Jameela Jamil Is The Hero We Need
On July 19, a woman in California tweeted a picture of an Atkins diet bar she received along with her online order of plus size jeans from Forever 21. Tweets from other, similarly outraged customers soon followed, and more and more of the photos dotted social media, until on July 24, one user wondered, “Has Jameela Jamil come down like the wrath of god?”
The distress call worked. The following day, The Good Place star swooped in and asked for an update on the controversy from her nearly 900,000 followers. She issued a warning to the fast-fashion behemoth: “Don’t make me come over there.” The company had already apologized, noting that the bars were sent with all online orders, not just plus-size clothes: “This was an oversight on our part and we sincerely apologize for any offense this may have caused to our customers, as this was not our intention in any way.” But Jamil’s willingness to heed a stranger’s call is all part of the actor’s other gig — as guardian of our self-worth.
“I’m not a superhero,” she says, “but I would like to try and help people.”
Jamil, 33, is currently at war with our culture’s narrow definition of beauty and its destructive reinforcements. Somewhat ironically, she is best known for playing the vain socialite Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC’s Emmy-nominated metaphysical comedy The Good Place, which returns for its fourth and final season on Sept. 26. (She assures me the series’ exit will deliver the best twists and guest stars yet.)
Since The Good Place’s debut in 2016, Jamil has parlayed every ounce of her fame into an even bigger role as a body image activist and self-proclaimed “whistleblower.” Whereas Tahani desperately wants everybody to know that she’s friends with Taylor Swift and Kanye West, Jamil desperately wants everybody to know that companies — and certain celebrities — encourage and then profit from our manifold insecurities on a daily basis.
“I find out about most things that are disruptive and damaging because young people almost send out a bat signal for me,” she explains in her rapid, mellifluous British accent.
"I’ve been playing bullsh*t whack-a-mole for the last 10 years."
To wit: Jamil recently amplified the concern of a young woman who had put Macy’s on blast via Twitter for selling plates that dictated food portions according to pants sizes ranging from “mom jeans” to “skinny jeans.” Macy’s apologized and pulled the plates from their shelves. And in January, she called out Avon for an ad that insisted cellulite was not “cute,” accusing the company of shaming women. Within hours, Avon removed the ad from its marketing materials.
Jamil's success has attracted the support of like-minded celebrities such as Busy Philipps and Reese Witherspoon, who said on Instagram, “Every time Jameela Jamil talks about body positivity, I just find myself going, ‘Yes. Yes.’” In a twist worthy of The Good Place, Jamil’s vigilance has earned her the real-life admiration of Tahani’s pal Taylor Swift.
“We’re all so sick of feeling like our faces and bodies are an endless to-do list of improvements to be made,” says the singer, in an emailed statement. “In my opinion, Jameela is a much-needed crusader, fighting the war against self-cruelty. I love how fearless she is in her pursuit of calling out the insidious tricks our perfection-obsessed society plays on women. Her fierceness actually provides comfort to us and a voice saying ‘These standards are ridiculous. Your body is enough as it is.’”
To understand how hard-won this fearlessness is for Jamil, it helps to know her unusual backstory. Early on, she struggled with health issues: She was born partially deaf, and as a teenager was confined to bed rest for a year following a car accident. She also suffers from eczema and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which she has been public about in an effort to combat the embarrassment associated with both conditions. She has worked as a model, teacher, and a TV presenter. Before moving from London to Los Angeles in 2015 and landing her gig on The Good Place — yes, her first-ever acting job was alongside Ted Danson and Kristen Bell — she was a BBC radio DJ. Jamil was the first South Asian woman to hold the position and was routinely mocked by tabloids for her temporary weight gain, the result of prescription steroids for asthma.
“I’ve been playing bullsh*t whack-a-mole for the last 10 years,” she says.
It was around then that she started skewering celebrity culture on her now-defunct blog, Diary of a Goon, and flouting the cardinal rule of womanhood: “Be likable,” she huffs. “I broke the hell out of that rule.”
“I’m not trying to cancel anyone. Stop selling laxatives and I’ll get off your d*ck.”
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Build a Girl, recalls striking up an online friendship with Jamil during that period. The two have never met in person, Moran jokes, because Jamil doesn’t drink (“Like, what would we do with our faces?”), but the actor does have a small part in the forthcoming movie adaptation of Moran’s book, starring Beanie Feldstein.
“She’s extraordinary,” says Moran, via phone. “If she died tomorrow, who would replace her? No one. She’s unique. She’s completely invented her own path.”
At the moment, Jamil is focused on I Weigh, an Instagram campaign that she started in 2018 to celebrate, as she puts it, “radical inclusivity.” Contributors are encouraged to submit their photos and finish the “I weigh” sentence by listing their accomplishments (“eating disorder survivor,” “good dog mom”), obstacles (“chronic illness + pain”), loved ones (“3 daughters”) — anything that defines their life but can’t be measured in pounds.
“That idea was just not there before,” says Moran. “My two teenage daughters saw [the Instagram account] and went, yeah, I will never talk about my weight again.”
Jamil is currently expanding the operation: She has hired six women employees and plans to launch a proper website this fall so that I Weigh can take on more of the corporate watchdog work Jamil has been doing herself. The movement has already earned the admiration of megawatt figures such as Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who recently included Jamil on the group cover of British Vogue for an issue that she guest-edited.
“Jameela’s hilarious,” says pal and 2 Broke Girls creator Whitney Cummings. “She’s kind of got this Lucille Ball vibe. She doesn’t take herself too seriously at a time when we’re all at peak self-obsession.” Cummings consulted Jamil before taping her recent Netflix standup special, Can I Touch It? She says: “I’ll bounce ideas off of her and ask, ‘Can you point out any internalized blind spots?’”
Jamil has had to confront her own blind spots. In 2013, she publicly criticized Miley Cyrus for how “vulgarly” she expressed her sexuality onstage, and in 2014 she accused Beyoncé of showing too much skin in a music video. Jamil doesn’t flinch when I mention her earlier remarks.
“I regret all the mistakes I made,” she says, balancing on a stool to eat a snack. “I call myself a feminist-in-training. Stuff I said when I was younger — I didn’t really have all the answers yet. I hadn’t had therapy yet. I didn’t know who I was actually angry at. Whereas in the last couple of years I’ve started to understand the system of patriarchy, and I realized I need to direct my anger at the right people.”
"I don’t want to beef with the Kardashians. They have a huge amount of influence. I just want them to use that for more good."
Sometimes those people are women. The Kardashians have become a frequent target of Jamil’s smackdowns — she once called Kim “a terrible and toxic influence on young girls” — for posting about weight loss and detox teas. Jamil has lambasted detox products on Twitter and in speaking engagements, labeling them “laxative nonsense.” She’s also called out celebrities, including Iggy Azalea and Cardi B, who promote them. For Jamil, this is personal: As a teenager, she struggled with anorexia, which she blames for the digestive issues she has now.
“I’m not trying to cancel anyone,” she says. “I don’t want to beef with the Kardashians. They have a huge amount of influence. I just want them to use that for more good. I think what Kim does with the prison system is really cool. Stop selling laxatives and I’ll get off your d*ck.”
Jamil’s outspoken efforts seem to be moving the needle. Harvard professor and eating disorder expert S. Bryn Austin recently wrote a column for NBC News crediting Jamil with being more effective at raising awareness of the dangers of the detox market than years of work by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Her habit of calling out body shaming by brands has prompted the business press to question how apparel and packaged goods manufacturers speak to consumers, especially those struggling with their weight and body image.
“Being in the middle of this industry and being used as a vessel to set unrealistic standards for other women — because I was being Photoshopped, and altered, and starved — made me realize that, ‘Oh, my god, everything I thought was real was a lie when I was a teenager. I have to tell the other teenagers,’” Jamil says.
Not everyone has embraced the frankness of her wish to see the offending celebrities “sh*t their pants in public,” as she once tweeted. At the end of last year, the Canadian magazine Flare called her out for her “2014 feminism” in reference to those comments as well as her adamant position against air-brushing, suggesting that Jamil was too conventionally attractive to be taking such a prominent role in a movement already years underway.
"I’m using all the different privileges I have to try to kick the door open and let everyone else in. I’m the Trojan horse."
Jamil grapples with this type of feedback, but it doesn’t dissuade her. “The beauty ideals of our generation are still stemmed in white supremacy,” she says. “Up until 10 years ago, South Asian women — Pakistani women in particular — were not considered beautiful. We never played the heroine in the movie. I’m the first Pakistani I’ve seen on most fashion magazines. Suddenly, I’m in, my look has become society-acceptable, and I’ve definitely benefited from that privilege.” She takes a rare pause. “I’m using all the different privileges I have to try to kick the door open and let everyone else in. I’m the Trojan horse.”
The Good Place, Jamil says, has been “beautiful, surprising, and life-changing.” But she isn’t sure if she wants to take the TV star route. “If acting happens, then great, and if it doesn't, that's OK,” she says. “The most important thing is that I'm not being complicit in any of the nightmarish evil that can sometimes come out media or fashion or Hollywood.” In the meantime, she’s working on a book that will touch on her experiences with sexual abuse and bullying. “It's essays about shame, and how shame has shaped us, and how to kill it,” she says.
Jamil doesn’t know if her persona has interfered with her Hollywood prospects, nor does she care.
“She’s incredibly brave,” says Cummings. “It’s really scary to speak out against people who could not only say negative things about you to someone who could employ you, but that you might just straight-up run into. A lot of us would rather be silent and have no one mad at us.”
Jamil is comfortable in that role. “I’m a bit much, and I like that about myself,” she says.
Her mission also has personal implications. “The shitty deal that young people have makes me so sad, and so frustrated, and so afraid of having children myself,” says Jamil, who is in a long-term relationship with English singer-songwriter James Blake. “It just seems crazy to bring children into this world right now and it's getting scarier. I am not going to take that leap until I feel like things are changing for the better. I guess that's why I'm being so aggressive.”
Earlier this year, Cummings and Jamil shot a pilot together that Cummings describes as “a really cutting satire” about Instagram influencers and wellness culture. “Jameela is playing her real-life nemesis, a character she would have some sassy things to say about on Twitter,” she explains, laughing. The project is still untitled. And in October, Jamil will host a new TBS game show called The Misery Index, where teams compete against each other to rank funny, awful real-life events.
Mainly, though, Jamil will be out there, ready to take action when she’s needed.
“I'm intimidating,” she says, like it’s her superpower. “Don’t put toxicity into the world, and I will leave you alone.”
Top image credit: Gucci jacket and shirt. Jennifer Fisher earrings.
Photographer: Emily Shur
Stylist: Mecca James-Williams
Fashion Market Assistant: Raziel Martinez
Hair: ROBERT LOPEZ for Solo Artists using Rene Furterer & T3Micro
Makeup: Starworks Artists