If Everyone Would Just Listen to Jameela Jamil, the World Would Be Better
Two weeks before I log on to Zoom to chat with actress and activist Jameela Jamil, much of Hollywood’s A-list walked the red carpet at the Met Gala. Hosted by American Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, this annual event is a fundraiser for New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but is better known as “fashion’s biggest night out.” It’s an opportunity for celebrities to don couture, rub shoulders with one another, and make headlines with their statement-making ensembles.
Jamil didn’t attend the event, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t make headlines in the next day’s news.
You see, the 2023 fete was in celebration of the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, a man who famously made many racist, sexist, and fatphobic comments over the course of his career, before his death in 2019. I’m won’t detail what Lagerfeld said or did (if you want those details, there are plenty of places for you to find them) because this isn’t a story about Lagerfeld and views. This is about Jamil’s perspective.
“Last night Hollywood and fashion said the quiet part out loud when a lot of famous feminists chose to celebrate at the highest level, a man who was so publicly cruel to women, to fat people, to immigrants and to sexual assault survivors,” Jamil wrote on Instagram the day after the Met Gala. “Last night we relinquished our right to be taken at all seriously about anything important.”
Within hours, CNN and Variety had published stories about how Jamil “slammed” Met Gala attendees, while the UK’s The Independent referred to Jamil’s post as a “fresh attack” on feminist guests.
Strong words. Is it just me, or do those words imply that Jamil’s opinion is harsh, or mean, or in some way unearned? Because I don’t see her words in that light; not at all. They seem fair. And important.
Fast-forward to mid-May, when I had the pleasure of speaking with Jamil for the better part of an hour. I had to ask her: Does a fear of backlash, of knowing that opinions strongly held will surely find their way into the news cycle, ever dissuade her from speaking out? “Backlash is inevitable if you’re a woman with any opinion on anything whatsoever. So that’s not something I worry about,” she says. “I know that that’s coming. And the day-to-day gamble is, ‘Is this worth it?’”
Several personal values help Jameel answer that question: “Telling the truth is incredibly important to me,” she says. “Justice and being fair is very important to me. And while I am on my own journey of making myself a better person, I’m also just trying to make sure that we’re all keeping ourselves in check.”
Jamil created the Instagram account I Weigh (which now has 1.2 million followers) in 2018; a platform and podcast by the same name now galvanize a community around the idea of “radical inclusivity.” Combatting the toxic body and beauty standards imposed by diet culture has been core to I Weigh’s mission from the beginning. Now, Jamil seeks for the brand to “mobilize activism” around issues of discrimination, mental health, climate change, and more. “Our job is to amplify, advocate, and pass the mic,” I Weigh’s Instagram bio reads.
“Is it worth it?” Jamil tells me she asks herself before speaking out on a topic. When your words have the power to change minds and lives, the answer is almost always yes.
“As consumers, as a society at large, we have to remember that we are in power,” Jamil says. “The multi-billions of dollars in the diet industry comes from our pockets. We work hard all day for the money that their pockets are lined with. We can actually choose which magazines we buy. We can choose who we follow online. We can choose who becomes a celebrity and who doesn’t…There is a democracy to all of this, and we forget that. We feel as though we have no choice but to go along with it.”
And so now, let me take a cue from I Weigh and pass the mic to Jamil. She has a few things to say, and you’d be wise to listen.
With Well+Good’s Bodies Issue, we’re challenging the assumptions that people make about what a healthy body looks like or is capable of; we want to acknowledge and celebrate all the different complex feelings that people have about their bodies. So I’d love to start there. When you hear the term “healthy” or “healthy body,” what does that conjure for you? And what do you think are some of the stereotypes that need dispelling?
Jameela Jamil: I mean, nothing comes to mind because nothing can come to mind when you think of a healthy body, because there’s no one way in which a healthy body can look. I’m good friends with Aubrey Gordon, who’s a wonderful writer, who talks about the health assumptions people have about her because she lives in a bigger body. And she and I always laugh about the fact that I am in a smaller body and never get trolled over my health online, and yet I’m way unhealthier than she is in every way. My cholesterol is higher. My blood pressure is worse. My insulin is worse. Everything that could be more wrong with me than her is. And so, it’s so obscene and absurd that people feel the need to troll someone based on what they look like because you just never know. You are not a human MRI scan, so you shouldn’t try and act like one or speak like one.
So much of these stereotypes or misconceptions that people have about what healthy looks like is informed by diet culture. I think many of us, especially women of a particular age, have been impacted by the images and stories we’ve been fed our whole lives. What do you think are some of the most pressing things that diet culture has taught us that we most need to unlearn?
JJ: I think it always starts with the fact that your value is in how little space, as a woman, you take up and how much space in the right way, as a man, you should take up. I think it’s this idea that our value lies in a number on a scale, and that’s so preposterous.
I also think that you are commended for, quote, unquote, “discipline” in diet culture, which often revolves around starving yourself and leading yourself towards malnutrition and an impacted bone density, kidney dysfunction…There’s really no nuance to the diet industry. You are taught that as long as you look a certain size, that can qualify you as healthy, and you will be deemed a valuable and acceptable member of society.
It’s really scary and sad to watch because I’m on the other side of a 20-year battle with anorexia, and I can specifically link most of my most pressing and long-term health problems to that anorexia, to everything I did to maintain a body that I would not be judged for having. I’ve risked my life. I’ve damaged my life. I’ve almost certainly shortened my life because of everything that I did.
“I’ve risked my life. I’ve damaged my life. I’ve almost certainly shortened my life because of everything that I did.”
And that’s why I fight so hard to make people aware of the problems with a quick-fix diet. There’s no such thing as a quick-fix lifestyle change, because your body is not built to adapt to speed changes. So whether you’re trying to get bigger or smaller, you have to do these things slowly, gradually, sustainably, and with the guidance of a medical professional.
With your experience with anorexia in mind—or not!—I’m curious: How would you characterize your relationship with your body today?
JJ: I’m in a really good place with my body now. It took a really long time to get there, and I did a lot of EMDR, which is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, to kind of reestablish my relationship with food and to try to work on body dysmorphia. I really didn’t think my body dysmorphia was ever going to go away but, I don’t know what’s happened in the last year, and maybe it’s the return of heroin chic, but it seems to have broken my brain in a way that has finally woken me up from this terrifying nightmare that I’ve been in since I was 11 years old. There’s the déjà vu of seeing that body standard come back in at any cost…and it seems to have cracked me, and I think I actually have gotten to a place of sanity.
It might be the best thing that’s ever happened to me, personally, because I look in the mirror and now can see my body, I think for the first time, as it is. And I don’t look at it with love and I don’t look at it with hatred. I’ve been practicing the act of body neutrality for a really long time, which means not really focusing on my body at all, trying to not have an opinion on it, just accepting it is there.
It is doing what it’s going to do. I’m nourishing my body appropriately, and this is what it looks like when I nourish my body appropriately. It’s getting me from A to B, and it took me to have sex last night and it’s going to take me to the fridge and then it’s going to take me to work later and it’s going to take me to make all of my dreams come true and to take me to see my friends and have amazing experiences. And so, it’s my car and I’m going to fuel my car appropriately…but I’m not going to judge the way that it looks. And I’m not going to hurt it in any way, because then it won’t be able to take me around to make all of my dreams come true.
The sentence that I saw on the internet last year that has continued to just sum all of this up is just: It’s not a dream body if it’s a nightmare to maintain.
Courtesy of Jameela Jamil
That’s where I’m genuinely at. I’m getting older, and my body’s changing and doesn’t look the way it did when I was 24, and I accept it. And well done to it for surviving everything I have put it through and all the hatred I have poured into [it]. The sentence that I saw on the internet last year that has continued to just sum all of this up is just: It’s not a dream body if it’s a nightmare to maintain. It’s the smartest thing I’ve seen anyone say on the internet, and I’m so sad to watch people start wasting their lives again over this nonsense, made-up ideal.
We’re seeing these different movements—like “body neutrality,” which you mentioned, and “body positivity”—gain momentum. Does any of this terminology resonate with you? Do you think terms like “body positivity” have the potential to do harm to some folks?
JJ: I think body positivity is an extraordinary movement. But also for some people, they felt pressured into body positivity and it led to this sort of toxic positivity that was almost, not more damaging, but it was damaging in its own way. It’s like, “Well, I can’t get to love.”
I mean, I have body dysmorphia. I couldn’t get to love. I couldn’t get there. I tried. I looked at the amazing people, like Lizzo and all these amazing advocates out there, and I was like, “God, it’s so incredible that you feel that way, but I’m so damaged that I can’t get there.” And then I felt like a failure in a new way.
So the reason that I was pushing for neutrality is, let’s give people a step to rest on before they strive for the peak of human enlightenment against all of the odds. Let’s just give someone a rest stop, a waiting room. And if you live in that waiting room for the rest of your life, good for you, because then you still don’t have to think about your body, whether it’s with love or hatred. [My body is] the last thing I want to think about. It’s the least interesting thing about me, and I’m so glad to be able to say that with confidence.
A community that I’ve heard from that often feels alienated or left out of the body positivity movement is those who have chronic illnesses or invisible illnesses. If you’re focusing on what your body can do rather than what it looks like, sometimes that’s not even a possibility if you’re struggling day-to-day with illness. You’ve been public about your own chronic illness and invisible illness. Has that informed your relationship with your body?
JJ: It’s definitely changed the way that I treat my body. [My illness] got me out of the things I was doing to harm myself much faster than I would have had I had a healthier system, because I was forced to realize that, “Oh, I’m going to actually die if I keep going like this because I’m not strong enough.” And so, it forced me to eat the food that I needed, even if my brain was telling me that I mustn’t. And it weirdly kind of saved my life, because it stopped me from hurting myself.
It is really hard when you have a body that you feel like is fighting you every single day to be positive about that body. But again, I’ve worked from a place of neutrality, of: It is what it is, and it’s my friend. When I’m in pain, it’s not my body attacking me. It’s my body warning me because it’s trying to protect me. Personifying my body as separate from me—as a friend, as my best friend, as my ride or die—has taught me to look at it with more empathy and compassion, because we are always so much more capable of giving empathy and compassion to others than to ourselves.
Again, I’m not trying to be like, “[My illness] is amazing. Pain is incredible. Waking up swollen every day of my life, never knowing what my face is going to look like in the morning for my on-camera job and whether or not I’m going to be able to make it up the stairs feels amazing.” It’s disingenuous. And also neurologically, sometimes, forcing positive thought…can backfire because if you say something that is too far from the truth of how you really feel, your brain then kicks in to argue with that lie.
We’ve hit on many of the ways that body image and diet culture can have a negative impact on your mental health, but I know that you’re also really passionate about all the positive impacts that movement and moving your body and being active can have on your mental health—you recently launched the Move for Your Mind campaign on I Weigh.
JJ: On the surface level, we’ve gone like, “Yeah, exercising is good for my mental health.” But we don’t really understand how and why and what [exercise] does to your hormone regulation and how hormone regulation has such a ginormous impact on your mental health. And so, [with Move for Your Mind,] we really want people to understand the endorphin impact…We want people to understand the autonomy you feel when you move your body and when you force in those happy chemicals; the feeling of just like, “I am powerful and in control.”
With [Move for Your Mind] we are trying to really, really, really divorce the [mental impact of exercise from the] physical element of exercise. Everyone is so consumed with fitness and body image now, and diet culture and exercise culture are so intertwined in a way that is becoming increasingly disturbing. So we are just trying to pull the two apart at the moment
What is something you feel like your body has taught you?
JJ: I think my body has taught me that I have limitations and [that] I can’t trick it. I can’t cheat my body. My body has taught me that I am a fragile human being with limits and that I am not supposed to live in an existence of only stress and in hustle and in strife, that I’m supposed to experience pleasure and rest and joy and calm and sleep.
And it has taught me moderation. It has forced me into moderation, which is so different to what we are taught in our society. I’m of the generation that went through the 2008 financial crash, where it was…put upon us to restore the global economy, especially in the West. That made us consume, consume, consume, consume, almost hysterically consume. And so, we all got poisoned into this rat-like hustle culture [to] the detriment to our mind and our bodies…My body personally has shown me that it is actually the boss of me, and it will decide what it is that I can get away with. [It has taught me that] I am here to help people and to work hard, but I’m also here to enjoy my life and to rest and soothe myself.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.