This week, InStyle is diving into the changing look, complicated impact, and undeniable power of summer’s uniform: the swimsuit.
It’s not hard to imagine that Emily Ratajkowski—Instagram’s queen of artful, thong-clad butt selfies—considered the bikini to be her daily uniform as a teen. “Growing up in a place like San Diego, where you spend so much time outdoors and it gets hot, my public school didn’t even have a dress code, so girls were wearing little sun dresses over bikinis and we’d go to the beach for lunch. The whole ‘no shirt, no shoes, [no service],’ thing did not fly,” she says with a laugh, describing the sun-soaked ethos that gave way to her personal style. "I’m a sun baby. I’m the happiest in summer, on a beach.”
On Instagram, @emrata’s stripped-down aesthetic has won the 27-year-old model and actress favor to the tune of 17.9 million followers, her nearly nude photo reel serving as both a sizzling thirst trap and a feminist discourse on sexual agency and consent. That she doesn’t see a contradiction there is core to her message. No one can forget the 2016 Internet-breaking bathroom mirror selfie she posed for with Kim Kardashian, featuring both women topless and flipping the bird. Later that year, Ratajkowski broke her silence about a book of nude Polaroids of her that had been released without her approval. When people argued that Ratajkowski publishes equally revealing images of herself regularly, she deftly countered that that makes it no less a violation. “These photos being used w/out my permission is an example of exactly the opposite of what I stand for: women choosing when and how they want to share their sexuality and bodies,” she wrote on Twitter at the time.
Ratajkowski learned not to be ashamed of her sex appeal early on. “I was kind of always confident showing my body,” she says. In her adolescence, family trips to Europe opened her eyes to a comfort with nudity that she hadn’t observed stateside. “Spending a lot of time in Majorca, Spain, with my parents, I was really familiar with bodies and not self-conscious or afraid of my own. My friends who were seeped in American culture have more awareness of how the body is sexual in every moment. But sitting on the beach topless, it felt parallel to seeing a man’s chest. That really impacted me and took away the over-sexualization.”
Back in America, she became acquainted with the male gaze not long after, having developed breasts before most of her classmates. “I was on the beach with my first high-school boyfriend, and old men started hollering at me from the cliffs,” she recalls. “I think my boyfriend was, like, 16 at the time, and there was nothing he could do. I was probably 15, and I definitely looked older, but still it was an insane moment of, ‘Oh wow, people are seeing me differently than I see myself in a bathing suit.’” But that didn’t inspire the deep shame that so many girls are made to feel about their bodies, she says. “My first reaction was anger, so I think that’s a good testament to my mom [teaching me] to not feel self-conscious, because I have every right to wear a bikini at the beach without being harassed.”
Ratajkowski still remembers buying her very first two-piece as a tween, a purple bottom and red top from American Apparel. “It sort of felt like coming into womanhood, like my uniform that I was going to carry with me on the adventure of the summer, and I loved that feeling,” she says. “It felt like I was finding my identity in a weird way.”
Now, she designs her own swimwear brand, Inamorata, a play on her well-known online moniker and the Italian for “female lover.” “It was a really natural thing,” she says of starting the line last year. “I have always loved swimwear—obviously it’s a big part of my Instagram and my lifestyle—but I went to college for art and design, and it was sort of a dream to be able to start my own company.”
Expect the kind of styles you’d see Emrata model on her Instagram: high-cut, tush-revealing numbers partly inspired by her favorite beach bombshells of the ‘60s and ‘90s. “I thought about: What were the suits that I wanted to be wearing as a 17-year-old girl? What were my dream suits?”
If you’re hesitant to go full beach thong, like Ratajkowski often does in her derriere-forward feed, she has a secret to let you in on: “I actually think less coverage on any bottom is more flattering than a misshapen booty.” She knows what you’re thinking: “‘It’s easy for you to say; you’re a small person.’ But this is something that my girlfriends agree with, who are all different all shapes and sizes and spend as much time as I do poolside.”
When it comes to snapping the perfectly seductive beach selfie, choosing the right suit is step number one, Ratajkowski says. “The one I’m wearing the most is Leucadia, a one-piece backless, low front that you can also wear it as a bodysuit.” All the swimsuits in her collection, she points out, are named for beaches and streets in her hometown. “I’m pretty obsessed with that bathing suit because it’s not a bikini, but it’s got a really high cut, it’s flattering to the legs, it gives you some support; all my fabrics are double-layered so it stretches and molds to you.”
Once you’ve styled your look, Ratajkowski says, look for the good light. A natural source is always best, so if you don’t have a beach handy, step outside or pose near a window at a time of day when the sun is shining.
Lastly, “Take 3000,” she says with no sense of irony. Because if you think Emily Ratajkowski’s jaw-dropping Instagram photos aren’t accompanied by many lesser-than dud versions of the same frame, you’re dead wrong. “There’s that funny meme my girlfriend sent me—it says, ‘You don’t take a picture. You take the picture,’ which means you’re going to need to get low, you’re going to need to get high, check the darkness, flash, no flash, angles,” she says, adding, “You can look amazing in one picture and not in another, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Because pictures are not honest, right? They’re one millisecond captured.”