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How Jameela Jamil built a brand around body positivity

And why she’s facing backlash for it now.

Actress Jameela Jamil.
FilmMagic

If you are not a fan of the critically acclaimed NBC sitcom The Good Place (which you should be! Why aren’t you watching it??), then you may not be familiar with Jameela Jamil.

Jamil plays Tahani al-Jamil, an image-obsessed socialite who lives in her accomplished older sister’s shadow. Recently, however, the actress has also become known as a vocal feminist and body positivity advocate. In the last month alone, Jamil has come after everyone from Cardi B to Iggy Azalea to Khloe Kardashian for advertising “detox teas,” or beverages that are purported to help you lose weight, on Instagram.

For the most part, the media has embraced the portrayal of Jamil as an outspoken advocate for feminist empowerment, a 2018 version of a 2014-era Jennifer Lawrence or a 2016-era Chrissy Teigen. “In an industry that reproduces so many limiting ideas of how women should look, speak, dress and think, it is so refreshing to see an actress speak her mind,” Paper magazine wrote in a profile of Jamil.

Recently, however, that narrative has gotten more complicated. This week, Jamil generated backlash for a BBC op-ed she wrote, along with a series of tweets, which called for Photoshop and airbrushing to be made illegal.

Jamil’s tweets started out innocently enough, pointing out how often magazines airbrush photos of female celebrities in their 40s and 50s while leaving male celebrities untouched. (Jamil has famously refused to let any publications Photoshop images of her.)

One of her anti-Photoshop tweets, however, featured a photo of a glowing Jamil wearing what appears to be makeup, while simultaneously enjoining women to “say no to airbrushing” — a message that many interpreted as a statement that self-love is liberating, provided you’re super hot. Others accused Jamil of exhibiting Tahani-esque levels of privilege and lack of self-awareness. (Jamil has since deleted the tweet.)

Some even questioned Jamil’s motives for making body positivity such an integral part of her platform. The response may signal an impending backlash — not just against Jamil, but against celebrities who have used body positivity and female empowerment as a self-branding tactic.

How Jamil built a brand around body positivity

Although she’s been famous in the UK for years, Jamil has become well-known in the US media fairly recently. A former British “it girl,” she first became famous as a presenter (that’s British for “TV host”) for the TV program T4, as well as the breakfast show (that’s British for “a show that airs in the morning”) Freshly Squeezed. Three years ago, she moved to Los Angeles, reportedly with no intention of starting an acting career, and landed the lead role of Tahani on her very first audition.

Jamil has spoken publicly about body positivity throughout her career. She’s been open about her own personal struggles with body image, such as an eating disorder she grappled with in her teens and her experience being body-shamed by the British press after gaining weight from using steroids for asthma. She has said that her difficulty finding clothes in her size during that time prompted her to launch a size-inclusive collection in 2016 with the UK brand Simply Be, which included sizes 10 to 32 (or US sizes 6 to size 30).

In a 2015 interview, Jamil said she wanted to provide more options for larger women, while simultaneously refusing to call them “plus-size”: “The concept of plus-size is so derogatory and weird. What does that mean? Plus the normal size? It shouldn’t exist anymore,” she told Femail at the time.

In March of this year, Jamil launched the Instagram account I Weigh. In the caption on the inaugural post, Jamil wrote that she was “fucking tired of seeing women just ignore what’s amazing about them and their lives and their achievements, just because they don’t have a bloody thigh gap.” The account now has more than 249,000 followers and features more than 2,000 user-submitted posts from women.

Since then, Jamil has publicly weighed in on a number of issues related to body positivity and cultural beauty standards. Last June, she announced her no-Photoshop policy; in October, she reiterated this stance, sharing unretouched photos from a Marilyn Monroe-inspired photo shoot in which stretch marks on her breasts were visible. Like Teigen and Padma Lakshmi before her, who have also shared photos of their stretch marks, Jamil posted the images along with a message of self-acceptance.

She has criticized Cardi B, Iggy Azalea, and the Kardashians for endorsing questionable weight loss products on Instagram

Since she started building her US brand, Jamil has taken aim at celebrities and social media influencers for promoting what she says she views as toxic, body-shaming narratives.

Arguably her highest-profile target has been the Kardashians, most notably Kim Kardashian, who promoted appetite-suppressing lollipops by the Instagram weight-loss company Flat Tummy Co. “No. Fuck off. No. You terrible and toxic influence on young girls,” Jamil wrote on Twitter back in May. (Kardashian did not issue a public response.)

In an August interview with podcast host Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Jamil slammed the Kardashians again, referring to them as “double agents” for the “patriarchy.” “It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing: Just because you look like a woman, we trust you and we think you’re on our side, but you are selling us something that really doesn’t make us feel good …. You’re selling us self-consciousness,” she told Guru-Murthy.

While some criticized Jamil for taking issue with the Kardashians rather than the patriarchy itself, Jamil attempted to clarify her comments on Twitter, specifying that she wasn’t criticizing the Kardashians specifically, but the beauty-obsessed culture they were endorsing.

Last month, Jamil publicly lambasted Cardi B, whose latest Instagram post had endorsed another detox tea; she also criticized Iggy Azalea, Amber Rose, and Khloe Kardashian for promoting similar weight loss products. “GOD I hope all these celebrities all shit their pants in public, the way the poor women who buy this nonsense upon their recommendation do,” she wrote.

(As Vox previously reported, many of these teas have a laxative effect; taking laxatives can lead to cramping, indigestion, and dehydration, which makes them an unsafe and unhealthy means of losing weight).

Cardi B, for her part, told Jamil, “I will never shit my pants because there’s public bathrooms....and ooh, bushes.” Emboldened by Cardi’s response, Jamil leaned into the joke further, posting a video of herself pretending to chug a detox tea, then rushing to the bathroom.

Jameela Jamil has a history of stirring the pot with what some call slut-shaming rhetoric

In the past, Jamil (who in her Twitter bio refers to herself as a “feminist-in-progress”) has been accused of harboring some anti-feminist views, specifically when it comes to women she appears to deem overly sexually provocative.

In the past, she’s called out Miley Cyrus for her “overt use of her sexuality and her vagina to gain a platform”; in a column for the UK website Company, she also criticized Rihanna for posing pantsless on Instagram, imploring her to “put away her minge” (British for female genitalia).

In a blog post, Jamil also accused Beyoncé of “behaving like a (Bloody amazingly beautiful) stripper” with her “buttocks spread apart by a pole...air-humping a piano” in the music video for “Flawless.” Following backlash, Jamil deleted the post — but an archived version is still viewable. Jamil was also accused of erasing the work of black women like body positive activist Stephanie Yeboah, who claims that Jamil once quoted her in an interview without attribution.

In an October 2018 op-ed for Pajiba, writer Kayleigh Donaldson took aim at what she referred to as Jamil’s “diluted version of body positivity,” one that does not necessarily include all women of all different sizes: “She loves low-hanging fruit, especially when it comes to women who make a living by being sexual in any form,” Donaldson wrote, noting Jamil’s previous criticism of Beyonce, Cyrus, and Rihanna.

Donaldson also questioned whether Jamil, as a conventionally attractive, straight-size woman, is necessarily the best representative of the body positivity community. “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,” Donaldson writes.

Jamil herself seems at least somewhat aware of her own shortcomings as a representative for the body positivity movement. In an interview with Marie Claire, Jamil bemoaned the fact that body positivity has “become a marketing slogan, and that’s not what it was originally for. It was supposed to be inclusive, and again now, it’s been taken over by very slender, often Caucasian women.”

Indeed, one of the most common critiques of the body positivity movement is that its primary representatives have very little in common with the vast majority of women. “For instance, a conventionally attractive Instagram model clapping back at her haters, or a literal supermodel who feels the need to publicly answer her anonymous, powerless social media critics. Or that supermodel’s cousin who is a hero to women everywhere for displaying one single fat roll,” as Amanda Mull wrote in a Vox piece.

The Good PLace
Kristen Bell and Jameela Jamil in The Good Place.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

To be fair, the body positivity movement has gotten (slightly) more diverse over the past few years, with women of color and LGBTQ women slowly becoming more visible. And as a woman of Indian and Pakistani descent, Jamil contributes a welcome perspective to a movement that, as she pointed out in Marie Claire, is still pretty damn white.

Still, it’s easy to see why a woman who doesn’t look like Jamil (or Teigen or Emily Ratajkowski, a literal bikini model) would be skeptical of their messages of self-empowerment and body positivity. If you look great without makeup, then it’s easy to say that airbrushing and filters and Photoshop should be illegal; and if the rest of your culture loves your body, then it’s easy to love your body, too.

The double-edged sword of “Cool Girl” feminism

In addition to building a brand as a body positivity advocate, Jamil has also garnered fans for her goofy, eminently relatable persona. She frequently refers to bodily functions in interviews and has referred to herself as a “potty mouth” and a “constantly inappropriate person,” filling something of the Cool Girl vacuum left by Jennifer Lawrence, who rose to A-list status in large part by talking openly about butt plugs and dropping F-bombs at awards shows.

(In a somewhat similar vein, Jamil also frequently insists to journalists that she was awkward and unattractive as an adolescent, a time-honored narrative of ugly-ducking-turned-swan right out of the Victoria’s Secret model playbook.)

It remains to be seen whether this strategy will backfire for Jamil, as it ultimately did on some level for Lawrence, who was subject to much debate over whether her frat bro persona was little more than schtick. If the backlash against Jamil’s anti-Photoshop tweets is any indication, it certainly seems like a possibility.

However well-intentioned celebrities may be, the privileges afforded by beauty and wealth and status are simply too great to allow most of them to retain a cool and relatable image for very long.

But for now, it appears that Jamil’s lean into Cool Girl feminism is still working: The media has lauded Jamil for her tweets and her “refreshing” take on celebrity and body image. More than one effusive reporter has gushed that they wish they could be Jamil’s best friend. So for now, that’s the pop cultural role she primarily occupies in the public consciousness — even if she arguably has more in common with the Kardashians themselves than she does with the women who retweet her takedowns.