Earlier this year, I binged the TV show the Good Place. I watched all the episodes in a matter of days and then proceeded to spend the next few weeks watching each episode over and over again until I could no longer bring myself to click on the show’s icon on Netflix. One of the stars of the Good Place is Jameela Jamil, who, outside of her acting career, is known for her feminist activism, which revolves around protesting beauty standards and diet culture.
Jameela is built like a classic supermodel, in that she is extremely tall, extremely thin and classically beautiful in many ways, as are many of the people who come to build body positivity into their brands. For a movement that was originally started by fat black women, it is now overrun by slim Instagram models and gorgeous celebrities, who profit off of telling other women to love themselves just as they are while they hire teams of make-up artists and professional hairdressers. I know I’m guilty of this too, in my own way: last year, I wrote a blog post called “on beach bodies,” examining the phenomenon in which people lose weight before a beach holiday or the start of summer. I stand by what I wrote in that post, but it was true then and now that my body is one that is very palatable by modern beauty and size standards.
The question of who these movements are for and who needs them most continues to be wrestled with in the public sphere. On the one hand, Jameela has an enormous platform and is using it to spread messages of self-love, acceptance and honesty, raise awareness of just how edited most videos and photos are and to call out other celebrities for promoting harmful products like detox teas and appetite suppressing lollipops. This is good stuff! When you have a platform of that size and are a public figure, silence tends to get you flack for not speaking out in support of important causes. This means that, in theory, white people should be speaking out about racism, men about sexism and thin, beautiful people should be speaking out about why our culture’s rigid beauty standards are harmful, despite complying with most of those standards in the first place and benefiting accordingly. But then you get into the thorny problem of who is taking all the airtime when it comes to a specific social issue and the lines blur a little.
I have no doubt that talking about dicey political issues on the Internet is hard. When I write political blogs, like my blog about abortion or my blog about women and capitalism, I agonise over whether my language is inclusive enough and whether I’ve made my point as I intended to. I think often about how, if I had a larger audience, publishing posts on controversial topics would be fraught with stress. When you have a following of a million people, I’m sure the pressure to take a stand and fight for a cause is huge, but it comes with all the associated challenges of untangling your opinions on complicated issues while a million pairs of eyes are watching and judging.
Because, as much as Jameela has made body confidence her cause, it’s not as if she shuns most of the practices associated with socialised female grooming. She wears makeup, shaves, wears heels, has her hair done by professionals and walks red carpets in elaborate designer dresses, while remaining tall, elegant and very slim. There’s something a little painful about a perfect ten in makeup and heels booking yet another photoshoot telling you to throw away society’s expectations. Recently, Jamil showed her followers that while she’s on set as Tahani, her character in the Good Place, she wears fake hair in order to thicken her trademark glossy mane and protect her real hair from constant grooming. Now, it plays into her social ‘brand’ to be bringing these little fakeries to light, but it’s not as if she’s going to stop using the hair halo. It gives me the same vibe as when Instagram fitness models post a picture one day that explains all the ways that light, poses and time of day contribute to their perfect ab photos, ostensibly trying to show their followers how manipulated everything is on Instagram, before posting a picture the next day of them using the same tricks to unironically present perfectly defined muscles again. You don’t get credit for shedding light on edits, Photoshop and the tricks people use to make viewers feel inadvertently inferior if you continue to participate in those shady practices. Jameela calls out oppressive beauty standards while participating to the degree she feels is appropriate and then profits from it handsomely.
It surprises me that this appeals to so many people. Jameela seems lovely, and full of good intentions, and of course everyone understands to some degree what it feels like to be expected to look a certain way in order to be desirable. But I wonder why so many people find it empowering to be told to not worry about society standards by someone who ultimately plays into most of society’s standards and makes a ton of money doing so. It seems weird to build your public image on not playing into society’s aesthetic expectations when you just do it to the specific degree you deem acceptable – and ultimately a little hypocritical to be someone who both significantly benefits from society’s beauty standards and simultaneously chastises other women for attempting to do the same.
I like Jameela. She seems sweet and does call out lots of damaging advertising, especially for harmful weight-loss teas, lollipops and pills, along with ultimately encouraging people to love themselves, which is a good message. But she does so while remaining part of the industries she rails against, and profits accordingly. It’s one thing to tell other women to free themselves of society’s gendered grooming habits when you work hard to do the same, but it’s another thing to send out a tweet out shunning body makeup one minute while applying your lipstick and hair halo the next. This is by no means just about her; it’s about how many big voices in body positivity ultimately conform to mainstream beauty standards, and how that’s far less radical – and impactful – than we might think.