Emily Ratajkowski Recalls How Her Mother's 'Beauty' Complicated the Model's Own Sense of Self
Emily Ratajkowski's self-image is complicated, as is her relationship with her parents.
The model explores both connections in her new book of personal essays, My Body, out Tuesday, in which she reveals how her mother Kathleen Balgley taught her to prioritize beauty at a young age — and how much her parents, Balgley, a former English professor, and her dad, John Ratajkowski, an artist, relied on her while navigating their turbulent marriage.
"Beauty was a way for me to be special," writes Ratajkowski, 30. "When I was special, I felt my parents' love for me the most."
My Body is a nuanced look at Ratajkowski's evolving understanding of her own power as a woman and as a model. At turns, she's felt both empowered and reduced to a sexual object when she capitalized on her body "within the confines of a cis-hetero, capitalist, patriarchal world," she writes. Ratajkowski recounts abuse by boys and men both inside and outside the modeling industry, including her claim that Robin Thicke touched her inappropriately on the set of his 2013 music video "Blurred Lines." (After the news broke last month, the singer didn't respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.)
"Whatever influence and status I've gained were only granted to me because I appealed to men," Ratajkowski writes in the book's introduction. "My position brought me in close proximity to wealth and power and brought me some autonomy, but it hasn't resulted in true empowerment. That's something I've gained only now, having written these essays and given voice to what I've thought and experienced."
When speaking with Kay Adams on PEOPLE (The TV Show!), Ratajkowski explains that for "a long time" she talked about how "the way that I capitalized off of my body and my sexuality made me feel empowered. And I think that it's more complicated than that. I feel like I haven't been able to talk about that enough."
Adding that in the book she wants "to talk more about what it means to be a woman in today's world, whether you're a model or not."
In the book, Ratajkowski starts by revisiting her childhood, where she says she would be "sucked into" her parents' "screaming matches, positioned between them." Recalling in My Body, that from an early age she understood she was the "glue" that kept her parents together.
"I knew that my parents had been on again, off again for years before my mother became pregnant with me and they decided to get married," the model writes. "I understood that even before I was born my existence was the essential glue of their relationship."
She continues: "After every such explosion, which usually ended with one of them leaving, the other would turn to me to plead their case or to air their grievances. I'd listen, performing my role dutifully, feeling a queasiness that would stay with me for days."
Just as that uneasiness stayed with her, so did the lessons she learned from her mom about beauty.
Ratajkowski writes that her mother is "classically beautiful" and has often been compared to Elizabeth Taylor (Ratajkowski agrees) and Vivien Leigh. Balgley raised Ratajkowski to celebrate her looks and to be "free of shame," according to My Body. But the value Ratajkowski's mom placed on beauty complicated their relationship and Ratajkowski's own sense of self, she writes. (Ratajkowski signed with Ford models when she was 14.)
"My mother seems to hold the way my beauty is affirmed by the world like a mirror, reflecting back to her a measure of her own worth," Ratajkowski writes.
"A friend of mine from college wrote on Facebook that he'd seen your recent magazine cover," her mom once told her, according to My Body. "He said, 'No surprise Kathleen's daughter is beautiful! But she's not as gorgeous as you, Kathy. No one compares to you.' "
RELATED VIDEO: Emily Ratajkowski Explains Why She Didn't Speak Out for Years After Robin Thicke Allegedly Groped Her
Balgley often reminded Ratajkowski of something she'd said when she was a toddler, according to the book. "My mother loves to remind me of the time she'd been complaining about the way some women had treated her, and I, at the age of 3, declared, 'They're just jealous, Mama!'
"She recites this story as a charming testimonial to my sweet and perceptive nature at a young age," Ratajkowski continues. "It wasn't until I was older that it struck me: How had I already been introduced to the concept of competition between women before I had even learned to read? How had I understood so early that my remark would provide my mother some solace for the unkindness she experienced?"
Ratajkowski recounts how when she was in high school, her mother put a sexy photo of Ratajkowski on the kitchen counter, so guests could see it as they entered their house.
"I was embarrassed by the picture and its location," Ratajkowski writes. "After I'd moved out of the house, I convinced my mother to remove it. By that point, it had been there for several years. 'You're right,' she said. 'It doesn't represent you anymore. You're more beautiful than that now.' "
The picture may have been put in storage, but Ratajkowski continues to struggle with how she sees herself.
In My Body, Ratajkowski writes that she studies photos of herself online and zooms in on her face "as I try to discern whether I am actually beautiful," according to her book. She reads the comments on Reddit and "obsessively check[s]" the likes she receives after she posts photos on Instagram that she thinks are "testaments" to her beauty.
"I collect this data more than I want to admit, trying to measure my allure as objectively and brutally as possible," Ratajkowski writes. "I want to calculate my beauty to protect myself, to understand exactly how much power and lovability I have."
My Body is on sale now.