According to Emily Ratajkowski, the kids are alright.
As an A-list influencer with over 25 million Instagram followers, the model, actress and clothing entrepreneur, 28, is intimately immersed in social media culture, and she thinks younger people are leading the charge in creating “healthier” online environments.
“I can’t stop talking about TikTok. I just downloaded it. I’ve actually thought a lot about it because a lot of people on there are 10, 15 years younger than me, and I think [with them] there is a really great attitude around social media,” she told PEOPLE at a STRONG by Zumba workout with fitness guru Michelle Lewin. “There’s a little bit more of a realism. I feel like when Instagram first came out everyone was over-filtering and [showing] perfection. And now it’s, like, videos about your pimples, and I think that’s really cool.”
JP Yim/Getty Ratajkowski at the STRONG by Zumba event
The Inamorata founder believes access to social media gives teenagers more autonomy over their public images, something she lacked as a young woman coming up in the modeling industry.
Last month, Ratajkowski posted an image posing in a bikini at the start of her career at 14 years old.
“I used to like showing people this photo of me at 14 to prove that my body is natural. Now I’m a little sad it exists at all,” she captioned the photo. “I was just a kid in this picture and I wish the world had encouraged my 14-year-old self to be more than just my body. All of that said, I do still feel like I’ve been empowered through my body and my sexuality via modeling and platforms like Instagram.”
These days, aspiring models might be more likely to hone their skills on peer-shot photos meant for their own platforms, rather than get their start by posing on professional sets. Comparing it to her own experience, Ratajkowski thinks this new trajectory could prevent others from grappling with retrospective sadness.
“That’s the great thing about the internet and Instagram: having control and being able to curate your image,” she told PEOPLE. “In that situation, I was a kid who was like, ‘Oh I’m in my bikini, like, taking a pic.’ And now looking back I’m like, ‘Whoa, I was 14. And that was a full adult male who took that picture. That’s pretty crazy.’ I think that if it had just been my friend on a beach taking it for Instagram I probably would have a different relationship to it.”
Despite appreciating the positives of having a social media presence at a young age, Ratajkowski is aware of the potential pitfalls of posting. “When you’re 14 there are things that you’ll post and potentially regret — the likelihood of that happening is higher when you’re so young,” she cautioned.
“Listen to yourself,” she urges young people who are just beginning to garner attention online. “I think that you’re going to have a lot of people weighing in and telling you when something is powerful or when it’s not. But ultimately you’re the only person who can really know that. And, you know, really be nice to yourself. Be really nice to yourself.”
Although she’s now a veteran of being in the spotlight, Ratajkowski didn’t always find it easy to embrace self-kindness, and still deals with her fair share of Hollywood mishaps.
“I’m like, ‘Oh no, I just popped my arm up. Did I remember to shave my armpits?'” she says about last-minute worries before stepping on a red carpet. “But no, I don’t get nervous in the same way I used to, which was so obsessive, looking at the pictures and being really hard on myself. I don’t think that’s healthy or constructive. And that goes back to the whole thing about realism — I think that we’re all human and that’s so important to remember.”
When she isn’t running her clothing line or dazzling the cameras, Ratajkowski focuses on maintaining her health. She finds STRONG by Zumba classes are the perfect fit for reluctant gym-goers like herself.
“This is such an experience, with the music and the whole thing,” she says of the high-intensity group workouts. “When I’m going to the gym by myself it’s kind of like, ‘Okay what is this going to be like, what kind of mood am I in?’ I think that the class itself has so much energy and the way that the music is curated does help. There’s good bass and beat so you end up working harder.”