This article was originally published on July 12, 2019.
It’s a dreary Sunday morning in New York City, but inside Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream shop in Greenwich Village, Jameela Jamil is as cheery as can be. Plunking down in a booth, she attributes her livelier-than-usual mood to an excess of caffeine and sugar. “The only way you could lure me out of bed on a Sunday is with ice cream,” she deadpans. “This was bribery.”
Sugarcoating isn’t something that Jamil, 33, is known for. Over the past year or so she’s become one of Hollywood’s most outspoken stars, using her platform of two million Instagram followers to tackle the industry-wide problem of body shaming. But Jamil hasn’t always been this comfortable in her own skin. Long before the British actress, who is of Indian-Pakistani descent, landed the role of statuesque socialite Tahani Al-Jamil on the NBC comedy The Good Place, she struggled to feel confident. Growing up in London, she experienced myriad health problems, including childhood deafness and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective-tissue disease that causes joint dislocation and chronic pain. As a teen, she suffered from a crippling eating disorder, starving herself to look like the women she saw in magazines. Then, when she was 17, Jamil was struck by a car in a freak accident. Doctors didn’t think she’d ever get back on her feet, but a year and a half later she proved them wrong.
With “no interest in show business” at the time, she took a job teaching English as a foreign language. But a chance meeting with a producer in a pub led to an audition for a TV-hosting gig, and soon she became one of Britain’s top TV and radio personalities. “It was more money than I’d ever seen as a teacher,” she says. “More important, though, it was a chance to use my positioning for awareness.”
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But the spotlight took its toll on Jamil’s already fraught relationship with her body. “I became really neurotic about my appearance,” she says. “I was so skinny but thought I was too fat. I was being so heavily scrutinized that I scrutinized myself even more, because no matter what job a woman has, she’s expected to simultaneously look like a Victoria’s Secret model.” When tabloids took aim at her for gaining 75 pounds, the result of taking steroid medication for her asthma, Jamil reached her breaking point. “The way the industry tore into me lit a fire in me that I really needed,” she says. “I doubled down on my right to be any size I want and my right to take up space in the world.”
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It wasn’t until she began therapy — after a breast cancer scare prompted her to reevaluate her life and move to Los Angeles — that Jamil finally learned how to cope with her body dysmorphia. She stopped measuring herself and began wearing looser clothing to hide her fluctuating weight, even from herself. “When I look in the mirror, I can’t see what’s there,” she says. “That’s why instead of practicing body positivity, I practice body neutrality. I just don’t think about it anymore. I used to look in the mirror all the time — I didn’t realize how much time I spent thinking about my body and food and how to look thinner or prettier. It was so counterintuitive to happiness. Plus, I had no fucking hours left in the day.”
Now, rather than thinking about her appearance, Jamil chooses to focus on her well-being. “I constantly thank my body for what it does for me,” she says. “I think about how it heals and repairs itself, takes me from point A to B, and allows me to do my job, have sex, and just live my life. It’s a finely tuned engine that deserves to be respected, and I’m so grateful for it now.”
Jamil in her own jumpsuit. x karla T-shirt and Saskia Diez x InStyle barrettes ($30 each). Photographed by Camilla Armbrust.
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Jamil has made it her mission to spread the message of self-love. Along the way she’s made headlines for calling out celebrities like Khloé Kardashian and Cardi B for promoting diet suppressants and detox teas on social media. After realizing that she “could probably be more effective from the belly of the beast than screaming from the outside,” she launched the I Weigh movement on Instagram in March 2018. Her goal? “To create a safe space on the Internet” where followers measure their worth in achievements, not pounds. People submit photos — typically a selfie covered in words and phrases that reflect how they view themselves — by tagging the @i_weigh handle, and Jamil shares the images on the feed. The community lifts each other up one post at a time. “I talk about everything in the hope that it stops someone else from feeling as bad as I felt when I was younger, and if I can do that, it means that I suffered for a reason,” she says.
With almost a million followers on the I Weigh account, Jamil is obviously on the right track. She’s currently turning I Weigh into a full-on company, a logical next step given the movement’s impact so far. People are constantly reaching out to her to thank her for her work both online and off. “Every time I fly, someone passes me a handwritten note on the airplane,” Jamil says, pulling out her phone to show a photo of the letter she received on her flight the day before. “It’s an honor, but it also fires me up. There’s so much more work to do, and I’m only one person.”
She wishes she had more support from her peers but understands why many are unwilling to speak out about the same issues. “While celebrities privately congratulate me on DM or in person at events, they don’t really stand up alongside me,” says Jamil. “People are too afraid of losing campaigns or money, and they don’t want to be called hypocrites because they’re still perpetuating this culture. It’s frustrating, but also, I get it. As women in this industry we are so fearmongered. I’m just not afraid. I’ve been in pain most of my life — I’ve lost so many years to being sad. I’m now driven by that pain. I use it as my fuel, and it gives me confidence. It’s so important to keep the celebrity community in check, and sometimes that means pissing people off and losing a lot of money. But I would rather not be in this industry at all than be here and take blood money.”
Jamil has also had to accept the fact that she’s often surrounded by those perpetuating the very body shaming she’s fighting. “I’ve met the most amazing people, but I’m also now around the men and women who are actively complicit in hurting young people, and that grosses me out terribly,” she says. “It’s sad and disheartening. But while I’m here, I’m here to do a job, and that is to undo all the things that made me so mentally ill when I was younger. I had irresponsible icons to look up to, and people didn’t understand the damage they were doing to young girls.”
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She shuns retouching apps like Facetune (“They’re designed to make you feel like shit about yourself and want cosmetic surgeries,” she says) and doesn’t allow her images from photo shoots to be airbrushed beyond the removal of an occasional stray hair. In the past few years she’s found the power to say, “You’re not allowed to make me look thinner or younger, or lighten my skin or make my nose look like a white person’s nose.” But she recalls a time when, at 23, she was mortified to see heavily retouched images of herself on billboards around England. “I looked flawless and skinny and ethereally gorgeous — and I was so embarrassed because it didn’t look anything like me,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave the house because people would compare me with that.”
These days Jamil has no interest in others’ opinions — all that matters is her own. “I genuinely don’t care what people think of me,” she says. “After coming up through so much self-hatred, it’s such a big step for me that I value myself.” And now she really, really does. “I would take my number at a party.”
Photographed by: Camilla Armbrust. Styled by: Laurel Pantin. Hair by: Nicole Blais for Exclusive Artists Management. Location: Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream, N.Y.C.
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 19.