Jameela Jamil is a big fan of “Bridesmaids,” the Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo-scripted chaos comedy about a bride-to-be and the friends she’s recruited to help her make it to the altar. I learned this a few days ago, when I spoke to “The Good Place” actress on the phone and asked which movie about a woman shaped who she is today.
“It was the first time I feel like I saw women on screen free to be disgusting, and to be themselves, and to be raw and honest and flawed,” Jamil told me. “They just broke the mold of what women are supposed to be like on camera … I felt like finally there was a film that shows what women are really like.”
“It really, like, changed my life, that film.”
Maybe it’s a surprising choice, but after speaking to Jamil for close to an hour, “Bridesmaids” felt like an obvious answer for the 32-year-old former TV presenter and current activist. A rising star in Hollywood, and one of the few South Asian actresses on primetime TV, Jamil is devoted to redefining the way we see women, on-screen and off.
Earlier this year, Jamil made her position on such matters clear. In an interview with Channel 4, she unabashedly addressed the Kardashian-Jenner clan and the Insta-generation’s obsession with weight, with thinness, with “flat tummies” and numbers on scales. She explained that what began as her horror and disillusion with the state of culture had recently turned into a movement: her “I Weigh” campaign, meant to encourage people on social media to expand the parameters of how they “weigh” their self-worth and celebrate the achievements that better define them.
I spoke to Jamil on the eve of her appearance at the Female Filmmakers Festival in Los Angeles, where she was appropriately speaking on a panel about women’s representation on-screen. We discussed everything from her “I Weigh” platform, being one of the few South Asian actresses on TV, black and brown solidarity, the Me Too movement, and why she’s so unapologetically willing to speak her piece.
You’re on a panel at the Female Filmmakers Festival about redefining representations of women on screen. I want to know what your idea of representation is and what you think it means to redefine it.
Well, for me, it’s looking at women beyond just their facade, which is what we’re reduced to so much. Not just only in this industry. It bleeds out into our culture, which then bleeds out into our society. It’s about redefining women as whole human beings with stories and lives and experiences. I think that’s something that we still don’t see enough of in Hollywood because that is just not how we look at women; we look at women as something to … as if we are paintings.
What prompted you to start the “I Weigh” campaign?
Well, joining Instagram was a real eye-opener for me. I hadn’t really been terribly involved in social media until a couple of years ago when I joined. I started to see loads and loads and loads of posts constantly about women’s weight. You’d have like very successful businesswomen or artists, or really like, you know, award-winning, championing women being reduced to nothing other than a number on the scale. Their weight would be written across their bodies. I saw a picture of the Kardashians ― who are an empire of businesswomen ― reduced to nothing. Not even their net worth was written in numbers across their bodies, just their physical body weight. You’d never do that with a group of men. I can’t even fathom a photograph with a group of men where you’ve just written their weight on their bodies. You’d write their net worth, or their achievements.
And that’s what made you start “I Weigh”?
It prompted me to realize that like, god, in 2018, this is still how we value girls: by a weighing scale. So I’m going to tell people how much I weigh [in terms of] how I value myself, how I monitor my own worth ― and that is in achievements and experiences, both good and bad, and my contribution to the world. When I posted that out to the world, I never expected anyone else to send [a post] back, really. And yet I seem to have struck upon a moment of frustration of women, where they feel underestimated and undermined. Women just started sending me those back, and so did men. People of all ages, backgrounds, sizes, experiences sort of sending me their pages of what they weigh in achievements and accomplishments and experiences. I had to start an Instagram account just to make sure that they didn’t all disappear because it was beautiful and brilliant. So I did.
Now we’re almost at 180,000 followers without any advertising, without any help or scheming or bots. It’s a really organic movement of self-love where we haven’t been trying to achieve anything or get anyone’s attention. We’ve given people a safe space on the internet where they can go and truly express themselves, rather than only express what they think other people want to see of them.
Do you have any plans in the future to expand “I Weigh” outside of Instagram?
Yes. I’ve actually just taken on a staff, and we’re turning it into a proper website, to be a community for women to find each other. Not just women, but for people who have felt ignored and unseen in this world to come together and start building projects with one another. We want to build a team of people who go out and speak at schools to children about the lies of social media and the lies of our culture. We want to create a movement of pure love and a rebellion against society’s hatred and attack of women.
On [the website] we will be promoting the writing of work that we find emboldening and healthy for people to read. [We want to] have a team of strong, diverse women, women with disabilities and women of every size. We want a team of people who represent the true world ― not just the fantasy ― to work with us to make sure that everyone feels like they have a safe space on the internet and we can encourage the right companies, rather then these toxic companies that just sort of break women for their own gain.
We’re going to work with a company called Feminists Don’t Wear Pink. They just had a book out with Scarlett Curtis, which I’ve written for. I’m working with them to, with the pink protests essentially, change the laws on hate speech about women in magazines and also change the laws on airbrushing.
What kind of laws? Are there laws?
Well, there are no laws around airbrushing. You can airbrush anything you want and never declare it, which I think in itself is one of the worst things that could have happened to young women. It definitely affected me when I was younger, because you are trying to compare yourself to people who themselves don’t even look as flawless as they are presented to you. So you become immune to seeing normal faces, and you only expect to see these flawless, perfect, ageless, skinny, long, light-skinned versions of people.
Now because of apps ― Photoshop apps on the phone ― now it’s everyone. Before at least it was just celebrities. Now everyone’s using FaceTune. It’s really dangerous. Everyone’s making their noses smaller and their lips bigger and their faces thinner and their tits bigger and their waist smaller, and it’s like they’re just creating these digitized versions of themselves. It gets impossible to look in the mirror. Because you’ve just been looking at a Barbie doll version of yourself that was created with a computer.
So I would love to just abolish airbrushing. It should be illegal, considering the false advertising of it. But if I can’t get rid of it … what I can do is try to strive towards what they’ve done in France: If you use airbrushing, you have to declare it. Now France has stopped using as much airbrushing. It’s embarrassing to have to admit that you Photoshopped something.
You mentioned earlier how not just women, but men had been reaching out to you regarding the “I Weigh” campaign. I just want you to talk a little bit about that, because I think ― not that we should care too much about what men think in terms of why feminism matters ― but it’s important to acknowledge the fact that feminism is good for everyone, not just women.
I think it’s actually very important to involve men in feminism. I do think it’s really important to not be divisive in the discussion about equality. And we need men’s help. The oppressed need the help and the goodwill of the oppressors. Even if all men aren’t trying to oppress us, unfortunately by doing nothing you are still a part of the problem. I think we need to do this with men. It’s not a fight, it’s just about equality.
Have you always been this political, or is this something that you’ve recently sort of found and come into more as you’ve gotten older?
I think I’ve been like this since I was about 19. I think I was a teenager when I first started to really get angry about injustice, because I think in my life I faced so much direct injustice and racism and bullying and classism. I came from a poor family and a broken home. I was Pakistani in a country that really wasn’t very kind to Pakistani people. I’ve lived with disability and death as a child. I had broken my back as a teenager and so I was in a wheelchair. And so I think I faced so many different types of discrimination that I was just serious. At 19, I wanted to change whatever I could so that one day I would bring children into a different world. I wanted to just be part of the solution.
Can you tell me a little bit about your most visceral experiences of oppression, if you can go there?
I’ve always worried these things turn into some actress sob story. I don’t want it to become like that. But I was physically and verbally [abused] very badly at school. Like beaten senseless by kids for being from a Pakistani family and for being poor. That was before the age of 10, and that went on until I was about 16. Most of my school years I was bullied very badly because of my race and also because of my weight. I was very chubby on and off at school. I didn’t look like the other girls. I was much taller than everyone else. I had bad skin, and braces. I was bullied about appearance, but I was mostly bullied for my race as a child, and very violently.
I’ve experienced racism out in the streets wherever I am. I have experienced racism online from trolling. I just recently, in 2018, did this interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy for Channel 4 and it was a widely circulated interview, and we got messages like, “That room must have been stinking with those two Pakis in the room.” Those are the kinds of messages I receive on a daily basis. And that’s this year. If you think about how far we should have come by now, for people to still be making comments and jokes like that. And people talking about my “monkey face.” I get a lot of that on social media over the years. And then the sexism I face especially in this industry ― writers’ rooms being only full of men and being denied a female mentor when I’ve asked for one, and being told explicitly by the men that I’m not funny and that I’m just supposed to look good.
How do you react to that?
You know, at the time I used to fight back and I used to demand for female writers, and then one time one of the shows, finally after a year of campaigning, got one female writer on the team… and she was practically mute. She never said a word. They found the most timid, easily intimidated writer who really wasn’t really able to contribute anything. She couldn’t stand up to a gaggle of men.
Was this on “The Good Place”?
No, no, no. “The Good Place” is amazing. They’re a 50-50 writers’ room, and a 50-50 directing, which is so rare to have. It’s [Michael Schur’s] obsession, equality and racial equality and making sure that people from all walks of life feel very welcome. I’ve never worked anywhere like this before, where I just felt like where I’m working represents the world that I walk out into. He doesn’t whitewash anything.
I was going to ask you about that, because I think your character on “The Good Place” is a really great example of how to do inclusion and diversity. There’s never a sense that your character is simply there to fill a quota and yet her ethnicity isn’t completely ignored either. I’m wondering how does it feel to be one of the few brown women on a major network television show?
It feels like a true honor and it feels like a sign that the times are changing. And it’s exciting. I think it’s very sad when women in my position who are a minority take a place in this industry and then feel afraid of other women. I feel very happy and excited that other women from India are on set with me. It makes me feel like we’re growing in power. We’re growing in numbers. And I think we need to make sure that we hang onto that mentality rather than the idea that there can only be one. I think that idea is kind of perpetuated throughout this entire industry and throughout the world, that there can only be one us at a time. And that we have to turn on each other.
Totally. It’s a tactic by oppressors. I love that you said that.
Divide and conquer. It’s a very simple divide-and-conquer tactic. And we have to be wise to it, so that we know that there is strength in numbers and that the more of us there are, the more jobs that will be created for us. We have to fight together for this. I get on very well with Tiya Sircar, who’s the other South Asian girl on my show, and we frequently talk about how amazing it is to be on a show where there’s two of us. And the show and our ethnicity never really comes into it. We’re just people. It blows our minds. We’re very supportive of each other and I think that that’s really beautiful.
You’re speaking about solidarity among South Asian people, but can you speak a little bit about solidarity across the board, across people of color in general?
Well, I’m from Ghana. I’m black, and one of my best friends is a South Asian woman, and we talk a lot about what solidarity means across those lines and how we can support one another and what it means to champion each other in industries that want to silo us off.
I think it’s very important that if you know what it feels like to be left out for any reason that you start to think about all the other people who are left out, even those who don’t look like you or who aren’t like you. For example, that doesn’t just involve looking out for other people from different races. It also means looking out for people from other abilities. I think sometimes we get so lost with our own cause. I have realized that I need to learn more about the experience of African American people or Asian people. There’s so much that I don’t know, and I’m ignorant, and I find my own ignorance problematic, and I’m always trying to learn to make sure that I understand colorism and I understand true representation. I’m always trying to educate myself more and more about that.
But then we get into all of that and never even start the conversation of “what about disability?” We don’t see anyone with disabilities on TV. So it has to be everyone. We have to make sure that we pay attention to the concept of inclusion riders and make sure that no one gets left behind. I think we all need to work together and stop fighting over who’s got a worse experience because I feel like there is some of that between different races. There are all these tiers within each of our discriminated groups, and I think that that’s just not helpful. I think that we all need to educate ourselves on each other’s experiences to try to work together as one, and make sure that we’re looking out for everyone rather than in any way trying to prove who’s had the harder time. We have all had a terrible time, and some people have had it worse than others. But we need to just help each other and not fight each other.
You mentioned earlier an interview you did a couple weeks ago [with Channel 4] that got a lot of attention and generated a lot of discussion. And I’m not going to ask you about what you said or who you said it about, but I think what I found most fascinating about that whole moment was this reaction to you being a smart, outspoken political woman. I feel like there were people who were like, oh, Jamila is smart and political and outspoken and she has an opinion and she has these things to say. And I guess I’d love to know your thoughts on the tendency people have to be uncomfortable with outspoken women, especially outspoken women of color. Do you ever get the sense that people are just like, “Oh, just shut up and act, just shut up and be pretty”? What is your response to that?
Oh, I think they should fuck off. My response to them is that you should fuck off and get in a bin. The nearest bin ― find it, get in it and live there. I think it’s fear that makes us discourage women from speaking out, especially women of color. I think people know how badly women of color have been treated, and therefore they know how much rage has probably been stored up and they’re afraid of what’s going to happen when we open our mouths.
And very weird, very violent terminology is used when women of color speak out. I myself have faced very violent terminology: “Jameela Jamil slams” or “Jameela Jamil hits back,” “Jameela Jamil bites back at,” “Jameela Jamil locks horns with.” If there’s ever another woman of color in the same conversation, it’s usually “locks horns.” It’s very animal lingo that’s given to me that isn’t given to my white colleagues when they have a discussion or a debate about something. I’m treated as like an angry, emotional, nasty woman when I speak out about something. Whereas men are allowed to tear each other to shreds, you know? And that’s just considered a good old-fashioned debate.
I think it’s sad that people are surprised that I have an opinion. And I think it’s great that young women see that I said my piece and I spoke my opinion. I spoke my truth. Whether it was right or wrong. And I wasn’t taken out into the streets and shot. Some people actually listened. Some people disagreed with me, which is completely fair, and some people listened. And some things are changing ― we are now seeing that less and less influencers are promoting diet products. I think it’s because of the noise that women are making with me about how toxic this is. Because we are calling you out now.
I mean, look at the Me Too movement. That was so inspiring to me. Those women are heroes. Those women only further encouraged me to feel like I need to do something. I need to say something, speak up about this and save other women. It’s a sense of duty to protect others. It’s really important to speak out and to be heard, because the oppressors are never just going to hand power to the oppressed. You have to take it. This is women’s Bloody Sunday. And there will be casualties of innocent men, but fuck me, there’s been casualties of innocent women along the way.
When you think about your legacy, on what you’re going to leave behind to the world, what’s the number one thing you consider?
I don’t really care about being remembered if I’m being perfectly honest, because I won’t be alive to see it anyway. The concept of legacy doesn’t mean too much to me personally, regarding ego. But if I am remembered for anything, I hope it would be that I reminded people of their worth. That’s all I want to be remembered for, helping someone love themselves. If I can just help one woman love herself a little bit more then I’ve achieved more in my life than I ever could have hoped.
In terms of your work as an actress, what would you hope is on the horizon for you?
I don’t really know. I don’t have any particular plans for my career. I never have. I’ve had such a weird career ― 70 different jobs, same industry. I just hope that my job continues to give me a platform with which to empower young women. I mostly hope my job gives me that space to be able to talk to women and save women from the things that I was poisoned with when I was younger by people in this business. I’m the victim of bad role models, and I hope that I’m allowed to continue to grow and to learn in this industry and to meet and propel other powerful women.
I know … it frustrates people when they see a slimmer woman talking about body positivity. Or you see a woman of color who’s lighter skin talking about racial discrimination. I’m a woman of color, but I’m not a darker-skinned South Asian woman. So I think that people feel like I have privilege, and so therefore I shouldn’t be speaking out about this. But for now, while I’m here and while I’m doing it, let me continue so I can open more doors for everyone.
Let’s talk about female filmmakers who inspire you. Who is a director that you would love to work with?
Sofia Coppola. I think she’s so brilliant. I find her work really interesting and her portrayal of women very, very interesting and just beautifully done.
A woman you find inspiring?
Emma Thompson. Emma Thompson has always written her own rule book in every single way, and she’s so strong and unapologetic and intelligent and she’s so respected, in a rounded way.
What’s a film about a woman that shaped who you are today?
I think it was “Bridesmaids.“ It was the first time I feel like I saw women on screen free to be disgusting, and to be themselves, and to be raw and honest and flawed. We see such a polished version of women all the time, and that is not who we really are on a girl’s night in our house. We are filthy, and we’re funny and we’re disgusting, and we’re bright, and we hide these things in ourselves because they are considered unpalatable for men. And this was such a kick in the teeth of that. They just broke the mold of what women are supposed to be like on camera. And they were themselves. And they reminded me of me. They reminded me of my girlfriends. I felt like finally there was a film that shows what women are really like.
I love that you said “Bridesmaids,” because so often whenever I’m asked “Who do you feel represents you?”, I’m expected to say like Viola Davis or something. Which of course, Viola Davis is amazing, but I think that is the key about representation. There are so many facets to being a person. You can’t just expect you to be be represented by one person because they are a woman of color. There’s layers to this. I really loved that you said that.
It really like changed my life, that film.
My last question for you is what advice would you have given yourself 10 years ago, knowing what you know now?
The advice I would’ve given myself 10 years ago is kill the bully inside your head. At the very least, when you’re being bullied by other people and by society and by media, you cannot, on top of that, bully yourself. Kill the bully.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.