Jameela Jamil discusses body neutrality, media representation

“The Good Place” actress Jameela Jamil recalled her struggles with depression and anxiety before she found success in the entertainment industry. (Krystal Gallegos | Daily Trojan)

When Jameela Jamil took over as the first solo female host of the BBC’s The Official Chart, she said she helped grow the show’s following by 300,000 listeners in her first few months. However, the British instead covered her weight gain and published unflattering photos of her instead. 

“It was stressful and upsetting, and I decided to take it to Parliament and spoke in front of the government and became a full-time advocate within the body positivity movement because I was receiving death threats over my weight,” she said.

Jamil, who now stars as Tahani Al-Jamil on “The Good Place,” spoke to an audience of nearly 500 people in Bovard Auditorium Monday on her body neutrality movement, intersectional activism and her experience working as a woman of color in the entertainment industry. The Student Assembly for Gender Empowerment hosted the actor and activist to close out its programming for Body Love Month, which featured speakers like comedian Nicole Byer. Stacy Smith, director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, moderated the discussion. 

During the event, Jamil told the audience she was deaf until she was 12 years old and later developed an eating disorder. She dealt with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts throughout her 20s, after being hit by a car around the time she was 18. 

Jamil said she hopes to use her privilege and platform as an actor to bring attention to mental health as well as other issues related to lack of representation in media and disability rights.

“That horrifying experience of being me for at least 27 or 28 years of my life has made me determined to stop as many other people as I can from feeling the way that I did,” Jamil said. “I only ever got into show business to be able to find a way to talk to as many people as possible about how to avoid fucking up as badly as I have.”

When “The Good Place” production team made Jamil create an Instagram to help promote the show, she noticed posts about female stars’ weight and ads for different weight loss supplements. These posts led Jamil to tweet about various aspects of her life and career that she valued, including her financial independence, activism and the struggles she had overcome. 

Jamil said thousands of women wrote back to her that day with lists of traits they value in themselves, and people continue to send her posts every day. She then created the “I Weigh” Instragram movement, which now has more than 900,000 followers on Instagram and helped compel Facebook and Instagram to ban certain weight loss product ads.

Jamil plans to expand I Weigh into a company next year and has hired an all-female staff to work on curriculum for schools to educate parents, teachers and children on what they’re seeing online and to work with governments around the world to change advertising standards. 

Olivia Velasquez, a sophomore majoring in theatre, said she hopes to work in entertainment and enjoyed hearing from an actor who uses her platform to promote social change. 

“I thought it was inspiring to see an artist who is doing this out of the goodness of their heart and because they want to see change in the world and that is part of the reason why I want to pursue theater,” she said. “I think how honest she is about being so fed up with the current social climate … I thought was really inspiring.”

Jamil, who has a chronic disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome that causes overly-flexible joints and stretchy, fragile skin, also pushes for more representation for people with disabilities. 

Jamil said she turned down a role as a deaf woman earlier this year because she felt it belonged to a disabled person, even though she had been deaf previously. While some actors argue that they should be allowed to play these roles like any other character, Jamil said until more roles are written for and offered to underrepresented groups, actors from more privileged spaces need to give them up.

Seeret Singh, a freshman majoring in theatre, said Jamil’s talk encouraged her to pursue a career in entertainment and push for better representation in the industry. 

“I recently entered the industry, and Jameela Jamil being a South Asian woman who is also an actor and an activist is a huge inspiration to me,” she said. “Being able to hear her talk about the things that she’s passionate about and be the exact same way that she comes off on her platforms was cool.”