Calling out Jameela Jamil because of her looks is the worst kind of whitewashing

Jameela Jamil (Photo: Getty Images)

Emphasising the I Weigh campaigner’s perceived “privilege” displays a shocking lack of awareness of what it has been – and still is – like for women of colour, says Poorna Bell

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By Poorna Bell on

Whatever your views are on Jameela Jamil, she has been in the business of calling out unfairness against women for a very long time.

When I asked her to be the guest editor for the women’s section of HuffPost, back in 2015, it was evident that she was fuelled by a raw, unquenchable fire of wanting to help other women.

But it seems that, if you’re a woman who has an opinion, you can talk loudly, but only up to a certain decibel.

If you’re famous, you can do palatable feminism meted out in small doses: the occasional post on Instagram, wear a nice dress and take part in a magazine special on feminism (which has always struck me as bizarre, seeing as gender equality is 24/7 and not an opt-in experience, like email or the vegetarian menu).

But Jamil has sort of overturned that idea. Her brand of feminism has recently attempted to have an outcome to some of it – whether that’s creating campaigns or making herself that pain in the arse that refuses to go away. That is less easy than it looks.  

Although her I Weigh campaign is not without controversy – Jamil’s work in that space has raised valid concerns among the real people behind the body-positive movement, who are upset that she, a slim woman, has become the acceptable face of it – the latest row over her campaign to ban airbrushing, or retouching, misses a massive point of not just what she’s trying to do, but the very privilege it claims she has.

Metro UK published a column that says that it’s all very well for Jamil to champion such a campaign when she’s “conventionally beautiful”, before going on to say that it’s not fair on other women who might want to retouch their photos.

“Could you ever see a picture of her, though, and think that you weren’t looking at a traditionally extremely attractive woman? No,” writes Jessica Lindsay.

Jamil took Metro to task, tweeting: “But when you’re a brown woman whose skin get lightened and whose ethnic nose gets made smaller and who gets thinned out all without your permission making you feel bad when you have to look in the mirror or meet people in real life and you feel like a liar you maybe get my point?”

Convention implies a standard, a natural order of the world. And women of colour have not been part of that order

And that’s the thing. It’s not, say, that women shouldn’t hold other women to account or question their thinking. I’ve learned plenty of times about my own privilege that way.

But it’s unbelievably galling to take a woman of colour to task for enjoying perceived privileges, because she’s deemed beautiful. It displays a shocking lack of awareness and understanding of what it has been – and still is – like for women of colour.

When I was growing up, Jamil would not have been considered “conventionally beautiful”, despite her being a stone-cold hottie. I know this, because I saw fuck-all brown women on television and in magazines for a very, very long time. That’s because women of colour, within predominantly white countries, have historically not been considered to be beautiful. The conventions of beauty rammed down our throat since birth are white, slim and blonde.

Convention implies a standard, a natural order of the world. And women of colour have not been part of that order. Our beauty exists in spite of convention; it is not supported by it.

I don’t know that it eases even when you do become, as Jamil has, successful and fêted for your looks. On the one hand, we struggle to see our beauty represented in mainstream arenas such as catwalks, magazines and ad campaigns. On the other, from blackfishing to extreme tanning, elements of brown and black beauty are like a pick ’n’ mix buffet for some white women, who use it to feed their levels of attractiveness. We simply cannot do the same.

Jamil isn’t someone who has simply learned how to be happy with what she’s got, because she has a pretty face. I guarantee you that she’s also had to drown out all the negative comments she’s heard pertaining to her skin. That she’s also had to deal with the stark lack of visibility despite being an attractive, visible woman of colour herself.


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Jameela Jamil (Photo: Getty Images)
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