When I first became interested in the body positivity movement, I stumbled up actor/activist Jameela Jamil’s Instagram feed and was blown away. She pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. Her own feed and her ‘I Weigh‘ community, which stresses radical inclusivity, are part of her revolution against shame. What an incredible cause! Which of us doesn’t battle shame issues? A post she wrote about learning to see her double chins as “faithful friends to her biggest laughs” helped me start to get over my horror of photos of myself that feature double chins or protruding gut. And hello, when you’re obese like me, which photo doesn’t include a double chin or paunch? I was thrilled to talk to her and I must confess that she was so inspiring, I actually cried during our interview. And I’m not ashamed to admit it. Jamil gave me so many things to think about and fired me up to become a real activist instead of a fat person on a personal journey. I hope after reading the interview, you all will feel just as inspired.
PAPER: So, how did you get involved in body positivity and what made you such a champion for this cause?
Jameela Jamil: I was nineteen when I first became an activist against fatphobia in the fashion industry. But I found it very difficult to infiltrate the industry from the outside, because I had been a teenage model who was encouraged to starve herself by her agency. I had moved around agencies because of this and every single one would tell me to do wild things like just eat one red pepper a day, or just eat a full bag of Haribo when I’m out on castings. I was passing out and wasn’t menstruating. Once I came out of my own anorexia, I realized I wanted to help other girls, so then I became a model scout to try and change it from the inside. I’ve always taken the Trojan horse approach, realizing that if I can get into the middle of it, I can make change. I was one of the people that kicked off the size zero debate that happened fourteen years ago.
I wrote a letter for the Evening Standard, which is a big newspaper in the UK, and they put it on the front page. And then I ended up on the news. I was trying to find different shock tactics to be able to raise this conversation. Then I just kind of got shushed and quieted and told to stop once I got onto television. People stopped publishing the things that I would say about it and I had no control. I didn’t really know how to use social media properly and at 26, I got nationally fat-shamed. Pictures of my bottom were all over magazines and newspapers, fat-shaming me, comparing me to pictures when I was thinner, because I’d gained weight.
I was achieving amazing things in my career. I had actually made history as the first woman to first ever host the official chart on BBC Radio 1, which was one of the biggest in Europe. They’d never let a woman do it in 60 years on air. None of that was reported, only my weight was reported on. And I realized that we never did this to men. We never boil a man down to nothing other than the pounds and kilos. That’s when it kicked into gear and I became very aggressive. I suddenly had a reason for people to want to talk to me about weight and fatphobia, and so I really went in and I became an activist probably. But it wasn’t until The Good Place that I had this sort of global attention for it. Fourteen years in the game.
“I was a chubby teenager, then I was an anorexic teenager, and I have struggled with eating disorders for twenty years.”
Thank you for being so vocal about it. Something I’ve been surprised by since writing about my weight issues is that it seems like everyone, regardless of size or gender, struggles with body image issues. I’m sure there are some people, though, who say you’re a gorgeous, young actress, so what makes you qualified to speak on this issue?
I was a chubby teenager, then I was an anorexic teenager, and I have struggled with eating disorders for twenty years. I then gained a lot of weight on steroids at 26 and was nationally fat-shamed. That’s my first argument for why. I was also in a wheelchair at nineteen and I’ve been a woman of color my whole life. So, I think that I have the credentials to say that I understand depression, erasure, and fatphobia. I’ve had fatphobia imposed upon me when I was fat, and I’ve had fatphobia myself in my own anorexia. So that’s the criteria that I need. That qualifies me.
But on top of that, when fat people or oppressed people speak out, we don’t listen to them because we blame them, we victim-shame them, and we say that they’re bitter. They are responsible for their own otherization, because they’ve chosen to eat too much or to live a certain way. We call poor people and fat people bitter when they complain about their circumstances. But then, when the privileged speak out about it, it’s like, “Well, you’re too privileged to talk about it.” Therefore, who gets to talk about it? That’s how they silence all of us. It’s a tactic used to make everyone quiet. When I was fat and I was talking about all of these things, publicly, I got some attention but most people were just like, “Oh, well, you’re just angry ’cause you’re not thin anymore and now you’re complaining about it.” Now that I’m thin again, everyone’s talking about me like I haven’t been saying this for seven years. It’s hypocrisy, you know, we silence everyone. And I’m just not going to give in to that. Anyone who says I cannot use my privilege to try and help those who do not have my privilege, who are going through something that I really understand, all of them can collectively fuck off.
You call yourself a feminist in progress. You actually seemed pretty advanced to me.
No one is truly advanced. No one knows everything. And feminism is not a simple thing. It’s not just about women, it’s intersectional. It’s an intersectional cause and I don’t understand everything about trans women. I don’t understand everything about trans men. There are so many subcultures within feminism, like Black feminism. There are different sections of it that I’m not yet fully, expertly informed upon, and I never will be because there will always be new information to learn. And I think that it’s very important to not be an egomaniacal activist. You will always have ignorance. You will always have a lack of information at some point. And really, all you ever owe to the world is to continue to learn and progress and try and do better. I don’t pretend to have moral purity and I don’t expect moral purity of other people. I just expect good intentions and constant progress.
“Anyone who says I cannot use my privilege to try and help those who do not have my privilege, who are going through something that I really understand, all of them can collectively fuck off.”
One of your posts that really affected me a lot was the “learning to love your double chins” one.
Oh yeah, the one about that picture with my boyfriend.
I had taken a photo from a dream vacation with the man I love in Srinagar, India. Everything was beautiful, but my paunchy stomach was peeking out my of my shirt in the photo. It made me crazy because I loved the photo and it represented such a happy time, but also I dreaded having my stomach exposed. I wasn’t going to post it, but I convinced myself that the good outweighed the bad and meanwhile no one even noticed my stomach and thought it was an amazing photo. So how did you learn to love your double chins?
I can’t — I don’t — I’m mostly learning to — I don’t think I said I love my double chins in that. I wonder if what I do might help you as well. I can’t do body positivity because it still involves me fixating on my body and it kind of sounds like perhaps you are as well, you’ve had like a disorder attitude to food or your body—
It’s very hard for us to look at our bodies and force ourselves to unlearn and love that. What I personally found, and what I practice, is not a body positivity movement but a life positive movement. I practice body ambivalence.
Body ambivalence is my journey. I’m trying to get to a place where I don’t think about my size. I’m trying to replace my thoughts about calories, carbs, size, and cellulite with money, orgasm, laughter and good experiences. I’m training my brain to unlearn thinking about my body at all. I look in the mirror once in the morning and once at night. If I haven’t put eyeliner on that day, I don’t look in the mirror again until the next day. I’ve now just decided to pretend like my body doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t. I’m trying to teach myself that by pretending my body doesn’t exist.
It actually sounds incredibly smart.
It’s freed a lot of time out my brain! I can’t believe how much more time I have in a day! It’s so wonderful, It’s liberating. I also have mirrors that are waist-up. I only have one full-length mirror in my house and I rarely ever look at it because I’ve decided it’s none of my business. I’ve decided that my body is none of my business, and it’s no one else’s business either. Making that decision has been incredibly liberating for me. I’m so much more productive. I’m so much more successful. I’m a better person. I’m a better friend. I’m a better girlfriend because I’ve got more hours every day to be present and to be productive.
Loving their bodies is something that fat people have to do because society actively hates their bodies, so they have to actively love their bodies to counteract that. They’re in a situation where they’re being medically, constantly, societally discriminated against. I think they would benefit personally from body neutrality, body ambivalence.
That’s a lot to think about.
You’re such a vocal opponent of these tummy flattening teas.
Any detox or diet product.
“I’m trying to replace my thoughts about calories, carbs, size, and cellulite with money, orgasm, laughter and good experiences.”
Have you gotten any clap back from Kardashian fans since they often post about these products?
Look under all their Fit Tea posts. If you look under the comments section you will just see my name, people @-ing me. Kardashian followers just mention my name in their mentions asking me to come and stop what they’re doing or they criticize what they’re doing. I haven’t had any clap back over this because I’m completely right. All I’ve been bringing is facts. And even everything I say about a specific product that I pick out, I take the side effects from their own websites. I’m just quoting them on their own bullshit.
I’d to talk to you about retouching because I think I might be a bit brainwashed on this topic. I’m against extreme retouching that changes how people look, but at the same time I feel like in a photo you want people to look their best and retouching helps with that.
I’m horrified by retouching. Everything else: lighting, makeup and cool clothes are all very obvious things. You can tell that something has been done, you can intellectualize it. It’s very clear that I’m wearing eyeliner or when I’m wearing bright pink lipstick that I’ve done something to alter my appearance. The problem with photoshop and retouching, is that retouching presents the illusion that this reality. That person has a tiny nose, that person has perfect skin, that perfect has very long thick thighs, that person has no creases anywhere on their body, they have no wrinkles, they have perfect glossy hair. There’s no disclaimer. Makeup is it’s own disclaimer.
And when you see a photoshoot, you know that person is likely to have had professional lighting and maybe have their hair done — that’s fine, because we can comprehend that very clearly. Retouching is literally just not the truth presented as the truth and therein lies the danger. Because then young people see that and they think that’s real and that’s what they should look like. Also, retouching is used in unbelievably racist ways that we never discuss. It’s used to lighten skin, change features that are ethnic, change the body shape of other ethnicities. It’s used in so many ways other than fat/thin, to create erasure and to hurt people.
I often think it’s nearly impossible for people, particularly women, in entertainment to not have eating disorders or body issues.
I think the most important thing is to fight back and use your privilege to fight back and talk about these things. I find it so frustrating how many famous actresses either contact me privately or they come up to me in person and tell me how inspired they are by my work. They say “thank you” for all the work I’m doing, but they never say anything alongside me. It’s all in private, because they don’t want to be seen as problematic or difficult. Also, they can’t confront this issue because it’s still something they’re facing themselves. We need to band together and fight back, and we can. Look what happened with Me Too. It turns out when women take advantage of their power and come together and fight back, it can change a whole system. We could do that if people would just be willing to undo their own internalized fatphobia and fight alongside me. It’s very hard for women. I think the most important thing is just to look after yourself and put your mental health first. But we need to change the industry. It’s not enough to just put all the burdens on the victims. We can encourage the victims to fight back, but we need to change the oppressor.
I’m coming for designers. I exploded in a high fashion dress, for a very high fashion magazine shoot a few weeks ago, in New York. I literally made a bang, people turned around, they heard it. This happened to me before, and I’ve been slim most of my career, and yet I’ve been made to feel like a whale, like there’s something wrong with me. I wanted to internalize it as it’s “shame on me not shame on you,” but actually this was the first time I was like, no shame on YOU, not shame on me. Me, women bigger than me, no one should feel too big for anything.
“I believe if you can’t design things that look good on people who are bigger than just a size 0 or 2, you aren’t talented.”
That’s so true. People act like shooting someone who’s not a size zero is some impossible task. I’ve been guilty of that myself!
I also hate the term plus-size because it means you’re over the size you should be. That is so offensive in itself. We need to find a new term. ‘Cause even I sometimes will use it just to communicate what I’m trying to explain. But I hate that term. I’ve been made to feel as though even at a size 6, I am over the size I should be. Now, when I ripped that dress and it split all the way up, I was like good. Good. Fuck you to the designer. How dare you send this for a 5’ foot 10″ grown woman. How dare you? I’m tall and I’m 33. I’m not a 14 year-old skinny little teenager. I believe if you can’t design things that look good on people who are bigger than just a size 0 or 2, you aren’t talented.
No one has really come for designers that way before.
Having only one size is hurting people. I don’t give a fuck if you have to use a little bit more material. The only smart thing to do is make stuff that’s big.
There’s an Instagram I follow called @yrfatfriend which is this anonymous gender nonbinary…
I bring her up literally all the time. I love her so much she’s my favorite person on Instagram.
One of mine too. And she does these amazing Instagram stories of these quizzes of what straight size people could do to make fat people feel better. And one of the things that a lot of people said, which I thought was interesting, was “date us.” It really made me think. I’ve gone out with other fat people before, but I have my own inner fatphobia as well. What do you think about that and have you ever dated anyone who was fat?
Yeah, I dated someone who was 140 pounds heavier than me and it was great. I loved him. Madly, madly in love with him and people would shame him when we would be out in public, which is absolutely heartbreaking to me. People would laugh in his face when we would be walking hand in hand or kissing. Or just assume he was rich — he wasn’t, he had no money. He was young and twice my size and I adored him and I didn’t see his weight as an issue. Wonderful man and a great kisser.
A great kisser is a magical thing.
I think James [Blake] is one of the first slim people I’ve ever dated actually. As he’s getting older and gaining weight, I’m loving it. I’m definitely not someone who gets personally turned on by muscles and stuff.
You were just on Russell Brand’s podcast, you got a lot of flack for that.
But you think he’s amazing.
What I think about Russell is that Russell has made a lot of mistakes and he’s been incredibly problematic in the past. He has taken all of that and rather than run away from it, he’s explaining it, investigating it, and using it as a teaching tool and a teaching moment for other people to avoid making his mistakes. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone do this before. Definitely not seen a privileged straight white male do it.
Everyone has made mistakes. Everyone’s been problematic at some point. Everyone’s been ignorant at some point. But, what we don’t do is have the self-awareness and the integrity to own up to that and to use that. We’re making people increasingly afraid of owning up to their ignorance because we’re so obsessed with moral superiority. And it doesn’t come from anywhere real or helpful, it’s fucking ridiculous. I think especially when someone has a large platform, the value in watching someone say, “I was wrong and now I’m trying to do better,” and what that teaches all the people that follow them is so valuable. Why would we turn our backs on anyone, nevermind people who have the ability to reach so many people with their message of progress? Those are the people that I’m interested in, the ones who have the capacity for change. Because I think that we hugely undervalue that.
You have given me so much to think about. My brain is exploding.
Oh really? Oh God, sorry.
It’s good to be opinionated and vocal. That’s how change happens. It doesn’t happen by people not expressing what they really think.
Photography: Sela Shiloni