Controversial Crush: Jameela Jamil and Her Brand of Body Positivity
It’s easy to advocate for a ban on airbrushing when your own pictures don’t need it.
In the series Controversial Crush, we dote on controversial women and tell you why.
Jameela Jamil is a feminist-in-progress: she often walks a tightrope between checking her own privilege as a thin, popular actress and advocating for body positivity for people of color (POC) and fat folks. In POC circles, The Good Place actress often gets torn down for the former, and immensely celebrated among fan circles for the latter. Her main shtick is that nobody’s perfect, that she’s still learning, and that everyone should be accorded second, third, and fourth chances if they display eagerness and willingness to get better. With her position of power in the media, however, how many chances does Jamil deserve?
Arguably, many. Jamil was just handpicked by the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, as one of 15 “Forces for Change” for British Vogue, for her body positivity activism and public call-outs of celebrities and beauty companies that peddle correcting and shaming products for women. With that celebrity, however, Jamil has also encountered scrutiny for past comments she has made: she criticized Rihanna for putting up a pantsless photo on Instagram, telling the pop star “put your minge away“; she has called out Miley Cyrus for “overt use of her sexuality and her vagina to gain a platform”; she even criticized Beyoncé in a now-deleted blog postfor behaving like a stripper in the music video for “Flawless,” in which Beyoncé, as described by Jamil, features her “buttocks spread apart by a pole…air-humping a piano.” Jamil’s earlier pop culture analyses bordered on prudish assumptions that women don’t have any sexual agency, and her subsequent critique — when delivered in her signature scathing way — transformed, perhaps unintentionally, into slut-shaming.
This is apparent in the way she has treated the Kardashians, one of the main beauty trendsetters in the media today. When Kim Kardashian advertised appetite-suppressing lollipops, Jamil rained fury on her, tweeting: “No. Fuck off. No. You terrible and toxic influence on young girls.” When pictures from Kim Kardashian’s nude photoshoot were circulated, Jamil took up arms once again, writing a rather tone-deaf blog post: “The question I really want to ask.. is… Kanye was there at the shoot, so WHY DIDN’T HE JOIN IN AND GET HIS DICK OUT? Why have I still not seen Kanye’s penis?! I feel as though he OWES us a glimpse of his bell end. We have been treated to more of his wife of late, than we have since we first met her with a mouthful of Ray Jay.”
She has also called the Kardashians “double agents” of the patriarchy, and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” in an interview with podcast host Krishnan Guru-Murthy. In response to Kim Kardashian’s line of body makeup, Jamil tweeted: “Save money and time and give yourself a damn break.” When she got called out for targeting other women for her crusade against beauty standards, she quickly clarified her problem was not with the Kardashians, but with their peddling of shaming beauty products. Critics of her “preachy” behavior also pointed out that it might be easy for someone like Jamil to give herself a break, what with her body emulating society’s standard for attractiveness, but for someone who has visible scars on their body, for instance, the choice to give themselves a “damn break” isn’t all that easy to make.
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When her comments surface, however, Jamil quickly owns up to them — so much so, that the acknowledgment and apology for some of them are now in her pinned tweet: “It is never too late to check yourself and right your wrongs. I used to be slut shamey, judgmental, and my feminism wasn’t intersectional enough. Nobody is born perfectly ‘woke’. Listen, read, learn, grow, change and make room for everyone. We aren’t free till ALL of us are free.”
In February, she received heavy criticism from her fans after she became an ambassador of American underwear brand Aerie. For a campaign that included Paralympic snowboarder Brenna Huckaby, actors Samira Wiley and Busy Philipps, and gymnast Aly Raisman, Jamil got flak for touting the campaign as inclusive and representing “everybody,” while not a single fat woman had been included. She later apologized for her word usage, tweeted that she had sat down with Aerie executives to advocate for a campaign that included more body types, and owned up to the ways in which she had been conditioned, without being defensive — unlike most celebrities today.
She also has a finger on the pulse of most developments in the media industry: When beauty company Avon put out a brochure with the slogan “Dimples are cute on your face (not on your thighs),” Jamil took up arms against the company, tweeting, “And yet everyone has dimples on their thighs, I do, you do, and the clowns at @Avon_UK certainly do. Stop shaming women about age, gravity, and cellulite. They’re inevitable, completely normal things. To make us fear them and try to ‘fix’ them, is to literally set us up for failure.” Avon pulled the campaign soon after. When the world was mourning the death of German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, Jamil was one of the few who criticized him, calling him “a ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist.” She has normalized public conversations around eating disorders (she used to have one, and be shamed for it), abortions (having had one herself), and photos that show fat, stretch marks and scars, which she shares alongside ones that depict her glamorously.
This brings us to one of the main issues with Jamil — her fat, stretch marks, and scars are nowhere close to what most women she is advocating for sport. She might have been fat in the past, but she’s a thin, sculpted media celebrity now. Most of the time, she seems oblivious to that privilege, always attempting to make her experience relevant, and justifying her ability to represent all women. She recently posted a glamorous photo of herself on her twitter, alongside a call to ban airbrushing in magazines. While the thought is valid — airbrushing seeks to correct normal, natural skin and perpetuates an arbitrarily perfect body — Jamil’s comment was ignorant, as pointed out by by @jaythenerdkid, who tweeted: “airbrushing is bad, but can we clear the stage and give the body posi mic to the fat folks, disabled folks and dark-skinned black women who created the movement rather than firing off confetti cannons for a conventionally attractive actress saying things we’ve known for years…”
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Therein lies one of the main fallacies of Jamil’s brand, one that critics have called a “diluted version of body positivity“: Jamil has made herself the face of a campaign that she herself only tangentially fits into; she is advocating for a population that looks nothing like her, whom she doesn’t visually represent. She is also benefiting from this advocacy — magazine covers, speaking engagements, and a constant barrage of media mentions. In a carefully cultivated television persona, it’s difficult to gauge what is performative and what is sincere, with the fandom ultimately relying on individual belief. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter much if she benefits or not, as long as she successfully advocates for the voices which the media deliberately obfuscates. While Jamil’s lack of representative ability might dilute the impact of any advocacy, and might just put an end to her relatability and activist celebrity soon, there aren’t many public figures who have dedicated their social media presence to fighting against societal beauty standards. As long as Jamil keeps learning, taking criticism well, and including everybody in her advocacy — we’ll take what we can get.
Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle's Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she's interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team's podcast, Respectfully Disagree.