Already famous as a model, an influencer, and the owner of a fashion brand, Emily Ratajkowski is known to the world in such saturation that anything she says on the subject of her body will inevitably be read through the lens of her own self-commodification. Or so we might think. It’s not unlike the trap of capitalism that Ratajkowski tangles with in her debut essay collection, the mechanism that’s punished her as much as it’s allowed her to thrive: How can one enter into an economy with the freedom to both criticize and participate? There’s a hint of self-aware humor in all of this, as when Ratajkowski’s Instagram captions solemnly intone, “My Body is on sale now.”

But what the reader is ultimately presented with in Ratajkowski’s book is candor. In 13 essays, she details the evolution of her thinking and her relationship to her body, her sexuality, and the currency both provide. The narrative isn’t chronological so much as it is emotional and intellectual, charting a sinuous path through coming-of-age stories and meditations on capitalism and power, female friendship, and finally motherhood. Ratajkowski writes with an incisive vulnerability that can give way to images of striking beauty, as when she recalls visiting her mother, who is sick. “An image arises,” she writes. “I am in the living room, on the white couch, looking out at the neon-green lawn. A thick tube descends through a pane of the window, attaching itself to the side of my neck like an artery. This is my mother’s love for me, I realize.”

A month before the book’s release, a page leaked from the chapter “Blurred Lines” painted Ratajkowski’s text as a call-out, accusing singer Robin Thicke of sexual assault. It was accompanied by a minor media frenzy online, utterly removed from its context—precisely the phenomenon that My Body seeks to avoid. Asked about the leak, Ratajkowski responded in a measured way, saying that she hoped “people would be able to hear things in my own words.”

We spoke with Ratajkowski about the process of writing My Body, critiquing capitalism even while excelling at its games, identifying as a socialist, and much more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Larissa Pham

Larissa Pham: I wanted to ask you about your relationship to visual art and to art-making more generally. How do you navigate the balance in being on both sides of a creative process—both as a collaborator and wanting to be a director or producer of a narrative? And what does art and art-making mean to you?

Emily Ratajkowski: Well, I think that one of the ideas I was always really interested in, even when I was in art school, was of the muse and the artist, and this feeling that they’re distinct and different. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve read more about female painters and their experience, and where they live in this weird, strange tradition of muse and artist. So that was something that I tackle and think of in the book. And then as far as the creative process goes, I think that the answer is: I don’t like being on one side of the process—I like being both producer and director. But it’s actually pretty difficult to switch sides. Especially if you have sexualized yourself and commodified your image and body, you’re seen in a certain way, and it’s very hard to prove yourself as someone who can be a creator. And that’s something that’s been frustrating for me—was frustrating, especially in my 20s. It’s one of the reasons why I think I wrote a book rather than directed a movie: because you don’t have to rely on anyone else—you just do it yourself. I didn’t need to raise funds to write a book or get anyone else on board; I just did it. The work was kind of the proof that I could do it at all.

LP: John Berger, Rebecca Solnit, Hannah Black, and Audrey Munson are among the artists and writers you mention in the book. Can you tell us more about who you were reading and what kind of research went into My Body?

ER: Everybody that you just mentioned, obviously, were the people I was thinking about. Audre Lorde was another person. There’s so many writers, but when I think about the texts that were important for my thinking, especially early on, I read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf when I was in high school, and Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett. There were a lot of texts that informed me throughout my life, but specifically for this book, I was looking at books of essays as well: Lacy Johnson’s The Reckonings, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. And Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, which isn’t a book of essays but has a really unique structure. Obviously, some of my book’s subject matter crosses over with what I was reading, particularly with Tolentino, Jamison, and Johnson. But I was also figuring out how a book of essays can take shape—because when you’re working on each piece, you know, it can be hard to see it as a whole.

LP: Can I ask you more about what that process of learning to write an essay collection was like?

ER: I think I had accumulated quite a lot of writing—I had 50,000 words or something—and one of the beautiful things about my career up until that point is that I didn’t have to work every day. So I had this time to write, and it was like, “OK, do I want to share this stuff?” Especially as somebody who has always been an avid reader, I was really nervous about—I know this is awful to say—being the kind of writer where you’re like, “Oooh, you should’ve kept that to yourself.” So I did a test of sending them to friends, and I cold e-mailed some writers out of the blue and was like, “Hey, I have these essays—would you mind telling me if you think I should continue to write?” And some of them very generously responded. At that point I sort of said, “OK, maybe I’m gonna get an agent and think about writing a book.”

LP: You’re in a unique position as a debut author, because you are a known figure, but you’re known for something different. I was thinking about this in light of politics, and this idea that people with platforms are expected to speak about various things or that people go to you for comment. And this book feels like something different. Do you consider the essays as part of your platform, or is it something completely different?

ER: It’s completely different from that. In the past two years, I used to very much be somebody who’d be like, “I would love to talk about activism and what it meant to be a public persona who speaks out”—but now, I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about it—partly because, as much as I do think we can bring awareness to issues and ideas, there’s now this ego thing built in, like, “Oh, I posted about the news du jour, so make sure you text this number to donate,” or “Here’s what you need to be aware of around blah.” And I haven’t decided where I land on that yet. If anything, I feel like if people want to read the book, I’m kind of inviting them to hear my thoughts and experiences as a very particular kind of person in the world.

LP: I saw the news about the “Blurred Lines” paragraph getting leaked, and when I read your response, what you said about wanting people to have the whole package really resonated, because it does need the context of the book, which I find is an evolution of your thinking.

ER: Yeah, it was really interesting because, you know, the Internet is obviously pretty brutal. But then there were also women who were like, “Well, thank you so much for speaking out”—and in person somebody said that to me. And I was like, “But I didn’t speak out! You haven’t gotten to read the book yet!” It’s not like I issued some statement where I decided that this was the moment to speak out. I want people to read the essay, is really the truth.

LP: I had a question about capitalism for you, which I see you grappling with a lot—not only the question of the economy, but also networks of power and how women in particular acquire power through beauty, sex, things like that. You also touch on the trap of capitalism—you were a Bernie Sanders supporter, but you also acknowledge that everyone has to play the game. So do you see these things that everyone has to engage with, and that you in particular have engaged with, as conflicting with each other? And how do you see the relationship between capitalism and art?

ER: Angela Davis has to sell her books, so Angela Davis sells her books on Amazon—you know what I mean? I think that’s the example I kind of point to sometimes. And a lot of people have asked me, “What about the contradiction—you’re somebody who’s commodified your image, your body, but you’re also sort of criticizing it.” And it’s like, “Well, we live in a world where that’s the reason I’m even able to criticize it—because I succeeded in the system that I’m now talking about.”

I feel that same way about capitalism. I have really complicated feelings! Basically, one of the big, big drives for wanting to have the career I have wasn’t just the validation it brought me personally, but also money. I really wish people talked more about money in general, but I tried to make it kind of a through line in the book, because it’s been a through line in my life: feeling like I want to have the freedom that money provides—and even the ability to write a book. I don’t fault anyone for living in our world and trying to make a living. What I want to do is be able to criticize the system that I live in. And I think that’s true for feminism and that’s true for capitalism.

LP: Do you identify as a socialist?

ER: I don’t know… I don’t know. I’ve never thought about identifying as a socialist or not. I’d probably say that people close to me would say that I am a socialist.

LP: But identifying personally is an answer that’s always changing.

ER: Yeah, and it’s such a weighty thing because of the associations with the word. It’s like why Bernie Sanders called himself a “democratic socialist.” I would say that I am certainly very interested in socialism. And I’m very displeased with capitalism, so…

LP: How do you navigate the relationship between your image, which is so widely known, and this new aspect of your work, which is textual and rooted in your experience?

ER: I guess, for me, as somebody who has been part of the public sphere, someone who’s really just an image—or images of me are what have been consumed—that’s just by definition voiceless, and there is no articulation in that. So this book is sort of the antithesis of what I have represented before. But I also think that there’s a reason why my name is big on the cover, and why I wrote it as first-person essays: because I think that what people have known about what I represent as a sexualized woman and model is important and informs the text and the experience. Because there is obviously power in the fact that people are just going to read this book because of the career I’ve built off of using my body to succeed. So I think that is kind of the background: having the experiences I’ve had in my life where I have had success. But also, I would hope it is clear that there was a double-edged sword in that success that comes with being a public woman who succeeds through objectification of self and by others.

LP: I wanted to ask you about the role of vulnerability in these essays. Reading them, I was struck by how much is revealed, but I also know that your work is very well curated, and it’s very clear what’s private and what’s not. What was that negotiation like as you were setting out to write this?

ER: At first, I just didn’t think at all about self-editing and about vulnerability, because I wouldn’t have written anything if I had been worried about it. But it’s been a weird balance where I’ve been trying to choose my words carefully, because I don’t want them to be taken out of context—but at the same time, when I start overthinking what I’m trying to say, there’s nothing interesting being said. So I think that basically I threw three sheets to the wind and was like, “Nope, I’m just going crazy.” And I did that. And then, through editing, I was really intentional about what I wanted to share and how I wanted to share it. But the greater truth is that I was most interested in being as honest as possible. And that meant including details that sometimes felt brutal or vulnerable to myself and to other people. This book can be contradictory, but I also hope its nuance can be recognized.

LP: I wanted to ask about the role of friendship, specifically female friendship, in your life. Some of my favorite parts in the book are when your friend Barbara shows up, and the mask comes off a little bit? Not that there’s necessarily a mask, but there’s a kind of softness and vulnerability in your relationship. I was curious about those sections.

ER: I’m really interested in female relationships and friendships, and my close female friends are probably the most powerful and impactful relationships I have in my life. I think in a lot of ways, this book is just about female relationships. Partly because I found that female relationships can be the most terrifying and most revealing dynamics that I’ve been exposed to, like meeting other women, and they also can be the most beautiful relationships. I was thinking a lot about the conversations I had with my closest friends while I was writing this book, when we were both really vulnerable and were sharing our experiences of what it means to be a woman and the difficulties of how to succeed and be happy. I don’t think those conversations happen enough in a public way. That’s one of my hopes for the book: that the closeness that really good female friendships have given me, I want that to be something that’s more shared in our culture and our society.

If there is a call to action in this book, it’s just to have these conversations about misogyny and about patriarchy and power dynamics that we don’t typically want to look at, but it’s also the idea that women could just talk about these things with each other, instead of feeling like there’s scarcity and that we have to compete with each other. It makes sense why we feel that way. But I want that to be different.