*** This piece was one of a slew (I googled "synonyms of slew" so-as not to use that word and what came up was synonyms for slay because slew is past tense for slay? I'm keeping slew.) of posts which I never published, but am coming back to belatedly publish anyway in an effort to "honor my process" ...
Thank you for your honoring of the BLAHG <3
When I was 19, I returned to the states after having lived alone in a foreign city for about a year and unable to keep my feet out of an airplane, let alone grounded in the traditional sense.
To escape my Midwest misery, and to amuse my clinically-depressed-yet-on-the-cusp-of-discovering-my-inner-female-of-the-21st-century-empowered self, I sought out books written by strong females with an honest story to share. One July afternoon, while "paroozing" a downtown Ann Arbor Urban Outfitters (the capitalist embodiment of late teen angst and perhaps the most ironically tangible example of a business which markets "anti-conformity" as trend), I decided this search for strong stories warranted splurging the petty overtime cash I'd earned that week as a barista and beach attendant on one single item, a book which I seemed to literally stumble upon, which became the non-audible soundtrack of my summer.
I remember that I had just put one of those little tiny hands on each of my index fingers and with them was flipping through various books about things like how to become a photographer, being a cat mom (I had always disliked cats and was definitely a dog person, but, cue the early days of meme culture and I was open to the idea) and Kim Kardashian's selfies (still sighing that that was a book but ok) when I saw Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned".
I think what caught my attention (aside from the eye-catching 70's-esque orange sale sticker stuck onto the cover) was the quotations around "learned." In my many moments of self-reflection and redirection (aka, notepads chuck full of lists that were sure to repurpose my talents and lead me to making money off of what inspired me... like selling homemade t-shirts for a living) I, too, had quotation-ed words like learned.
I felt I had really reached some place of enlightenment, despite my cripplingly unstable mental condition (I'm cuing sarcasm here and yes it is comical now but really I can remember feeling so attached to my instability, clinging to my cynicism as if it wasn't destroying me from the inside out) and realizing that no one ever really knows anything, and I felt that Lena was on my level. (Keep in mind... she's nine years older than me, she had published a book and produced a hit tv series among much else that I had yet to experience, but alas, she passed the test of reaching that inner genius whom no one else could crack.)
This book was seriously formational in my darkest days. The power exhibited in Lena's writing reinvigorated a power that I had long-since considered could be exhibited in a public medium, not to mention by a "young woman" who had the wit about her enough to publish an entire chapter of journal entries recounting her compulsive self-regulation -- down to every almond she ate -- as a means of humorously, entertainingly illustrating her journey through a complex inner experience. Of course, my newfound exposure to this type of writing was mainly a product of my naïveté, but it re-catalyzed a passion for writing and the idea that one's story could be well enough content to create something meaningful in the hands of consumers. (This was a time before social influencers, by the way.)
*** As noted above, this piece was belatedly published, and what follows is a later-written reflection on and continuation of such.
Since that time, both when I first got my hands on Lena's book and when I wrote those words attempting tribute to it, I have heard public critiques of her which I hadn't been aware of before and have brought up the subject of Lena, her book, her show, etc. to multiple friends who shared perspectives I'd not heard. What strikes me now is that my perception of Lena's work and its impact on my life has lost parts of its validity due to the comments of some on her background, privilege, controversy, etc... Details I almost don't really want to ponder here or even hold awareness of due to how acutely I notice they erode my once-treasured perception of her work. It's a phenomenon we're all contemplating a lot lately, what with cancel culture and the realization that nearly every public figure we desire to idolize has *gasp* made mistakes, and more, that perhaps they are not those same treasure-able figures we once held in such high regard.
I'm currently in Chicago for work (sitting in a friend's empty apartment quarantining with a cup of tea as I write this) and last week, before meeting up with some friends I had a few hours to kill so walked to a coffee shop to read. Of course, though, I forgot to throw my book into my bag when I scurried out in my coat, scarf and mittens so on the way I stopped into one of my favorite book stores and leisurely combed through their recent releases to find one that struck me -- actually it felt very reminiscent of the scene I described in the opening paragraphs of this post, though, unfortunately this time without the silicone tiny hands.
My current frame of mind is very much oriented toward the female experience -- unpacking the weight of all that which growing up I never noticed (misogyny, etc.) and all which now seems to be everything I notice (fourth-wave feminism). -- so it's no surprise that Emily Ratajkowski's book, My Body, jumped out from the table of progressive titles. I had never heard of Emily Ratajkowski. To be honest, upon sight of the last name I just deduced the author might have a cultured perspective (is that something I should keep to myself?) on the topics described on the sleeve and also I liked the cover.
Cozied into the corner of a bar-height table which looked out onto Clark Street, I blindly dove into Emily's book. Her writing felt similar to that of Lena's in that it felt dignified; I could tell she wanted to tell this story, whatever it was going to be. From the hour or two I had to read, it was made clear that she was a famous model and I chuckled to myself knowing that if I had known that fact prior I probably wouldn't have bought this book -- which ends up being doubly important to note.
Often when I read a new book, I refrain from looking up the author AT LEAST until after I finish it. Even though Ratajkowski's essays were painting a picture of a woman whom I most likely would have written off, the noticing of my bias toward her for that made it even more interesting to keep engaging with her writing. I had a feeling this happened-upon memoir would challenge me in a good way, as most happened-upon things do.
In the first pages of the book, she includes a quote from John Berger's Ways of Seeing -- a book I love and also consider extremely formative for me. I posted a photo of the page (right before my phone died and my friends arrived to meet me) and later saw that an old friend had messaged me asking eagerly how Ratajkowski's book was. I was surprised that she could tell based on just that introductory quote, but later understood as she pointed me to an article reproduced by The Daily, titled, 'The Emily Ratajkowski You’ll Never See.'
Curious and looking to fill my queue of podcasts for the workday, I cautiously listened to the 38 minutes while mindlessly editing some illustrations, taking note of how my brain was responding to how the journalist talked about Emily and her essays. I was seated at a different bar-height table, this time at my office in downtown. And while the content of the podcast (a written article) was not pointedly read aloud, it caused me to shift in my seat every time I sensed any twinge of scrutiny in the journalist's voice. I felt obligated to keep listening, as if it was my duty to be informed on the larger context of My Body (because, wasn't it?), but I was bummed knowing that this would affect how I interpreted the rest of her book. I semi-regretted pushing play.
I was just three chapters into My Body when my friend messaged me about The Daily's feature. While I'm still reading it during my down time and plan to finish it on the train to Detroit this weekend, I can sense that it feels different to read it now.
I'm not here to weigh in on personas or motives or controversies... I don't know if it's wrong to prefer ignorance when it comes to celebrities (is she considered a celebrity? lol)... But as I write this I realize it's not even about whether it's wrong or not to do so; I don't believe it is, what actually plagues me as a consumer of pop culture is not knowing whether my preference is "acceptable" or not. In a polarized climate like today's, saying anything-- liking anything-- about anything automatically puts you in a camp. Automatically deems you duped or undeceived. Maybe it's always been this way... Yet in this contextual landscape, the burden of image (precisely what so much of My Body is about) actually feels SO tied to so much of feminist literature's point, and much of the feminist movement in general. We don't want to be fooled, or be anyone's fool, anymore.
Once upon a time as a late teen in an Urban Outfitters, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" stood out to me, yes, because of the quotation-ed word in its subtitle. But it also stood out to me because the primary title spoke to my own unspoken assertions around girlhood. Growing up, my main claim to fame was not being "like other girls," a claim which I have only recently learned has been attributed to being a quote-unquote "guys-girl", though I guess according to this definition of the term, this didn't, for me, show up as always dating but more like hating the color pink, boasting that I could eat just as much as my 6'4 brother, etc. It wasn't until last year that I was informed of the many tropes around women who claim not to be like other women. Looking back now, I honestly can't gauge the legitimacy of that claim being purely the result of survival instinct in a relatively misogynistic environment and that women are just finally banding together to dispel this need to be only one type of strong.
With the details of her book hazy now, I don't know what Lena's intent of the title was or if it was even meant to evoke what it evoked in me. To be "not that kind of girl" felt inherently part of my adolescence and what allowed me to set myself apart from the judgement that inevitably came with being a girl. It honestly digs at me when I hear my friends mockingly use the term "guys-girl" (while we watch The Bachelor, for example; a show I never would have admitted to watching even a year ago), but I understand. And so, too, I understand the absurdity of a position like Ratajkowski's, who, supposedly fights to be taken seriously in her own way, coping in the ways that she learned were effective for her, and still is ridiculed -- not only by men who don't respect her but also by women who simply don't agree with her.
So much of what we experience (yes as humans but in particular the female experience) is so absolutely rooted in image -- in how we are viewed both publicly and by ourselves. For me, Not That Kind of Girl was an earlier example of one claiming one's voice despite public opinion, and My Body is simply a different version nearly eight years later. I admittedly have no real interest in learning about Emily Ratajkowski as a public figure. I've never looked at her social media page (which seems to be a main topic in discussions about her) and I don't plan to. She's someone I don't know, and will likely never know, so talking about her persona seems beside the point, when on the contrary this person has taken the time to create a meaningful collection of text and given it to the world as a gift which can act as a means of connection and reflection. Why load on the weight of everything that could be tied to that gift rather than accepting the gift and not asking for more than that?
Of course, this is relatively political. It's always political. Everything is connected and everything we consume (or don't) -- including books and podcasts and articles and the sincere and valid opinions of our friends... Nothing exists in a vacuum. And yet, in this digital/information age, these small slivers of art form sometimes feel best when they exist in as much of a vacuum as is possible, for better or worse.
Today I reposted the text of an Instagram caption from some stranger I discovered via a podcast and whose online content tends to resonate. Upon creating the story, I noticed myself taking the step I always do: drawing white overtop of everything within the screen-shotted image that is not the text, including the original poster's IG handle. I almost always tag the person somewhere else on the screen so that due-credit is given, though sometimes in white and barely recognizable. I cover their name because otherwise it is the first thing a viewer sees (versus when a quote is shared in other mediums, for example, the person's name typically comes after the quote) and upon reposting something isn't the idea that a viewer engages -- at least first -- the content, not the content's producer?
Critical consumption is second nature these days. Everything you encounter is one more click away from a deeper investigation into a rabbit hole of context. And that's a great thing! It's incredible that we have the ability to inspect things so deeply and thoroughly and thus make informed judgements and decisions... But at what cost does such levels of scrutiny come?
When I was a girl, I would burrow beneath my sheets with a flashlight to barrel through hand-me-down novels, most of which, funny enough, were science fiction / fantasy, a genre I haven't touched in years. I didn't know what the f*ck Rick Riordan looked like, what his skin color was or what state he was raised in; whether he was liberal or conservative... I didn't care; it didn't matter. And I get that as we age and as culture develops that growth comes with higher levels of accountability, but I wonder, when will I again read a book for what it is, and not take on the mass of factors which led such a book to be produced? Never, unless I consciously create some boundary which affords me the ability to do so.
I think, at least for me, the way that pop culture / digital content has evolved and permeated our experience (as humans, as women) fashioned this way of pigeon-holing ourselves and others; producers of that content (on whatever scale it may be) into these masses of influence (big or small) which get categorized and consequently consumed in very particular ways. I don't want that to be the case anymore, so something has to give. If a person can ebb and flow, can't their creations -- their opinions and their actions and their character, too? And can't, then, our perceptions of them as people and of their work change, too? What kind of free and boundless (yet boundaried?), integrated experience that could be...