Jameela: ‘Women have been duped’

JAMEELA JAMIL is on a one-woman mis­sion to change the con­ver­sa­tion around fe­male self-worth – all while bal­anc­ing a Hol­ly­wood ca­reer. Han­nah Flint meets her…

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In the week of my in­ter­view Jameela Jamil, size 26 model Tess Hol­l­i­day is pic­tured, barely clothed, on the cover of Cos­mopoli­tan. De­pend­ing on who you ask, it’s a vic­tory for body pos­i­tiv­ity or a dan­ger­ous pro­mo­tion of obe­sity. A few days later, a size 16 model fronts a news­pa­per sup­ple­ment and is her­alded as the fu­ture face of fash­ion.

There has, it seems, never been so much con­ver­sa­tion around our bod­ies or self-worth. And yet young girls’ self-es­teem has never been more wor­ry­ing: two weeks ago it was re­vealed that al­most a quar­ter of 14-year-old girls in Bri­tain are self-harm­ing.

But if we’re all con­fused about our value, Jameela may be the woman to show us the way. The day be­fore we meet, a video of her talk­ing about her own self-worth and her bat­tle with anorexia as a teenager has gone vi­ral. Her on­line cam­paign, I Weigh, which en­cour­ages women to de­fine them­selves by their at­tributes in­stead of their weight, has hit 126,000 fol­low­ers. And last week, she was named as one of the most in­flu­en­tial ‘trail­blaz­ers shap­ing cul­ture’ by Pa­per mag­a­zine.

‘I’ve got ADD [at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der], as ev­ery­one in my gen­er­a­tion does,’ she laughs, slouch­ing on a sofa at a Soho ho­tel in Lon­don. There is a lot to talk about. Her ca­reer has spanned Hol­ly­wood ( later this month, the third se­ries of her widely lauded TV show The Good Place will air), ra­dio (she made history as the first woman to present the Top 40) and writ­ing. A piece this year, on the need for ‘en­thu­si­as­tic con­sent’ fol­low­ing the sex­ual ac­cu­sa­tions sur­round­ing co­me­dian Aziz An­sari, has led to a doc­u­men­tary on Ra­dio 4 last week, The Age Of Con­sent, look­ing at where sex­ual con­sent is in a post-me Too world.

It strikes me that the con­ver­sa­tion around our sex­ual be­hav­iour is much like the one around our bod­ies: we’ve never spo­ken about con­sent more, yet we’ve seem­ingly never been so con­fused by what it all means. ‘I didn’t re­alise how much I didn’t know,’ ad­mits Jameela. ‘I thought it was as black and white as yes and no. But there are so many dif­fer­ent types of con­sent. Sex­u­al­ity is one of the big­gest parts of hu­man­ity; it’s vi­tal that it’s done right.’

The 32-year-old knows that only too well; in the doc­u­men­tary, she re­veals that she was date-raped aged 22. ‘I’ve been as­saulted and it changed my life for years,’ she tells me. ‘It took ther­apy and some re­ally good men and the sup­port of my friends to over­come any abuse I’d suf­fered.’ She un­der­went EDMR – a type of psy­chother­apy used in cases of post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der – to move past it.

So why are so many peo­ple still get­ting it wrong? Un­sur­pris­ingly, Jameela be­lieves so­cial me­dia – as well as pornog­ra­phy – is at play. ‘Girls have been taught by so­cial me­dia that the lit­eral ef­fect of tak­ing your clothes off gains you more likes and fol­low­ers,’ she says. ‘ They have started see­ing sex­u­al­ity as the road to ap­proval. I think they need to see some­one who looks a bit more like them say­ing that hav­ing sex with some­one is not go­ing to make them like you. If it de­pends on that, that per­son is not worth your while.’

Jameela’s ac­tivism around body im­age has also been shaped by her own ex­pe­ri­ence. There was the eat­ing dis­or­der in her teenage years, which ended when she broke her back at 19 ( it gave her some much-needed per­spec­tive about her relationship with her body). Then came a ‘piv­otal mo­ment’ – dur­ing her time as 

a Ra­dio 1 pre­sen­ter, she gained five stone af­ter tak­ing steroids for pneu­mo­nia, and pic­tures of her look­ing ‘chubby’ were sub­se­quently splashed across the me­dia.

‘It was ac­tu­ally the best year of my ca­reer. I was very happy!’ she says. ‘I won awards, I made the most money that year, I had a cloth­ing deal, I’d just fallen in love. Your big­gest fear when you’re anorexic is gain­ing weight and be­ing shamed, and sud­denly that was hap­pen­ing. But I started to think, hang on, the world hasn’t stopped turn­ing, all my friends re­ally love me and my boyfriend doesn’t care – he still thinks I’m sexy. Af­ter that, I never looked back.’

It’s that men­tal­ity – that women’s achieve­ments are so much more than their weight – that has driven I Weigh. Jameela pre­vi­ously de­scribed the cam­paign to me, which largely plays out on In­sta­gram, as a ‘mu­seum of self-worth’. Yet I won­der how much all of this stuff – body pos­i­tiv­ity, or its newer cousins body neu­tral­ity and the anti-diet move­ment – ac­tu­ally helps women. Or whether, in­stead of shift­ing our fo­cus away from our bod­ies, it’s all just made us think about them even more.

Jameela shakes her head. ‘I tend to stay away from peo­ple who talk about bod­ies – big or small or toned or not toned. I don’t fuck with that at all. The word “weigh” makes peo­ple think I Weigh is about body pos­i­tiv­ity. But it’s re­ally not. It’s about life pos­i­tiv­ity. What I’m try­ing to do is get rid of body chat al­to­gether. I Weigh has re­minded me of my own self-worth, and I’ve started to look at my­self as a whole hu­man be­ing.’

And the thing about Jameela is that she prac­tises what she preaches: she has told mag­a­zines to stop pho­to­shop­ping her, she reg­u­larly goes make-up free and today she slams a re­cent photo shoot where ‘70% of the clothes’ didn’t fit. ‘ What is go­ing on? What are we do­ing? I’m go­ing to make a baby in this body one day, I need to eat so I can men­stru­ate’.

She then leans back and grabs the flesh around her ab­domen. ‘My roll is fuck­ing great,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve had sex this week, in spite of this lit­tle guy. Why am I be­ing told to take my eye off the ball to look at my tummy? I want to look at my bank ac­count!’

What she’s say­ing is so sim­ple, and yet her mes­sage isn’t one we’re told too of­ten. We have all, in her words, been ‘duped’; conned into think­ing we must fit into a mould ‘that is al­most im­pos­si­ble for women to achieve. Peo­ple are wak­ing up to the idea that this is all, for lack of a bet­ter word, fucked. Sorry, but frankly it’s fucked!’ she laughs. ‘ We’re be­ing mugged of our san­ity in broad day­light and I don’t want to be a by­stander in it.’

She’s now kneel­ing on the sofa, clearly riled up. ‘ When is it go­ing to be in fash­ion just to be a good per­son, or a good role model? We’ve done heroin chic, we’ve done anorexia, we’ve done bum in­jec­tions. We’ve got it all out of the way. Let’s bring good val­ues back.’

More than any­thing, Jameela can’t bear high-pro­file women who re­in­force the un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions that they, too, have suf­fered from. ‘Hyp­ocrites!’ she shouts. ‘Peo­ple are re­ally hurt. I find it so mad that the girls who came up at the same time as me, and got hurt in the same way, are still tak­ing it and putting it back out in ex­actly the same form to other young peo­ple.’

And so we in­evitably come to the Kar­dashi­ans; the women, Jameela says re­ally rather of­ten, who are among the worst of these ex­am­ples be­cause of the sheer scale of their plat­forms. She’s wary of talk­ing too much about them – she says she’s been ac­cused in the past of ‘cre­at­ing head­lines to climb them for suc­cess’. But she adds, ‘ We’re go­ing to start see­ing it for how re­ally dis­gust­ing it is, and I think peo­ple are go­ing to be like, “You’re hurt­ing me.”’ For the record, she has never heard from the Kar­dashi­ans, de­spite mul­ti­ple at­tacks on Kim – in par­tic­u­lar for sell­ing ap­petite-sup­pres­sant lol­lipops on In­sta­gram.

In two weeks’ time, the third sea­son of The Good Place, in which Jameela stars along­side Kris­ten Bell and Ted Dan­son, will come to Net­flix. It’s the best se­ries yet, she says, a com­edy she landed by chance af­ter mov­ing to LA to be­come a screen­writer. I won­der if reg­u­larly slam­ming Hol­ly­wood stan­dards will come back to haunt her. ‘ The fun­ni­est thing is when peo­ple are like, “You’re just say­ing all of this stuff to fur­ther your ca­reer.” Are you in­sane? I’m bit­ing all the hands that could pos­si­bly feed me. But I won’t go away.

‘I’m sure that this has cost me. I would earn much more if I didn’t keep slag­ging off in­dus­tries that pay a lot of money. But I can’t live with hypocrisy. I want to work with brands that are on women’s sides. A make-up brand that shoots me with­out air­brush­ing to show off how good their make-up ac­tu­ally is. Let’s sell some­thing real to peo­ple.’

I want to sit with her for hours and ab­sorb ev­ery­thing she has to say, but Jameela has to leave: she’s only in town for a few days and she’s re­tun­ing to LA where she lives with her boyfriend, mu­si­cian James Blake.

Af­ter an hour in her com­pany, I feel gen­uinely em­bold­ened. But there’s some­thing else. A part of me hopes that, one day, Jameela can just talk about the hugely suc­cess­ful TV show that has made her an LA star de­spite no pre­vi­ous act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, or her ca­reer and her tal­ent. That one day, we all can. Isn’t that the point? ‘ The Good Place’ is on Net­flix from 28 Septem­ber

Left: Jameela with Kris­ten Bell in The Good Place. Be­low: she urges women to cel­e­brate their achieve­ments, not their bod­ies

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