Jameela Jamil: ‘I wasted years crying in front of the mirror’

Jameela Jamil: ‘I had an eating disorder for 20 years and a nervous breakdown when I was 26 . . . I realised that I wasn’t going to survive this Earth anymore if I didn’t do something about it.’ Photograph: Amanda Edwards/Getty
The Good Place actor discusses her path to self-love and ‘the evils’ of the beauty and fashion industries

“I mean, I never shut up about the bad places,” Jameela Jamil says when I ask her about how she managed to get herself on a path to wellness and self-love. “I had an eating disorder for 20 years and a nervous breakdown when I was 26. And absolute rock bottom is where I would hope no one [else] would ever have to reach that low. I realised that I wasn’t going to survive this Earth anymore if I didn’t do something about it.”

Successful, romantically fulfilled (with musician James Blake), popular and conventionally beautiful, Jamil’s success on paper seems to belie her particularly rocky path to self-acceptance.

There would be photographers sitting outside my house calling me a fat C-word to my face in hopes that I would cry

In other press interviews, the British actor/writer/broadcaster has described her Indian father and Pakistani mother, a former model, as “incredibly fat-phobic”. Growing up in London, Jamil believed that “jutting hip bones were seen as a sign of peak brilliance, both at home or at school”. At 17, Jamil was involved in a serious car accident, resulting in limited mobility, an injured spine and weight gain. Jamil had also dealt with anorexia as a teenager, and after she lost the weight that she had gained, began to experience severe body dysmorphia. She has also overcome a suicide attempt in 2013, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder; thanks largely in part to therapy.

Jamil has found herself in the role of mental health advocate and feminist activist almost by accident. A former presenter on Channel 4 and later, BBC Radio 1, Jamil went on to star in acclaimed US comedy The Good Place. As her profile in the United States soared, so too did her online following. And soon, Jamil was using her platform and considerable following to fight for racial inclusivity, body positivity/neutrality and against the toxicity of celebrity culture.

Jamil pinpoints one moment in her career that should have been a celebratory moment: when she became the first woman to host BBC Radio 1’s Official Chart. At the time, the media reported on her supposed weight gain instead.

“They just reported that I gained three dress sizes and photographed only pictures of me bending over and just my ass or my thighs,” Jamil said in a BlogHerHealth interview in 2019. “There would be photographers sitting outside my house all night and all day calling me a fat C-word to my face in hopes that I would cry.”

Jameela Jamil (right) with her The Good Place castmates, from left: Ted Danson, Manny Jacinto, Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper and D’Arcy Carden
The cast of The Good Place

In 2018 Jamil famously launched the I Weigh initiative on Instagram, in which people were encouraged to post about their positive traits, as opposed to their weight. The move was a clap-back against an image of the Kardashians that spelled out the weight of each sister.

From there, Jamil became a major figurehead in the body positivity movement.

Online commentators soon noted that, as a beautiful, slim woman, Jamil is “too thin” to preach about body positivity. On which, she has noted: “If you are bigger and you speak out about it, they say you’re ‘too jealous and bitter’ to talk about it and if you’re slim and you speak out about it, they say ‘you’re too pretty’ or ‘you’re too thin’ to talk about it. So then who the f**k gets to talk about it? What a genius way to silence all of us?”

On the culture of perfection perpetuated by the beauty and fashion industries, Jamil says: “[It’s] a deliberate tactic to distract us and make us feel like we never have enough. People who feel like they don’t have enough are people who are more likely to go out and buy. So it’s a very deliberate tactic by commercialism and capitalism.”

I used to be someone who would apologise to another person if they saw me without make-up on. That has got to come to an end

In addition to doling out words of positivity and inspiration to her largely young and female following, Jamil has ended up in well-documented online spats with many a celebrity down the years. Online, she has called out the Kardashians for promoting Flat Tummy tea; described the then-recently deceased Karl Lagerfeld as a “ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist”; and slammed Victoria’s Secret and Cardi B for promoting diet culture. Somewhat memorably, she blasted British broadcaster Piers Morgan online as an “irrelevant s**t stain” and “the thirstiest b***h going”. In a world where many celebrities are wary of saying anything too colourful for fear of cancellation, Jamil’s outspoken and fearless Tweeting style has certainly stood out.

Yet in more recent times, Jamil has taken a different approach to her online activity. “I think it’s very important to just decide who you follow online,” she says. “Curate your online space, which magazines, celebrities and outlets and social commentators [you read]. You have all the power, and remember that we can take away their power just by blocking people, muting them and protecting our space. I’ve changed my social media intake completely to only be full of nourishing, inspiring and interesting things, rather than anything that makes me feel bad about myself. And it has exponentially improved my day-to-day existence.”

Jameela Jamil: ‘I will never, ever try to cover up my age or do anything like that, because I feel so lucky to still be alive.’ Photograph: Rich Polk/E!/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty
Jameela Jamil: ‘I feel so lucky to still be alive.’ Photograph: Rich Polk/E!/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Jamil admits that, as an actress and broadcaster taking on the beauty, celebrity and weight industries in her activism, there’s a slight element of biting the hand that feeds.

“I guess that’s why I’ve spent so much of my public life trying to offer a preventative service – it’s not that I’m skilled enough to help you once you’ve been harmed or corrupted by our society, but what I can do is try to warn you beforehand that these are the evils that are coming your way and this is all the ways in which they are lying to you,” Jamil says. “It’s been the years that I’ve wasted crying in front of the mirror, sex that I didn’t have, the fun nights I didn’t go out on . . . the opportunities that I didn’t even see because I had this tunnel vision around being socially acceptable for others, rather than just be happy and myself. My life is now a light at the end of the longest, darkest tunnel and that’s why I’m so loud and relentless, because I know how dark it can get.”

While the patriarchy, the slimming industry, disability rights, climate change and the toxicity of celebrity are chief among her concerns, Jamil also has no shortage of ire reserved for the beauty industry.

I would love women to be allowed to see growing older not as a failure, but as an immense achievement

“You should inspire people to buy your products, not by making them feel rubbish for themselves,” she says. “[They can] stop editing their bloody photographs for God’s sake. How is this legal? It’s literal false advertising. The reason I haven’t done any beauty campaigns in the last like eight years is because anytime anyone approaches me to do one, they will not agree to not photoshop my image. And I think that’s just rude.”

Another way in which major cosmetics companies could help responsibly contribute to the welfare of their young devotees is to “teach the art of make-up to celebrate the face, rather than, ‘I must paint a new face on to my face’, which we are being taught to do with all the contouring and layers upon layers upon layers,” Jamil says. “I can’t believe some of the videos I see on Instagram where there are like 25 layers [of make-up] before you actually look ‘presentable’. I’m aware that it’s a clever way to push more products, but it’s an unacceptable way to treat a generation, [telling them] that you cannot step outside of the house without all this make-up. And you know, I used to be someone who used to think it wasn’t okay for me to go outside without make-up. I used to be someone who would apologise to another person if they saw me without make-up on. That has got to come to an end.”

Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto in The Good Place
Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto in The Good Place

Today, we are talking as part of The Body Shop’s new Self Love Uprising campaign, of which Jamil is an ambassador. The campaign follows a global proprietary study that identified a self-love crisis for women around the world, with one in two women feeling more self-doubt than self-love, and 60 per cent wishing they had more respect for themselves.

Back in the 1990s, the cosmetics brand famously coined the sentence: “There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only eight who do.” Despite her scepticism of the beauty industry, Jamil loves the brand: “Something about them in particular is that they’ve always made it about being nurturing and loving. I am pro-make-up, but make-up and beauty products have to be for fun.”

Next in Jamil’s cross hairs is the anti-ageing section of the beauty industry; after overcoming plenty of vagaries and challenges in her 35 years, she is more aware than most of the privilege of getting older.

“I’d like to hope that we ascend beyond the need for anti-ageing creams,” Jamil says. “I would passionately love women in particular to be allowed to see growing older not as a failure, but as an immense achievement and as something that we are very grateful for. We are lucky to have life. It’s a privilege. And we should be taught that, rather than be made to feel as though we have to constantly apologise for just having been here a long time. I will never, ever try to cover up my age or do anything like that, because I feel so lucky to still be alive.”

For more information on The Body Shop’s Self Love Uprising movement, see thebodyshop.com