BLIND SPOTS

Jameela Jamil’s body positivity campaign is very Tahani

Time to take a closer look.
Time to take a closer look.
Image: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
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The British actor Jameela Jamil came to fame on the comedy The Good Place playing Tahani Al-Jamil, a vain but lovable heiress with a penchant for name-dropping celebs and performative shows of do-goodery—hosting splashy charity balls, or going on humanitarian missions with a documentary crew in tow.

And some saw a little Tahani in the real-life Jamil this week, when she announced plans to develop her popular Instagram account, @i_weigh, into a company dedicated to fighting fat-phobia. The 32-year-old described the pivot in a Twitter response to a fan who tagged her in a tweet lamenting body-shaming tabloids:

Though she herself is slender and conventionally beautiful, Jamil has been a longtime advocate for body positivity—an evolving social movement that opposes narrowly defined beauty standards. Since its launch last March, “I Weigh,” which Jamil describes as a “movement for us to feel valuable and see how amazing we are beyond the flesh on our bones,” has garnered nearly 270k followers.

The account shares selfies submitted by followers, labeled with the non-aesthetic qualities that make them feel beautiful:

The actor also recently expanded her campaign against body-shaming to include a stance against the doctoring of magazine photos. In an op-ed for the BBC, she argued that by suggesting some flawless ideal is attainable, airbrushing has been “weaponised” against women and should be banned. In the piece, Jamil cites statistics on eating disorder hospitalizations, explains how photoshopped images contribute to a toxic environment for women, and describes her own struggles earlier in her life with disordered eating and body shaming.

The societal ills Jamil is attacking—unrealistic beauty standards and Photoshop, body shaming and fat-phobia, diet pills and laxatives—are real. Most would agree that they’re problems that should be addressed, and Jamil appears to be genuinely invested in speaking on them. She has been applauded for her fuck-you-attitude and firebrand takedowns, and when more powerful celebrities fail to speak up, it’s impressive to see someone with a platform like Jamil’s use it for good.

But it’s also worth noting that Jamil has herself benefited enormously from the system she rails against. Following the Photoshop op-ed, Jamil shared a presumably undoctored, but nevertheless very traditionally beautiful, photo herself on Instagram with the following caption:

“Say no to airbrushing. Pores and lines and spots and dry lips are something kids need to see so they don’t grow up thinking there is something fucking wrong with them. I want to look like a person, not an emoji. Thanks for never retouching me @selashiloniphoto ps. I’m aware I still have fairly clear skin these days. But it’s sad to know a magazine would 100 percent blur all of my little lines and “imperfections” because they would see this as “offputting” because they don’t like human beings.”

Photoshopped or not, Jamil moves through the world as a woman widely seen as attractive, one who has the substantial privileges society grants those who comfortably meet beauty standards. As Hannah Giorgis pointed out in the Atlantic last month, “an unblurred stretch mark might ruffle a magazine editor’s feathers, but it’s not going to keep Jamil from accessing the many benefits that beautiful women enjoy.”

And it’s striking that Jamil’s fearless public dragging of celebrities has mostly targeted other women—in particular, Cardi B and the Kardashian family, for their promotion of things like detox teas and appetite suppressants on social media. Her missives range from righteous outrage (the Kardashians are “double agents for the patriarchy”) to outright mockery (“I hope all these celebrities all shit their pants in public, the way the poor women who buy this nonsense upon their recommendation do”). Underlying it all is her inability to recognize (or willingness to ignore) the harsh rules of success in the universe that women—including herself—must navigate.

Comparing actors to their on-screen counterparts is generally of limited use, but in this case looking to Jamil’s Good Place character can offer some insight. Tahani is far from a villain, and she does want to do real good in the world, but she is also often unable to see the big picture, or her own personal flaws. Jamil’s campaigns similarly seem to miss some of the underlying currents, as Giorgis points out: “Even if airbrushing were the primary factor contributing to women’s oppression—as opposed to, say, voter suppression, reproductive injustice, or economic discrimination—it would still be dismaying to watch the actor continue to paint complex topics with so broad a brush,” she writes.

Giorgis goes on to explain how the real-life Jamil’s particular brand of activism relies on the harsh judgment of her female peers, but always “according to a rubric she herself is not evaluated by”: “Jamil’s history of criticizing other celebrity women—among them, BeyoncéKim Kardashian, and Cardi B—echoes her Good Place character’s own blind spots.”

Case in point is a rather accusatory line from Jamil’s BBC op-ed, suggesting anyone who uses a filter on a selfie is complicit in the patriarchy: “When you filter a woman’s photo you are legitimising the patriarchy’s absurd aesthetic standards, that women should be attractive to the straight, male gaze at all costs,” she writes, telling the reader, ”when you filter your selfies, you are doing the same thing.”

There’s little doubt that Jamil’s activism comes from a good place, but it’s one layer less complex than it needs to be. Her targets are big celebs who can probably weather them just fine, but she repeatedly fails to challenge the oppressive socio-political dynamics, corporations, and structural systems that the women she’s criticizing must operate in—just as she does herself.

So far, she has failed to take an earnest look at these constraints. But like her character on The Good Place, she may still see the light—perhaps by looking inward.