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Jameela Jamil and the right to the body positivity movement

ByNiamh Anderson

Feb 6, 2019

Last week, Jameela Jamil rejected an offer of a role of a deaf woman, telling the filmmakers to give it to an actually deaf person. She has suffered from congenital hearing loss and has partial hearing, but said she wanted to “make space rather than take space,” a laudable endeavour. This effort now needs to translate from her acting work to her activism.

Jamil has made headlines in recent months, for criticising Avon’s anti-cellulite advertising, laying into Kim Kardashian for promoting appetite-suppressing lollipops, and for posting a controversial but hilarious video on the toilet after pretending to drink detox tea. Dramatic and headline-grabbing. Great – call these people out, use your platform. But, she is a conventionally beautiful, privileged, thin woman and so has been accused of taking the narrative and spotlight away from plus-sized women of colour, who are capable of speaking and fighting for themselves.

I myself am a slim white woman, and my voice is often perceived to hold more authority. It is therefore important that I speak up on these issues – never speaking for these women but rather, holding them higher than myself.

The body positivity movement was begun by disabled, fat, black women but it has been co-opted by slim, white women – and yes, we’re entitled to body positivity too because yes, everyone feels shitty about themselves. But the work of black women is often the foundation of co-opted movements (see Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement). The body positivity movement is a subset of the fat acceptance movement, based off the pre-Insta work of black women like Sharon Quinn and Marie Denee, or Sonya Rose Taylor’s poem-turned-movement The Body is Not an Apology.

Compared to this, Jamil’s Instagrams with captions such as “say no to airbrushing … lines and spots and dry lips are something kids need to see” are lacking – especially if in accompanying photos she looks gorgeous. Airbrushing and magazine covers are important issues, but body positivity is for all bodies; fat, queer, disabled and not white. Simply criticising the fact that women in sponsored posts are thin and blemish-free doesn’t fulfill the ‘body positivity activist’ quota.

Jamil has suffered from an eating disorder. She’s had photos editing to make her nose look Caucasian, her skin has been lightened, and she was told she was “too old, too ethnic and too fat” to make it in Hollywood. She has a right to body positivity. All bodies are exposed to harmful media discourse, which you can feel the impact of whilst being conventionally attractive. Jamil is not white, and it is brilliant for young Asian women to see an activist speaking about loving our bodies. I too might be judging herself at the centre of a narrative which she didn’t begin, by constantly using herself as an example.

Her Instagram campaign, ‘I Weigh’, does actively give voices to women from all over the world by posting photos accompanied by summaries of their achievements and attributes, not physical looks.

Jamil is recognising her mistakes, and she apologised to the black women she overlooked – but she didn’t name these women. She is still taking interviews about body positivity, placing herself as a spokeswoman on the issue, rather than recommending fat women of colour to speak on the issues.

Now is the time for her to start crediting the plus-size black women who face discrimination on another level and to stop speaking on issues she doesn’t understand. And as social media users, we can too.

Go and read the work of plus-sized women of colour, credit them when you tell others about what you’ve learned, and follow them on Instagram. Stephanie Yeboah, Leah Vernon, Ashleigh Shackelford – just fucking Google ’em.

It’s not hard and bonus – it’s body positivity, so it should help.


Image: aitchisons via Wikimedia Commons 

By Niamh Anderson

Niamh is a fourth-year History student, who was Editor in Chief in her second year. She spends her ‘free’ time researching women’s lives and performing emotional labour by explaining emotional labour to men.

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