A Conversation with Jameela Jamil – Actress, Writer, Host & Activist

Our body image is the mixture of perceptions, thoughts and feelings we have about our body- our physical appearance. Unfortunately the ‘we’ in this sentence is a collective; and for the 50% of our world who are born female, the collective response of humanity has been to create a culture which advocates and normalises objectification – separating women’s bodies from their selves, thus treating them as if their bodies alone may be representative of who they are.  Even the most cursory glance at history shows us that the act of objectification is nothing new; but today we live in a hyper-culture – where we are bombarded with advertising, imagery, content and messaging; much of which is a caricature of the values we hold as important in our society.

Our bodies are “a form or surface on which the central rules, hierarchies, and commitments of a culture are inscribed…” (Mary Douglas, 1996) and whilst “disturbances in body image and eating occur within individual bodies and psyches… they also may be viewed as manifestations of troubles in the social body such as racism, sexism, and classism.” (Meg Lovejoy, Gender & Society, 1991)

As with any societal trouble, little changes until problems are called-out, which is why a seminal blog post by Jameela Jamil back in February 2018 was so powerful.  In response to an awful Instagram post showing the weights of a number of celebrity women, Jameela notedWhat kind of crazed toxic nonsense is this? What is this post trying to achieve other than to induce anxiety into young women about something so entirely irrelevant? What are we teaching women about our value? Can it be measured using a metric system? Why do so many posts like this exist on social media? How is anyone supposed to get through the f**king day happy with themselves when we are given such unreasonable and shallow goals to achieve, falling short of which, no matter who we are, what we do, how many lives we save, how many children we raise, how many people’s lives we touch, we are not worth anything..” This post was the spark that created her movement: i_weigh – which advocates what society should have done for millennia; valuing women for everything they are, not just the flesh on their bones.

I caught up with Jameela to learn more about media and advertising portrayals of women, the harm it does, and what we can do to fight back.

Q: Why does so much of our culture reduce the value of women to their appearance?

[Jameela Jamil]:  I don’t think there’s ever been a time where women haven’t been reduced to being much more than sex-objects or carriers for children; we’ve rarely been seen with much more value than our appeal to men.

What surprises me so much about the fact that these attitudes still prevail is that we had a moment in the 1990s where I felt change was really coming, and women were stepping into power, into different boxes, and out of the pigeon holes that we were pushed back into.

This was the era just before heroin-chic where we had Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and so many new stories being told- we had female Directors like Sofia Coppola rising the ranks, and it felt like there was a real turning point where women were being very openly intellectual, bold and varied.

After this- it’s felt like the plot has been dialled back; maybe because we were making too much progress, and the patriarchy didn’t like it…

Today- with the help of social media- we’re seeing the most aggressive assault on our appearance that there has ever been.

Q:  How have you felt the pressure of media-attitudes towards women through your own career?

[Jameela Jamil]: Until recently, for most of my career I had teams of Men writing for me.  I was given ‘the fashion role’ and documentary makers only ever wanted me to make fashion TV- my looks were scrutinised, and were the only thing I was asked about.  Magazines made my weight headline news! If I lost weight, I would be glorified and asked for diet tips…. On the red carpet, I was never asked about my projects, my documentaries or my writing, I was only ever asked about what I was wearing, or how I kept my skin looking a certain way.

There was a part of me that didn’t even know to object to this portrayal of myself; because I just took it as being my role in society- the only way I could exist in this odyssey- perhaps the only appeal that I had.

It’s taken for me to get into my 30s to realise I am more than the media told me I was- I have more to say, so do my friends.  We are intelligent, we are strong, we are multi-faceted, we are vulgar and we are funny.  It is because we haven’t been given the opportunity to exercise these facets of ourselves in the media that we’ve started to doubt our ability.

I used to be heavily manipulated by male writers-rooms and told- in essence- that I just wasn’t funny, that the boys are funny, and I’m there to look nice- and so that did really impact my view of myself.  The film ‘Bridesmaids’ was really the first time I saw women being allowed to be themselves on camera.  I know it’s not a highbrow film, but it changed my life because it showed women being free, funny, bold and be creative.

Q: How is social media impacting people’s image of themselves?

[Jameela Jamil]:  The statistics show that we’re seeing the highest rates of teen-surgery, self-harm and eating disorders that we’ve ever experienced.  Women are under a visceral attack.

When I was younger, you at least had to go out and find a toxic magazine, or ask someone for the £4 to buy it…. Or look very hard for the hidden thinspiration accounts.  You would have to actively seek out the kind of content that is now thrust in your face.

Now, because of algorithms, and because we’re all complicit in pushing out this narrative of being thin and flawless… using filters and all that madness… it is the first thing we see when we open our phones in bed…. Especially if you’re a woman, you are algorithmically attacked with imagery of women who make you feel bad about yourself, about your life, and your looks.

Teenagers literally can’t get away from it.  As a young woman, if you want to take part in social media, you will see these crazy adverts for corsets, appetite suppressants, and so much more – whether you are looking for them or not.

Q: How is celebrity culture impacting the perception of women?

[Jameela Jamil]:  Celebrities are so toxic, as is this influencer culture which has emerged.  95% of celebrities are complicit in the assault on women by not saying anything about it, by not calling out the use of photoshop, and actually by perpetuating the narrative that looks are the most important thing by only ever talking about looks, and having surgeries without admitting it.  Let me be clear, I don’t mind whether someone wants to have surgery or not, but if you have- and you don’t admit it? You’re committing a crime against your gender.

I’ve described celebrities as being ‘double agents of the patriarchy,’ and whilst things are getting better- and language is changing, we are still not always calling out those who fat shame or age shame women.

Q:  How is the ‘health movement’ hijacking women’s wellbeing?

[Jameela Jamil]:  It’s disappointing to see the amount of people who choose to profit from the pain and self-consciousness of teenage girls without even thinking about it.  If you are motivated to constantly talk about your image, your weight and to guide people through ridiculously unhealthy juice fasts- then you are already poison; you’ve drunk the kool-aid.

We have people out there who have taken the damage that was put into them by a bad role model and thrust it into the world to profit off it.  It feels like a devastating loop of damage- it’s recycling self-hatred.  It’s dangerous.

We have companies selling weight-loss products to little-girls, and making them conscious about their weight; all under the guise of ‘health’ – it’s awful.  I’m all for people talking about exercise- but we have to talk about the fact that it can prolong your life, bring mental and physical health benefits- but as it stands, we seem to only have people talking about exercise as a vanity pursuit.  As a result, a lot of people are discouraged from exercise because they feel they will never achieve the body they are seeing.  If, instead, we saw exercise for what it is – for mental and physical health – things could be so different.

There is a dangerous use of the words wellness and the #BodyPositivity.  I have been speaking to my friends Tess Holiday and Stephanie Yeboah about this; and they’ve been very good at talking about how the body positivity movement has been hijacked by health-brands using the same old tropes.

Brands are selling the same toxicity to young women, the same ideals that you have to be thin and pretty, and using the same thin, predominantly Caucasian, young, athletic models for their imagery.  They’re not being inclusive… they’re not diversifying the confines of what society deems to be beautiful.  It’s manipulative.

If you’re going to talk about health and body positivity, you have to be inclusive with your imagery and you have to be much more aware of the mental health impacts of what you’re communicating and selling.  You have to put your money where your mouth is and change the words and the story.

Q:  What can we do to combat the negative imagery and language being pushed at women?

[Jameela Jamil]:  To fight back, you have to first identify the enemy and right now, the enemies are corporations and the culture of consumerism.  Brands work on the principle that if you break down people’s confidence, they will be much more vulnerable to advertising, and much more likely to go out and consume… much more likely to buy things to fix problems they didn’t even know they had if it weren’t for brands breaking their confidence in the first place.

There’s a deliberate strategy and direct correlation between how much we’re being attacked regarding our looks, and how much the beauty industry and cosmetic surgery industry are booking.  These are companies growing into the tens of billions in revenue across countries and continents.

If you look at England – and see how fast the beauty industry is growing, and then look at how much the assault on women has grown with photoshop, airbrushing and the many subversive, subliminal messages of hatred towards women and their appearance- it becomes extremely clear.  Imagine putting that on a chart- it would be devastating.

The industries that benefit from this exploitation and manipulation women will not easily give up billions in revenue by making us feel good about ourselves.  If we feel content, we are less likely to go out and consume.  The happier I become with myself, the less I buy… the better my bank account becomes, because I’m not buying nonsense that I never needed.  Now; I don’t really have manicures and pedicures (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) – I don’t buy any of these anti-ageing creams, I barely use moisturisers.  I buy cheap, simple, cruelty-free make-up, that’s it.  I have little need or desire to consume because I’m happier with myself.

We’re up against corporate, almost criminal behaviour.  We are up against corporations who are manipulating young, vulnerable people.  They’re advertising appetite suppressant lollipops to young girls; there’s no boys in these adverts, there’s no masculinity.  They’re telling girls to focus on having a flat stomach, and to eat less.  They are spending millions on billboards and adverts marketing appetite suppressants and teas that cause diarrhoea to make you lose weight. This is the scale of the harm corporations are causing; and we have very little understanding of the long-term impact of cosmetic-surgery, botox and all these things we’re doing to, and putting in our bodies.

Q:  What can we do as individuals to push-back and to push for a better future?

[Jameela Jamil]:  The most important thing to realise is this; we control the market, the market does not control us.

For the last couple of decades, we have been told what to look like – we were told to look heroin chic and then to be curvy, but only in the places that pornography has told us to be curvy – no fat is allowed anywhere else.  We’ve been told we’re not allowed to age!

For men, the situation is rather different – you perhaps get suggestions around what your facial hair should look like this decade.  I’m not saying there isn’t toxic messaging for men- and clearly the amount of messaging is rising, but the difference in the type of messaging aimed at men and women is drastically different.

We control the market.  By unfollowing toxic people on Instagram and social media- that will take away their platform.  The less followers they have, the less power they have and the less enticing they will be to brands to be used as puppets.  We have to stop buying the magazines that put this hurtful rhetoric into our world; and we have to demand no airbrushing.  If a company that you like uses airbrushing in their advertising- you cannot endorse that company- they are selling you a lie, they are not on your side, and we cannot endorse liars.

I am trying to rally celebrities, consumers, and each and every one of us to stop being complicit in this nightmare; but also to realise that we can take the power away from these brands- there’s a relationship between demand and supply, if we change our demand, if we stop accepting it’s OK to be bullied into looking like teenage sex-doll archetypes, then we win.

No airbrushing, no more lies, no more celebrities selling weight loss products to little girls or airbrushing their photographs or having surgery without claiming it, no more perpetuating of the fantasy that doesn’t exist because it’s literally killing people.  We can do this together, but we have to stop this deal with the devil that we’re doing.

Q:  How has tabloid culture impacted women’s image of themselves?

[Jameela Jamil]:  Tabloid culture, and particularly the shaming culture in tabloids wouldn’t exist unless celebrities and magazines hadn’t been so deceitful in the first place; showing these fake and flawless images of celebrities.  Paparazzi culture has become much more sinister than just photographing people on a night out- it’s become a culture of shaming people and trying to catch them out.

Tabloid culture exists on the back of the lies that are told across our media- even films edit every single shot to make someone look younger, thinner and prettier.  After all the hair and make-up and lighting, you sometimes have editors shaving the edges of an actress’ face in production to make her look thinner on camera; what on earth are we doing?

We have to stop the lies.

Q: Are you hopeful for the future?

[Jameela Jamil]:  We need to treat the impact of media and social-media on women in a similar way to the public health approach to tobacco.  We’ve got to a situation where women cannot find lives of moderation; I’ve seen it in my own friends who only eat too much, or too little – and feel psychologically impacted by the rhetoric.  Shaming culture is unhealthy, it’s unproductive, and it’s costing lives and life-years.

France banned airbrushing unless it’s declared and that in itself works, because it’s embarrassing to admit you’ve airbrushed an image to sell something; it’s about as close as you can get to ban airbrushing and I’d love to do that here.  I’m working with a group called Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and we’re going to try and take this movement to Parliament and to Washington DC.  We need laws to make sure airbrushing is declared transparently

I can’t tell you how many hundreds of messages I get a day from women who won’t wear a bathing suit, who haven’t eaten a proper meal in 10 years, who hate their bodies, who have depression and anxiety and can’t leave the house because they feel so disgusting and can’t think of one single nice thing to say about themselves on my iweigh page about who they are as a person, because they’re so disgusted with their appearance.  When you click on these pictures you see – these are just normal human beings- people who are smart, important,  interesting and wonderful.

It feels like this is the patriarchy’s way of making us take our eyes off the ball.  Think about it…. It’s a genius way to distract and rob us, simultaneously.  If we’re spending every minute of the day worrying about our looks, we’re not thinking about business, studying or mental health.  We’re not progressing.  Is this because the patriarchy feel that if we become too confident and comfortable; if we stop waking up an hour earlier than men to get ready, if we stop eating less and sleeping more that maybe we’ll have more fuel, more power, more confidence and challenge them?

Look at how they treated Hillary Clinton and said she didn’t smile enough! Why do women have to smile all the time? What have we got to smile about at the moment? We’re having our birth control rights taken away, millions of us are being treated as second rate citizens, we’re in gender despair.  Why the f*** should we smile all the time?

We are just supposed to be pleasing on the eye of straight males.  That is the story we’re told from as soon as we can understand.  It’s smiley Barbie.  We just have to be smiley Barbie forever.

I’m just very scared for the world in which I’m going to bring a daughter into, and so all I’m trying to do is my bit to change that world.

View Interviewee Biography

Jameela Jamil is a one-of-a-kind multi-hyphenate. Jameela can currently be seen starring in Mike Schur’s series for NBC, THE GOOD PLACE where she stars opposite Ted Danson and Kristen Bell.

In 2009, Jameela Jamil, an English Teacher at the time, was picked from obscurity to host the British breakfast TV program Freshly Squeezed where she went on to become a favorite weekend and weekday morning face for the station T4. In 2010, Jameela got her first solo presenting role on Koko Pop, a music show filmed in Camden’s iconic club, Koko which proved to be a big hit on Channel 4. The following year Jameela fronted E4’s cult series, Playing It Straight and BBC Radio 1 announced her as the new host for their Request Show on Sunday evenings. By 2013 she landed the role of first female presenter to host BBC Radio 1’s The Official Chart Show.

In 2016 Jameela made her move to United States television where she was cast by Mike Schur to portray the role of Tahani on NBC’s critically acclaimed THE GOOD PLACE.  The show has won both an AFI Award and a Critics Choice Award and is currently in its third season. In addition she is a frequent contributor and guest host for the NBC talk show Last Call with Carson Daly, making her the only female woman of color hosting late night Television.

In addition to her broadcast work, Jameela has also fronted a TV ad campaign for Maybelline and has been featured in many publications including Glamour, UK Vogue, Cosmo, InStyle, PAPER, The Guardian, Stylist, Teen Vogue, Marie Claire UK, Grazia and Esquire. As a journalist who penned a monthly column for Company Magazine, she was nominated for columnist of the year at both the PPA Awards and the BSME Awards.

Jameela is an advocate for many causes and in 2018 launched a movement and social media platform @i_Weigh which encourages women to feel valuable and look beyond the flesh on their bones. The movement has been recognized by both media outlets and the movement’s hundreds of thousands of followers over the world.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas S. Shah MBE is an award winning entrepreneur, strategist and educator who has built businesses in diverse sectors around the world for almost 20 years. He is also a consultant and advisor to numerous entrepreneurs, business and organisations globally.

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