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Emily Ratajkowski on ownership, consent, and the #FreeBritney movement

June 24, 2021, 9:30 PM UTC

With 27.8 million followers (and counting) on Instagram, Emily Ratajkowski has been breaking ground in what it means to take back control of your image in the social media era.

The model, actress, activist, and entrepreneur made waves last September with the publication of her essay “Buying Myself Back” in The Cut. The essay is deeply personal and candid about her experiences as a woman in the entertainment and fashion industries, illuminating how frequently and casually the images of women’s bodies are used for purposes without the subjects’ explicit consent.

“As a model, it’s not only my body, but also my likeness that is used,” Ratajkowski said during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen digital summit on Thursday. “Because we live in this digital era, and because women are so used to their bodies being used without their permission or in ways that weren’t explicitly part of the consent, I was really amazed to see how many women related [to the essay],” she added.

One incident that particularly stood out was the appropriation of Ratajkowski’s Instagram posts by the artist Richard Prince, who was selling blown-up versions of her social media as works of art, without giving her any credit or royalties.

Ratajkowski bought one artwork from Prince for approximately $80,000, and in April she announced on her Twitter account that she was reclaiming her image through an NFT—a non-fungible token using a unique digital signature logged on a blockchain to prove ownership—entitled “Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution.”

“Using the newly introduced medium of NFTs, I hope to symbolically set a precedent for women and ownership online, one that allows for women to have ongoing authority over their image and to receive rightful compensation for its usage and distribution,” Ratajkowski wrote on Twitter.

The image being auctioned wasn’t technically Prince’s artwork, but rather a new picture of Ratajkowski posing in front of it. The NFT of this image sold for $175,000 after fees—bidding had started at $2,000—through an auction at Christie’s in May.

Ratajkowski, who noted that she originally studied to be an artist, explained that there were many reasons that drew her interest to NFTs, but most of all it was the stronger sense of ownership. She pointed out that throughout history, there have always been models who inspired artists as powerful muses—but they were never rewarded the same as the artists.

“As someone so used to posting an image and relinquishing control as soon as it goes out in the world, I liked the idea of an embedded code so I could receive some kind of compensation every time it was resold,” Ratajkowski said.

Ratajkowski will also be publishing her debut book this November. Described as a “personal exploration of feminism, sexuality, and power,” My Body (Metropolitan Books) will comprise a collection of essays—both about Ratajkowski’s experiences as well as examinations of image, ownership, and money.

The essay published by The Cut is actually one of the 13 essays that will be included in the book. Ratajkowski also revealed to Fortune features editor Kristen Bellstrom that she already had plans to include an essay about the image of Britney Spears.

The singer testified on Wednesday for the first time in more than a decade of living under a conservatorship controlled by her father. Spears described the conservatorship as “abusive,” revealing that she has no access to her $60 million fortune, that she has been forced to take lithium, and she is not allowed to get married or have any additional children. (Among the more horrifying revelations: Spears is being forced to keep an IUD in place and is not allowed to have it removed.) One of the reasons Spears said she has not talked publicly about any of this before is she was afraid no one would believe her.

“She was the ultimate sacrifice, commodified woman—really a girl,” Ratajkowski said, noting she already had an interest in the #FreeBritney movement well before the release of the New York Times–produced documentary Framing Britney Spears, arguing that it’s “a story of how we were all responsible.”

“Anyone who ingests media the way that we do, we’re taking out her ability to control the narrative,” she said.

In comparing one of the oldest forms of media (books) and the newest (NFTs), Ratajkowski posited that they’re both personal expressions that also secure ownership for the creator.

“When you write your own story,” Ratajkowski said, “that’s the ultimate way of regaining control.”

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