18 December 2019

ONLINE ACTIVISM

Jameela Jamil v cancel culture

In her campaigns against unhealthy body ideals, the TV star has inspired thousands of women – and enraged thousands more

By Hattie Garlick

Why are so many people so cross with Jameela Jamil? If you don’t know the name, prepare for a story that only our strange, social-media-mediated times can generate.

The British star of NBC blockbuster comedy The Good Place appears to have undergone a radical reincarnation, emerging as the world’s most famous campaigner against unrealistic and unhealthy body ideals. Why care? Because her influence, though perhaps perplexing, is immense. In January, one damning tweet from Jamil propelled Avon into frantically withdrawing a cellulite cream advert. In September, Instagram cited her as a major influence over new regulations hiding weight loss products and cosmetic procedures from teens. S Bryn Austin, professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said Jamil’s “shrewdly crafted social media posts” wielded more power “than a quarter century of… communications from the federal Food and Drug Administration.”

It sounds like a fairytale worthy of the Disney princess that Jamil so closely resembles: an actress selflessly employing her influence to attack the unachievable body standards to which women have been subjected for generations.

Jameela Jamil in The Good Place (2016)

Yet people are coming for Jamil. On Twitter and Instagram, she has been accused of practicing “patronising performative wokeness on steroids”, riding “on the coattails of [black women’s] political activism”, “shaming women” and “casually wading into high stakes convos”. So is Jameela Jamil a case study in the positives and pitfalls of both cancel culture and social media activism itself?

Born in 1986 London to an Indian father and Pakistani mother, Jamil suffered from congenital hearing loss, underwent repeated surgery, suffered racist abuse, became dangerously anorexic, was struck by a car at 17, date raped in her 20s, then fat-shamed by tabloids when she gained fame, and survived a suicide attempt at 26. It was far from an easy start in life. And so the fact that she has now become, in the words she recently wielded against online trolls, “a happy, thriving multimillionaire [with]… a wonderful career and life” can only be attributed to her steel. That, and her phenomenal beauty. Jamil often talks about being an “awkward and unattractive” teen. That changed, however, dramatically. Her first break came via a chat with a male TV producer in a pub. He encouraged her to audition as Alexa Chung’s replacement, presenting Channel 4’s now defunct youth slot T4.

It must also have helped when, moving to LA in 2016 with no experience in or intention to act, she was immediately cast as socialite Tahani Al-Jamil in a new, prime-time NBC comedy called The Good Place. Last year the show ranked as the network’s most watched. Yet Jamil’s fame as an activist is now eclipsing her status as an actress.

In early 2018, Jamil saw a photo of the Kardashians on Instagram, with their weights emblazoned across their chests. Incensed, she shared the image, commenting that “this is how women are taught to value themselves. In Kg. GRIM” and inviting others to send her selfies labelled with the characteristics and achievements that genuinely defined them.

So many photos arrived that Jamil created a separate Instagram account for them and, in March, the iWeigh campaign was born. A vehicle for “radical inclusivity, so that no one feels alone,” it has now amassed 966,000 followers and 3,061 posts. The singer Sam Smith used the platform to come out as non-binary and called it “life changing”. People proudly display their wheelchairs, dwarfism, vitiligo and acne, fall rolls and drag outfits alongside positive affirmations.

Jameela's first post to her iWeigh Instagram account

Now, the Jamil juggernaut had gained jet propulsion. In May, Kim Kardashian sucked suggestively on an ‘Appetite Suppressant Lollypop’ and offered her Instagram followers a discount code. Jamil’s response was acerbic: “No. Fuck off. You terrible and toxic influence on young girls.”

Over the next few months, she called out a host of other celebrities promoting diet products. Women around the world applauded. Her tweets were unsubtle and potty-mouthed. They took no prisoners, softened no blows but they also seemed a long overdue corrective to social media’s toxic culture of smoke, mirrors and supposed perfection. Crucially, they also appeared to have made things happen.

Dr Ysabel Gerrard sits on the Suicide and Self Injury Advisory Board that developed Instagram’s restrictions shielding under 18s from diet product posts, introduced this September. She says that while other influencers, users and activists had long highlighted their toxicity, iWeigh was “incredibly influential in raising awareness” partly because of “the star power of having someone like Jameela at the head of the campaign.”

Yet, said Gerrard, that very star power “could be a bit of a double-edged sword.” iWeigh’s success, she points out, lies partly in being “very, very intersectional. It’s not for one particular body type. It seems like a very inclusive community.” Jamil herself has tweeted her intention for iWeigh to: “lift up actual activists from different marginalised groups. I am not trying to be the face of all of this. That would be frankly, f**king ridiculous. I’m just using the platform I am lucky to have, and the privilege I am afforded due to my job and my looks being deemed societally ‘acceptable’ to get the conversation to the people who can actually change the laws and change we treat people.”

Yet as iWeigh gained traction, it was Jamil’s photo – and not those of other activists – that appeared in magazines, on the cover of Red Magazine’s ‘New Year, No More Rules!’ issue this February and that of Harper’s Bazaar India’s ‘body issue’ in May. In August, Stylist had her smashing weighing scales with a hammer and in September, Jamil’s face graced the cover of Meghan Markle’s ‘Forces for Change’ Vogue issue.

Jameela on the cover of Red magazine February 2019

“iWeigh is not Jameela, it’s the whole community,” says Gerrard. But “is their message being lost through representation upon representation?” Because while Jamil refused to be airbrushed in any of these photos, questions arose. If the face and figure most emblematic of the new campaign to smash unhealthy body standards stray only fractionally from those ideals, does it matter? Might it send conflicting signals?

Body positivity, body neutrality… The buzz words currently in the zeitgeist have their roots in the radical fat acceptance movement that took root in American in the 1960s explains Stephanie Yeboah, a fat acceptance activist, writer and author.

Social media, however, proved a game changer for the movement. “In 2008 or 2009, visibly fat black women and women of colour, femme and queer women began posting photos and affirmations on tumblr and Instagram, using the hashtag #bodypositivity and forming a community around it,” says Yeboah. “The main aim was to learn how to love yourself in a world that tells you you’re ugly and disgusting and is systematically programmed to keep you down and keep you feeling horrible.”

By 2014, brands had cottoned on to the potential of this self-love, celebratory message. There was, however, a catch. “They didn’t want our bodies – ones that are size 22, 24, 26,” says Yeboah. “We still weren’t seen as an acceptable body shape.” Instead, they hijacked the language and “hired models who were absolutely stunning and, at most, a size 14 to 16… They took a movement we’d created and tied it to conventional beauty standards. It was almost like we were strangers in the very movement we’d helped create.”

Stephanie Yeboah, Lauren Nicole and Sara Brown attend the launch of Bumble's #BodyConfidante campaign at Soho House, June 2018

The body positivity movement had existed to celebrate marginalised communities. Yet, says Yeboah, the women who seemed to profit from this new incarnation were “women who don’t have to worry about going to a restaurant and having people filming you while you’re eating, or people refusing to sit next to them on the bus, or seeing billboards telling you that the body shape you’re in is disgusting.”

Women like Jamil. In late August, she gave an interview on the subject to Marie Claire, disavowing the very term body positivity because: “It’s become a marketing slogan… taken over by very slender, often Caucasian women.” The problem? Her insights appeared to be lifted from points Yeboah had made in an online conversation with Jamil. A storm started on Twitter, where Yeboah urged her to: “Credit black women for their emotional labour. Stop erasing our voices when talking about a movement spearheaded by fat, black women.”

Jamil, initially defensive, soon apologised: “To any curvaceous black women who feel I have in any way encroached upon your movement, I am sorry. I am learning and I thank you for educating me. I hear you.” Today, Yeboah gracefully refuses to revisit the issue, explaining that she and Jamil now have a positive, productive relationship and that Jamil “constantly” uses her influence to promote her and other “plus-size” activists. “It’s almost like a Joan of Arc complex, she wants to carry everybody’s struggles,” says Yeboah. “But the problem that can arise from there, is that there’s a fine line between being an ally and speaking on behalf of others.”

So when Jamil told the BBC that airbrushing should be made illegal, last December, her righteous indignation appeared to miss the mark for the first time. “Jameela Jamil’s ‘airbrushing should be illegal’ essay reminds me so much of Alicia Key’s ‘women should be makeup free’ campaign. It’s like they forget they inhabit the very bodies upheld as ideal,” tweeted Evette Dionne, editor in chief of Bitch Media and author of forthcoming book Fat Girls Deserve Fairy Tales Too.

“Of course it creates an unrealistic body ideal when young people see celebrities so airbrushed they’re unrecognisable,” she explains over Skype. “But you are saying this as someone who fits the ideal. Of course, you don’t have to be airbrushed. But there are people who wouldn’t make it onto the cover of a magazine if they weren’t airbrushed, because the ideals haven’t shifted to include them. I think that’s what Jameela is sometimes missing when she makes these extreme pronouncements.”

 

In June, when Kim Kardashian launched a body make-up product, Jamil’s reply was customarily caustic: “Hard pass,” she tweeted. “God damn the work to take it all off before bed so it doesn’t destroy your sheets… I’d rather just make peace with my million stretch marks and eczema. Taking off my mascara is enough of a pain in the arse. Save money and time and give yourself a damn break.”

The response was less uniformly idolatry than the previous times she had clashed with Kardashians. “You need to stop,” tweeted the skin-care expert and influencer Caroline Hirons. “Stop assuming you ‘know’ all women and stop assuming you speak for all of us. Unless you speak to people with debilitating and painful skin conditions on a daily basis: STOP. Also: some people just like to wear makeup. It’s not ‘devastating’. You do it.”

But Jamil did not stop. In April, she claimed that altering “your eyes, hair, skin colour, body” stemmed from “deep self-hating programming”, then had to row back after accusations she had neglected to consider trans people. In late August, her Stylist magazine photoshoot was criticised, when it turned out that the clothes she wore while smashing scales weren’t available in big sizes.

Jameela Jamil attends the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, September 2019

But are Jamil’s critics holding her up to unrealistic or even unhelpful standards? After all, as she has pointed out, she left school at 16 and is not an academic. Indeed, it was her very status as a sitcom star that propelled iWeigh’s success and Instagram’s rule changes. So is it fair to subject her every tweet to the scrutiny and standards of a peer-reviewed paper?

Jamil herself has highlighted the dangers of doing so: “the stan culture of abuse and trolling and harassment is officially out of control. One small mistake and we see amazing work thrown down the toilet and the person dismissed forever,” she Tweeted in February. “You just go after activist upon activist, with energy better spent upon those who aren’t even trying to help at all. Some of my favourite activists want to just quit because of you, and you scare off so many powerful potential allies from even trying.”

Jameela celebrates 1 million followers of @iWeigh

Her own philosophy appears an antidote to cancel culture. “It is never too late to check yourself and right your wrongs,” reads a tweet that has now been liked 152,500 times and retweeted 32,200 times. “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 til ALL of us are free.”

As wave after wave of criticism hit her, Jamil admitted to “blind spots” or “ignorance” and reiterated her commitment to “learn by putting myself and my thoughts out there and debating.” But as the number of her Twitter followers approached a million, however, and topped 2.5 million on Instagram, cracks appeared.

In November, the rapper Cupcakke tweeted about a month-long “water fast” and earned this response from Jamil: “Please take this down. Most people reading this may not have the medical supervision or extensive knowledge needed to even TRY to attempt this safely. The dangers are immense, and it will harm your metabolism, so isn’t even an effective tool for weight loss. It’s just very unsafe”.

Rather measured, by Jamil’s sharp-tongued standards. Back in January, however, and seemingly unbeknownst to Jamil, Cupcakke had been hospitalised after twice tweeting her intention to take her own life. Publicly chastising her seemed less morally clear-cut than it had in the case of the omnipotent Kardashians. Clarkisha Kent, a writer and influencer who describes herself as “Nigerian. Bi, Black, FAT” wrote a lengthy thread, arguing that, as a South Asian woman, Jamil had “no place in a conversation about BW [Black women] & the adversarial relationship we are taught to have with our bodies from nigh-infancy only to have it exploited and spit back at us later in life.”

Rapper CupcakKe performs onstage, November 2019

Here, if ever, was a real test of Jamil’s ‘learning in public’ philosophy. She retweeted Kent’s comments to her own followers, commenting that: “this is an important and interesting thread… that I found hugely illuminating today and it’s well worth a read so we can all be and do better, myself very much so included.”

The response was a Twitter storm of anger, accusations and indignation from Kent and her sympathisers. “1. This was about you,” replied Kent. “2. I wish you would stfu [shut the fuck up] sometimes. You have a massive platform. Observing instead of speaking is not a death sentence. 3. You owe CupCakke an apology. 3. Your learning-in-public-space approach should come at the expense of people more vulnerable than you…. You also owe me an apology leading anti-Black trolls to my mentions. And I have said all of these things offline REPEATEDLY, so let me say it in public now since you’re so hardheaded.”

“Death-sentence”, “anti-Black trolls” “shut the fuck up”. How did we get from a campaign to protect young women from toxic diet products, to here, in just 18 months?

In her book, Twitter & Tear Gas, Zeynep Tufekci points out that while social media has super-charged the growth of activist movements, “with this speed comes weakness”. Online movements are often less cohesive, less tested, lacking “an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.” Did social media place Jamil on too high a pedestal, too quickly?

“I’ve been researching body image for at least 20 years and the last ten have been focusing on the influence of social media. Over that time we’ve seen such vast changes in the platforms and the way people use them,” agrees Amy Slater, Associate Professor in the world-renowned Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England.

Since research moves notoriously slowly, and social media frighteningly fast, we are yet to fully understand the nuanced effects of online activism and supposedly positive campaigns on body image. But, says Slater: “for so many years, we only had content pushed on us, and we had no control over what messages, what bodies and what appearances we were seeing.” Now “we have this hugely powerful tool at our fingertips enabling us to put anything out there at any time. It gives us the potential to do great things, but also the potential to get it wrong.”

When things do go wrong, (or are perceived by some to have done so), emotions rise quickly. Writer and technology analyst Tobias Rose-Stockwell coined the term “outrage cascades, ” to describe the “viral explosions of moral judgment and disgust [that] have come to dominate our feeds and our conversations, and are becoming a prominent part of the cultural zeitgeist.” Now that our timelines are no longer sorted chronologically, highly charged language is promoted to the top of the pile. It makes for great ‘engagement’ but increasingly fractured and fractious debate.

If this dynamic is derailing Jamil’s activism, however, it may also have helped propel it into the limelight in the first place. Remember her early tweet in response to Kim Kardashian’s appetite suppressing lolly (“No. Fuck off. You terrible and toxic influence on young girls”) and compare it to Rose-Stockwell’s definition. If the phenomenon that fuelled her success is now returning to bite her, can Jamil complain?

Jamil has tweeted her frustration 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… 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?”

Yeboah says: “One of the unfortunate things about this movement is that when someone who is plus size speaks up about something, it’s like we’re speaking to a brick wall. It’s only when somebody who’s conventionally attractive retweets us, or shouts us out, that we actually get our voices heard. On the one hand, yes it can be really frustrating when you have someone very pretty saying all these things. But on the other, if we didn’t have those people who help uplift what we’re saying, then nobody would hear us in the first place. It’s a catch-22.”

Evette Dionne is sympathetic, within bounds. “I would never advocate cancelling someone who’s trying to do good. I do think, though, that it’s important to hold her accountable, direct her to resources… to round out her viewpoint. So that when she is speaking about this issue, with such a huge platform, she is as well-informed as possible.” Jamil, she says “has to recognise that she’s being put at the centre of a movement that she is just a newcomer to. Why? It’s representative of the very systemic exclusion of people of size, of people with disabilities, of people who don’t fit the ideal.”

For those who profit from pedalling unachievable ideals to women: “it’s beneficial for Jameela to become the face of a movement, because she meets the ideal” and thus represents less of a challenge to it than fat activists like Dionne or Yeboah might, should they be in the limelight.

For Jamil, who has put herself at the centre of a particularly millennial mix of online activism, pop culture and identity politics, the terrain is loaded with unexploded bombs – ready to go off if she missteps even an inch. Dionne says: “I hope that’s she’s trying to find that balance, between promoting her and her work and also making space for other people. Pulling others up as she rises. It’s a difficult, delicate balance.”

Photographs Getty Images, Justin Lubin/NBC Universal Media, Hearst Magazines, Kim Kardashian/Instagram

 

Further reading

On why she won’t become a ‘double agent for the patriarchy’, Jameela Jamil speaks to the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman. And later, to Glamour, where she is described as possibly “the bravest woman in Hollywood”.

Tales from cancel culture – the New York Times speaks to teenagers who explain what it’s really means to be ‘cancelled’.

The iWeigh Instagram account, which has reached nearly 1 million followers