkowski that a big-time collector bought it. Later on, Ratajkowski found out from a friend that Prince kept the portrait for himself. 

“(Instagram) felt like the only place where I could control how I present myself to the world, a shrine to my autonomy,” Ratajkowski said.

The second painting, an Instagram post of Ratajkowski's Sports Illustrated cover, is now owned by Ratajkowski after buying it from her then-boyfriend, splitting the painting’s cost. 

Nonetheless, it is evident that a model, any model, can never own her image, best expressed in Ratajkowski essay: "An image that had been taken from my platform and produced as another man’s valuable and important art.” 

Even so, a model’s image is only one example of the modeling industry’s inability to protect its models' hard work. 

An industry that thrives from selling a perception of beauty and glamour is defined by only that — a perception. The modeling industry is no more perfect than any other industry, yet its dark side is filled with sexual assault and image exploitation.

Ratajkowski narrates her own alleged sexual assault experience with a male photographer, Jonathan Leder, which happened after a photoshoot for a magazine called Darius that led to unsolicited, non-consensual penetration.

“Most of what came next was a blur except for the feeling,” Ratajkowski said after trying to remember her experience. 

Leder eventually used some images taken during the photoshoot for the book, "Emily Ratajkowski." Ratajkowski heard about the book from a magazine that wanted to promote it. 

Similar to Prince, Leder did not ask for consent or permission to use Ratajkowski's pictures. Ratajkowski tried to sue but soon realized it would be no help due to the cost and profits of the book. Simultaneously, many of the book’s pictures were posted on the internet by attendees of the gallery Leder hosted for the book. 

After the release of Ratajkowski's essay, Nola Palmer, an actress, wrote on her Instagram how she, too, was assaulted by Leder. Palmer said that Leder “stole her youth.” 

The victimization of a model of high status like Ratajkowski, who has 26.8 million followers and has graced Vogue on more than one can count, begs the question: How many more, unfamiliar girls in the industry have this happened too?

Well, after the #MeToo movement and an outpour of stories from sexual assault victims, more and more models have come out to tell their experience in the industry. 

Many have used position and power to exploit models, according to Harper's Bazaar and The New York Times. People with higher-level positions often create an excuse for doing explicit behaviors. Those in less powerful positions, like models and actresses, are forced to do as asked, so that they could be perceived as hard-working and make valuable connections.

It's a tale as old as time: Being likable equals making connections. 

“Sexual respect starts at the top,” said model and Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff, to Harper's Bazaar

Leading magazines and brands, including Condé Nast and Balenciaga, swiftly took action by either firing employees or releasing statements to the press. 

“Even as we stand with victims of abuse and misconduct, we must also hold a mirror up to ourselves — and ask if we are doing our utmost to protect those we work with, so that unacceptable conduct never happens on our watch,” said Anna Wintour, in a statement from Vogue.

While the industry has changed its policies for models’ safety, there is no denying how ignorant many are toward abuse of power for money and sex.

Without the story of women like Ratajkowski and others, the modeling industry would most likely stay the same. Thank you to the brave voices who speak out against the harmfulness and abuse of an exploitative industry.


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