Can Emily Ratajkowski change the fashion industry, one essay at a time?

Last month, model and actress Emily Ratajkowski published an essay entitled “Buying Myself Back: When Does a Model Own Her Own Image?”. In this essay, Ratajkowski accuses photographer Jonathan Leder of sexually assaulting her during a photoshoot in 2012. She also mentions several occasions in which she has felt that she does not own her own image, writing that “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own”.

Upsettingly, but not surprisingly, this is not the first time that a model has come forward about photographers sexually assaulting and harassing them. In 2018, Mario Testino was on the  receiving end of these claims,with male models and former assistants coming forward and accusing him of sexual misconduct. Similarly, a year earlier Bruce Weber was accused of sexual assault.

All of these photographers have had similar reactions to the accusations. Weber released a statement referring to the accusations as  “outrageous” and attempting to play the victim, claiming he was “shocked and saddened” at what he was being accused of.

In response to Ratajkowski’s accusations, Leder has said that the claims  were “too tawdry and childish to respond to”. He went on to question her integrity, saying “you do know who we  are talking about, right? This is the girl who was naked in the Robin Thicke video at the time. You really want someone to believe she was a victim?”. 

Mario Testino’s legal team also attacked the victims in 2018, questioning the “characters and credibility” of those who had come forward, arguing that they “cannot be considered reliable sources”.

It seems that a trend is emerging. Models come forward, the photographers deny their claims, and then no change is being made to the way the fashion industry is run. These models are disposable to the industry, the photographers don’t seem to be. A culture of ignoring any mistreatment which takes place seems to be adopted, leaving models defenceless and extremely vulnerable.

Ratajkowski’s essay seems to have encouraged more conversation on what must be changed, but will it actually result in any real change? Discussion is important, but this is only the start of what should be done.

In her 2019 in Harper’s Bazaar, Tara Le Roux, co-founder of Linden Straub – a modelling agency -, set out five rules which would guarantee a safer environment for models: professionalism, education, transparency, sustainability and integrity.

Le Roux questions why, even after sexual harassment claims, nothing is done to improve the situation. She believes that “the crux of the problem is that in this business, under the guise of creative genius, people get away with being monsters”.

Ella Alexander also supports Le Roux’s belief that it is the “creative genius” that is being used as a cover for sexual harassment claims. Alexander argues that it is this which is used to “justify the inappropriate behaviour of powerful men, particularly photographers who are treated as god-like figures”.

The thin line between professionally appropriate and inappropriate seems to be particularly blurry in the fashion industry, as Edie Campbell suggests in her open letter about model harassment in 2017. She wrote that “it becomes harder to define what inappropriate behaviour is in a world where nudity is commonplace, drugs and drinking are accepted, even encouraged”.

Even so, this is no excuse for covering up harassment. Emily Ratajkowski was only 20 at the time of the alleged assault. She describes herself as being extremely young and relying greatly on the advice of her agent and others working in the industry. It is clear that young models should be much more supported from the beginning of their career, protected from predatory photographers who know that they can get away with taking advantage of younger models who are still trying to find their way.

Ratajkowski ends her essay with a more optimistic note: “I will remain as the real Emily; the Emily who owns the high-art Emily, the one who wrote this essay, too. She will  continue to carve out control where she can find it”. Emily Ratajkowski has found a way to deal with her alleged assault and mistreatment. It is time to make sure that no other young models have to “deal” with their exploitation and instead are never put in this situation in the first place.  

Ana Hill Lopez-Menchero