As a Brit, it’s been a strange journey watching Jameela Jamil become a beloved American sitcom star and feminist activist. Most of us on this side of the pond remember her mostly as that one host from T4 who went infamously viral when she wrote a blog post claiming popstars like Beyoncé were pandering to men by waving their ‘fannies’ about in skimpy costumes. Stranger reinventions have happened, but it was still curious to watch a woman so many of us knew primarily for being a dull TV presenter become a rising actress in a critically acclaimed NBC comedy, The Good Place. It didn’t take her long to use that new platform as a means to promote her latest chosen cause: Body positivity. She garnered many column inches through her ‘I Weigh’ campaign on Instagram, inviting women to declare themselves as being defined by more than a number on a scale. That soon evolved into talks, appearances at corporate feminist friendly events like Girlboss Rally (she will also be a guest at The Wing soon), and glowing interviews with various glossy magazines. Recently, she made headlines by declaring Kim Kardashian and her family ‘double agents for the patriarchy’, a claim that made her many friends. Now, in a recent interview with Marie Clare, she was commended for supporting ‘true body positivity’.
‘It was supposed to be inclusive, and again now, it’s been taken over by very slender, often Caucasian women… Me spending all my time thinking about my looks just feels like a dumb investment.’
Stephanie Yeboah, a prominent figure in the online body positivity movement, recognized some of Jamil’s comments as mirroring a Twitter DM conversation she’d previously had with her. They came without attribution and were positioned exclusively as Jamil’s own thoughts, with no indication of an evolution from her previous stance. This came after Jamil had claimed that even talking about body positivity was bad because it still meant we were too focused on looks. In a piece she wrote for Glamour in April, she said, ‘In fact, I’m kind of done with anyone talking about their body because I’m drowning in thinspiration, fitspiration, fatspiration, body goals, before and after pictures…. I swear to God if I see one more picture of a woman’s ass, I’m going to scream.’
Like I literally…spent so many blue bubbles trying to explain but go off sis. pic.twitter.com/QkhoGR9Xru— Stephanie Yeboah (@NerdAboutTown) September 27, 2018
Yeboah explained the roots of body positivity to Jamil and why they mattered so much to the women who originated the movement before it was co-opted by big corporations for profit. She also, as many have done before her, talked about the problems of Jamil’s ‘I Weigh’ campaign and its focus on primarily smaller women who are either white or light-skinned. Jamil quickly became angry, focused heavily on painting Yeboah as angry or ungrateful for her work, and overall did not seem to understand what the problem was. Yeboah was eloquent and calm in explaining to Jamil why the erasure of black voices and those of the fat women who started body positivity was such a problem. Jamil was angry, accusatory and quick to paint the discussion as a personal attack. As is all too common in these issues, the black woman’s voice was co-opted then ignored then shouted over.
For those of us familiar with Jamil - especially that infamous and quickly deleted Beyoncé blog post - this was nothing new, but this is also the ‘new’ Jamil who has marketed herself towards Americans and created a feminist sheen for herself that has proven immensely beneficial as a tool of brand expansion. Overall, it was so very Tahani.
Before I go any further and explain my issues with Jamil’s diluted version of body positivity, let me get this out of the way: No, I don’t think she means ill by her misguided attempts to be a voice for good. Nor do I wish to dismiss her own documented body image struggles out of hand or overlook discrimination she has faced as a woman of colour in the entertainment industry. I’m not attacking or mocking anyone who has found worth in her ‘I Weigh’ campaign. And yes, I am sure there are plenty of you who will accuse me of tearing down a successful woman or claim that my comments are all that’s wrong with modern feminism or deride me for not focusing on ‘more important topics’. You go knock yourselves out. For me, this is something that needs to be said.
Body positivity got skinny and it fucked us all over. The movement’s roots are explicitly in the fat acceptance movement and the fight to tackle ingrained social attitudes that discriminate against bodies that do not fit the narrow social standards. At its heart, it’s a radical movement because it refuses to adhere to societal expectations about what counts as beautiful and what bodies deserve respect. It covers topics as varied as wanting to find clothes that fit in an actual store instead of the website to combatting medical bias that leads to doctors ignoring major health issues in favour of judging weight. Fundamentally, it’s a demand for a paradigm shift, one that seeks to remind people that one’s weight is not the standard by which respect is earned. You are worthy of respect regardless of your size and that is a fact.
Even on her ‘I Weigh’ campaign, it’s full of smaller light skinned/white women. I assume Jameela gets to choose which submissions gets to be put on her page.— Stephanie Yeboah (@NerdAboutTown) September 28, 2018
Why the erasure? pic.twitter.com/swojoGAM8y
Of course, it’s one that’s been oft-ignored in favour of watching skinny white women slouch over in an Instagram photo and brag about how confident they are in their bodies even though they’ve got a slight belly at some angles. Every brand has their ‘body positive’ angle that seems to exist exclusively in the parameters of skinny: The ‘Love Your Curves’ t-shirt modelled by a size 8 model whose body type can be found in every fashion magazine; the brand releasing a ‘plus size’ clothing range that doesn’t go any bigger than UK size 20; the endless morning TV show debates angrily claiming ‘skinny shaming’ is a thing while simultaneously slamming Tessa Holliday as being a ‘promoter of obesity’. Body positivity was co-opted by those who didn’t need it. The movement stopped being about positivity and became a self-congratulatory back-slap to reinforce already rigid norms of body shaming.
Jamil’s ‘I Weigh’ campaign is decent hearted enough in its proclamation that we should talk about more than a woman’s weight, but that’s just further watering down of body positivity’s radical roots. A rallying cry for a shift in societal norms has now become the skinny girl’s reassurance that she isn’t really fat. Fatness, through this lens of ‘body positivity’, remains the worst thing a person can be. A large amount of Jamil’s ‘I Weigh’ campaign parrots this problem back at us and uses the same near parodic versions of body positivity that have made the term so useless in the eyes of many. One Instagram post features a skinny white woman who photoshopped her already flat looking stomach to look flatter. What’s the point of this? To point out that Photoshop exists and is widely used on social media? We knew that already. But the body in the ‘before’ picture is one we see everywhere as the ‘right’ body to have. I’m not dismissing any self-image issues she may have faced, but when such bodies are allowed to dominate the conversation, it only exacerbates the problems discussed above.
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⚠️(edited picture) RG: @victoriagarrick For a long time the picture on the right was the one I would’ve posted. I remember being nervously aware of who was taking the photo, because if it wasn’t on my phone I couldn’t edit it. I remember being excited at comments saying “skinny mini” or “your bod is 🔥” even though deep down I knew it wasn’t really MY body they were liking. ” it’s just a quick fix !!” I’d tell myself. But it really wasn’t, because there was a ‘tiny fix’ on every picture I posted. I wish there was a “REAL” picture next to all of the ones we see on our feeds, because it breaks my heart to think about all of the girls comparing themselves to images that have been morphed and edited. It’s an impossible standard, and I’m sick of trying to keep up with it!! 😜💪🏼 #RealPost #iweigh #bodypositivity
This brings us to another major problem for Jamil’s feminism: She loves low-hanging fruit, especially when it comes to women who make a living by being sexual in any form. Like many British feminists of this wave, she’s anti-sex workers rights, but she also prefers the easy celebrity targets she know will garner her the most headlines. Going after Beyoncé was foolish enough, but calling the Kardashians agents of the patriarchy was lazy as all hell. There are many legitimate discussions to be had around the Kardashians and their intersections with feminism (particularly their appropriation of black women’s aesthetics and bodies for personal gain). Jamil didn’t want to make any of those points, nor did she want to dig deeper into societal or socio-cultural issues surrounding their business.
People have been doing what the Kardashians do now for decades in modern media and they’ll continue to do so when new trends emerge. Jamil didn’t want to understand that context because she knew it was more headline-friendly to wave a red flag at an already agitated bull. It didn’t stick when she tried it with Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus but the same spiel with a new target worked better when she fine-tuned her brand.
I have a major problem with any woman being labelled a gender traitor in this way - save that shit for the Trump administration - but if Jamil wants to get mad at one woman for using societally accepted beauty standards for personal gain, she may want to look closer to home. It would be silly of us to pretend Jamil didn’t get where she is today if she weren’t astoundingly beautiful and the ‘right’ size for American TV. It wasn’t wholly easy - women of Indian and Pakistani origin aren’t numerous on television on either sides of the pond - but Jamil has also been open about the fact that she landed her role on The Good Place with no acting experience and within a short time of arriving in Los Angeles. She is not blind or immune to the privilege that comes with societally adored beauty and playing by those rules.
It has benefitted Jameela Jamil marvellously to be the pot calling the kettle black (for the record, the woman who thinks other women are double agents for the patriarchy has Dave Becky as her own manager. You may remember him as the former agent for Louis CK, who was also accused of being part of the cover-up against his agent). She’s on one of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms on US TV right now, she has endless access to resources and publicity for her campaign, and no matter how many wrong steps she takes, she has thousands of people in her corner ready to cry war for her. I’m already betting she’ll land a book deal from her crusades and go the full Caitlin Moran route into self-styled feminist idol. She’ll probably do very well from this and be invited to give a lot of talks where she further co-opts body positivity as a personal platform.
We can do better than this. We must do better than this.
Body positivity is at its most potent when it’s in the hands of those who need it the most. Listen to the fat women who are fighting against size discrimination, especially the black women whose work remains key to understanding it. Check out Stephanie Yeboah’s work and read You Have the Right to Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar. Listen to the stories of medical discrimination experienced by fat women that have led to serious illness or even death. Tackle the diet industrial complex and how it breeds from fatphobia. Check your own biases and dig into your instinctive personal responses to the movement. Think about why it is that you’re probably more likely to listen to someone preach body positivity when they have a body that is already widely decreed as positive.
Jamil will be fine and her campaign will continue to garner praise and fans. I’ve no beef with that. However, if she is truly committed to making ‘I Weigh’ more than lip-service to a personal brand then she must listen to those crucial voices that have been so patient in their explanations of her wrong-doings. She cannot respond with passive-aggressive anger, nor can she accuse other women of splitting the feminist movement. She cannot label other women as enemies while ignoring how patriarchy actually works. Crucially, she must deal with an uncomfortable truth: She must understand why so many women will shun what she is doing and will shun her as the head of any movement.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.