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Jameela Jamil hates exercising with “a burning passion.” In fact, she says she only started exercising two weeks ago as a means of alleviating her anxiety. She wants to make that very clear: It’s about the mental health benefits, not to meet anyone else’s body or weight standards.
Jamil’s fame is on the rise, thanks to her acclaimed portrayal of The Good Place’s ostentatious narcissist Tahani Al-Jamil. The 32-year-old Brit, however, couldn’t be more different from the character she plays. (Though she does reveal that Tahani will grow up this season after eating a lot of “humble pie.”) Indeed, while Tahani would likely use newfound fame for hedonism, Jamil is instead using it for activism. She’s long wanted a platform to spread a message of empowerment, and now she finally has one.
From a young age Jamil wanted to make change in the world. At 19, she began writing to newspapers about body size and representation. “I suffered from an eating disorder when I was much younger, and I wanted to campaign to end size zero as a teenager by writing to newspapers,” she recalls. “But you can only make so much noise from the outside as a kid.”
Seven years ago she began working as an on-air host in the U.K., first replacing Alexa Chung on Freshly Squeezed and then on a reality show called Playing It Straight. But it wasn’t until 2013 that she was given a platform big enough for the public to pay attention. This occurred when she became the first woman in the show’s 60-year history to host The Official Chart on BBC Radio One. To Jamil, she’d made history, but to the tabloids, it didn’t matter.
“On the day that my first annual ratings were announced, they announced all of the official ratings of the men in the press, but they only announced I gained weight,” recalls Jamil. “The only thing they published about me was my size: not how many listeners I had gained, just how many pounds I had gained.” It didn’t matter that she had spent six years being a successful writer, documentary maker and broadcaster, this is how the media treated her and other women. For six months following the story, Jamil was fat shamed in the news because she refused to lose weight. Jamil recalls being offered exercise deals and weight-loss endorsement deals, and turning everything down. “I refused to go to the gym and I refused to go on a diet,” she says. “I was on medication and I gained loads of weight, and I was like, ‘This is what my body needs right now.’”
Landing a leading role on The Good Place offered the actress another opportunity to use her platform. This past March, Jamil found herself troubled by something she saw. “I’d see posts of different famous women and instead of their net worth or how much money they earned being written across their bodies, which in itself would be offensive, people were writing their weight,” she says. “When it’s a man, we put money next to his body, and when it’s a woman, we put her weight or how much fat she has on her body.” It was then that she decided to post on Instagram what she weighed, in her own estimation, and, in a happy accident, spontaneously created the “I Weigh” movement.
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“I wrote down my relationship I’m in, my amazing friends, my activism, the way I feel about myself, the fact that I’m financially independent, all of the terrible things in my life I’ve had to overcome and what a survivor I am,” she recalls. After her post went up, she unexpectedly began seeing thousands of women posting their own “I Weigh” images in response. The feedback inspired her to start an “I Weigh” page. “That’s why I call it ‘our movement’ and not ‘my movement’ because I never asked anyone to do it, and they did,” she says. Jamil began getting thousands of followers and hundreds of messages every day. Suddenly celebrities like Kristen Bell, Lena Dunham, and Emmy Rossum started sending their own “I Weigh” posts — even Instagram’s Eva Chen made one.
At the same time, Jamil began focusing on another area of activism: the #MeToo movement. Last month, a documentary Jamil made with BBC Radio 4 called The New Age of Consent addressed some of the gray areas of the #MeToo movement. “I wrote an article after the Aziz Ansari allegations emerged earlier this year — it wasn’t about Aziz, but I did think it was an amazing time to bring up consent because that’s a conversation we haven’t heard yet,” she explained. The article created something of a stir, and she was approached by the BBC to adapt it for a documentary film. She in turn interviewed experts, rape survivors, teachers, and lawyers about the laws around consent. But the documentary mainly centered on people’s feelings about consent. Jamil wanted there to be a discussion about these issues, not just take an opportunity for “scolding men.” “It’s not just about teaching men, it’s about teaching women,” Jamil said. Jamil’s fervor for activism has never been greater, and she thinks it could have something to do with where she is in her life. “I’m getting older and I’m thinking about having children in the next couple of years, and I don’t want to bring a girl into the world the way it is,” she admits. “I think that’s why I’ve become more aggressive about my campaigning as I’ve gotten older because I feel like I’m running out of time before I bring a little person into this world.”
While she’s fighting to make the world a better place for herself and others, she’s also still hard at work on The Good Place. Three years in, she finds it still hard to believe that the series is her first acting role. “I basically just steal all of Ted Danson’s acting and make it my own,” she jokes. While she might learn some tactics from him, it’s impossible to deny her natural talent. While she can’t divulge much, she hopes to be starring in a movie in the new year, making a return to hosting, and is also working on a book. “I just started writing it by myself, I haven’t signed a deal yet,” she explains. “I used to write an old column, and it’s a collection of essays, but it will come out next year.” Despite Jamil’s hatred for the gym, it’s the same passion that drives her artistry and activism. “A woman’s happiness is the biggest f*** you to society, I think,” she says.
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