The ‘Good Place’ actress and body positivity activist joins the #AerieREAL role model family.
If you’re familiar with Jameela Jamil’s, work you may know her for a few things: her role as the narcissistic but always well-intentioned Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC’s The Good Place; her fiercely vocal stance against photoshopping and airbrushing in advertisements and magazine covers; her news-making tweet in which she hoped certain celebrities “shit their pants in public” for hawking “detox teas” that promise to help with weight loss and bloating. In her 32 years on earth, the British actress has battled an eating disorder, hearing loss, and a car accident that broke her back. Yet she’s come out on the other side, starting a beloved life positive moment called “I, Weigh” and as of today, Jamil is one of the newest members of the #AerieREAL Role Model family for spring 2019. Ahead of the reveal, I phoned Jamil to discuss how the body positivity movement can change moving forward, why she wished Aerie existed when she was a teen, and why in 2019 she’s making space, not taking it.
When Aerie revealed you were going to join their campaign, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Why did you want to work with them?
I wanted to work with Aerie because they’re one of the only brands I’ve ever seen actually take inclusion seriously, and it’s not performative. It runs throughout the entire brand: their desire to reflect, on their website and in their stores, what we see outside in everyday life, which just never happens. Seeing people from all walks of life and all ages modeling underwear and modeling clothes was just such a breath of fresh air. When I walked into their store I realized how much I could’ve benefited from having a store like that and a company like that when I was younger, so I was very excited to be a part of it.
Your body’s been through a lot, between an eating disorder and a serious car accident. How has that affected the way you treat your body now?
I treat my body with great respect now and I make sure to check in with it and thank it every so often. Because I’m aware of what it’s like to not be able to go to the toilet by myself, or to be able to breathe because I had asthma, or be able to hear, because I was deaf as a child. I also stopped menstruating when I had an eating disorder, so my body has been in jeopardy so many times that I’ve, frankly, by the age of thirty, a little bit late but better late than never, learned to treat it with lots of kindness and respect. I don’t talk shit to myself anymore. Every time it crops up I stick up for myself the way that I would for a friend or for a stranger even. The things that women say to themselves in their head, they would never tolerate being said to someone that they love. So I’ve decided to be my own best friend.
I’ve become the loudest voice that’s been allowed in body positivity and I think that has given some people the wrong idea.
How does being your best friend manifest itself?
I did EMDR therapy, which is a specific kind of therapy that removes the conditioning of irrational thought. So it goes right to the core of the problem. It’s very good for PTSD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and OCD—all of which I had. Within a matter of months, it just sort of extracted the root of the problem, which meant that I didn’t have to deal with the symptoms anymore. So that was a big thing that I did. I also made the decision three years ago that most of my money that I would spend on corrective or beauty items I’d save up for therapy. I started doing that when I was 29, and that was probably the biggest act of self love I’ve ever done. So no cellulite cream, no stretch mark cream, nothing anti-aging, I just put all of my money into a piggy bank that I would’ve spent on must have products. I just did therapy and then bought myself some self love.
Body image and body positivity can be super personal. How do you discuss these topics without alienating people?
I link body positivity with mental health, which makes it a much bigger and broader conversation. I think that we don’t do that enough I think I’ve kind of moved it more into a life positive movement and more into mental health discussion, and I think we can all relate to that. Body positivity is something that we have to be very conscious of not leaving women who are of minorities out of. We need to include everyone, so I just make sure to be inclusive with my language and make sure that I’m involving activists from different minorities in my work and giving them a platform in order to make sure that everyone knows it’s a conversation for all of us to have.
For example, the MeToo movement got kind of taken over by a lot of very famous, slender, predominantly white, straight women actresses. I think it’s important not to let that happen with body positivity, which it does happen. Often, in the last year I’ve become the loudest voice that’s been allowed in body positivity and I think that has given some people the wrong idea: that I think that I speak for all people, which I don’t. It’s just that I have a platform and a privilege that allows me to be listened to and heard, when other people who are actually struggling with these things are being ignored. I’m not afraid of being annoying, I’m just afraid of being complicit in a problem that is systemically destroying the mental health of most of the women around the world.
So how do you deal with the criticism?
I don’t take it personally anymore, and I think I used to get defensive and when I would be called out for not being intersectional enough or just feel frustrated that people were expecting too much of me, but now I just shut up and I listen and I realize that there are people who are going through a lot and I would like to help those people, so I just focus on the good. I also don’t receive a lot of negativity or backlash. Most people support me and my profile growing in the way that it has, has been a sign of mass support of so many people who were just done, they feel the same way as me. I’m not on the wrong side here, I’m on the right side, the feminist side of mental health of young people and their well being internally and externally, of women and people everywhere.
The hashtag is #AerieReal. When do you feel you’re most real?
I feel I’m most real when I’m cuddling my boyfriend, I do [laughs]. I feel most real when I’m spooning.
There are so many great role models. Who are some of your own role models in this space?
I mean, Samira Wiley is one of them, so I was super starstruck to meet her and to be photographed alongside her. That was a big seal of approval. Janet Mock is someone that I’m very, very obsessed with, and think that what she has done for our culture is just so extraordinary and she’ll be remembered forever and go down in history as such a game changer for the trans community. Roxanne Gay, I think she’s a real hero of mine, and her books have taught me so much and called me out so brilliantly. As in, in reading them I’ve been able to find my own mistakes and learn, via her, how to do better and be better.
I think we bring a lot of ego into activism and wokeness these days.
What did you learn from her books?
I’ve learned from her books about white feminism and how much we could leave people out of the conversation and what makes you a bad feminist and how you can call yourself out, and that that can be okay to make mistakes. You know, she calls herself out on her own blind spots, and I think that’s a really important thing to do. I think we bring a lot of ego into activism these days and ego into wokeness. I think that that can sometimes make you afraid of admitting when you don’t know something, and therefore you don’t ask, and therefore you don’t learn. Even someone as brilliant and accomplished and educated as Roxanne Gay, to sometimes owning up to her weaknesses or her blind spots, has been so inspiring so many people that I know, because it makes you feel like it’s okay to just keep learning and if you’re a bad feminist now, it doesn’t mean you’ll always be a bad feminist.
We’re having a lot of conversations in the office about the kind of energy that we’re bringing into 2019. How would you describe the energy you’re bringing into this year?
It’s make space, don’t take space. That’s the thing that I’m gonna bring into 2019, is making sure that I create space for other women. I create space for people from minorities, and people who are living in experiences that I have not myself had to live through. Recently I turned down a role of a deaf woman, because even though I used to be deaf as a child, I’m no longer completely deaf. And so that role should go to someone who still currently cannot hear because there’s a brilliant deaf actress out there somewhere who we don’t know her name, but she can’t get the role. I do think it’s really important to start to make sure that we stop being greedy and we just step aside for one another, and don’t fear each other. We’ve been taught to fear each other by men, and feel like there’s only space for one, and that’s a lie. That’s so that we don’t all join together and take up loads of space and become equal. So supporting other women, making sure that I put my money where my mouth is, and pass the mic.