Actress and activist Jameela Jamil speaks (virtually) at The Cambridge Union

Jameela Jamil on the hope she has in our generation to make our world ‘The Good Place’

On Monday 19th October, actress, activist and “feminist in progress” Jameela Jamil spoke at the Cambridge Union, talking about her career, her heritage and the importance of progression over perfection. Famous for becoming the first female solo host of the BBC Radio 1 chart show, her role in NBC “fantasy comedy” The Good Place, her activism work and a host of other achievements, Jamil addressed the younger generation on matters such as social media, body image, and what still needs to be done to make the world a Better Place.

“Proud to be that person”

Having grown up as a marginalised South Asian Londoner in the 1990s of both Indian and Pakistani heritage, Jamil highlighted the lack of meaningful representation of South Asian people in the media throughout her childhood. She claimed that the media’s white-washing caused her to disregard the importance of her culture, leading to a disconnect between her and her heritage. Jamil claimed that at that time she either wanted to be Black or White, and took issues with the media’s overwhelming portrayal of Muslims as terrorists, or scapegoats for comic effect.  

Though she claims there is still a lot more work to be done, Jamil is “proud to be that person” for young South Asian kids, and hopes to inspire other South Asians in the media to “make space [for each other], rather than take space and play into tokenism”. Her advice to South Asians who want to make it big in the industry was to “deal with the reality that you will have to work harder than everyone else, and keep pushing for change”. She also urged up-and-coming South Asians in the media to “create an alliance through resilience and working hard” and to look to role models like Mindi Kaling or Priyanka Chopra-Jonas for inspiration.

“Obsession with perfection”

As the ‘Instagram Generation’, Jamil also touched on her concern with our “obsession with perfection”, both in terms of physical aesthetics and our relationship with failure. In March 2018, she launched an Instagram page called ‘I Weigh’, as a means to use her platform as “a movement… for us to feel valuable and see how amazing we are, and look past the flesh on our bones.” She said that, having spent time in the modelling industry, she took “the Trojan horse to get on the inside and work within the system to expose its secrets and create change”.

Jamil describes herself as working on a basis of ‘body neutrality’ and believes that we, as a society, can only have a more realistic conversation about body positivity once its message stops being commercialised. Her advice to young people struggling with their body image is to unfollow everyone who airbrushes their posts, and instead follow writers, musicians, activists and pages with a purpose.

She also highlighted the fact that “we control the market, the market doesn’t control us”, and that our most valuable mechanism of defence is to control what we are fed by the media. In spite of past criticism, she still stands by some of her more contentious views including criticism of the Kardashians, who she regards as selling a plastic image of perfection to young women and capitalising on their struggles with body image.

“Like Batman with no upper-body strength or co-ordination”

On dealing with hate, Jamil explained how she found freedom in never expecting to be liked. After seeing how her character Tahani Al‑Jamil in The Good Place lived, consumed by what other people thought of her, she vowed to change her attitude towards haters. She described herself “like Batman with no upper-body strength or co-ordination”, because like Batman, she does not rely on the approval of anybody else, and suggested women and all other marginalised groups should adopt her freeing survival strategy. 

She also had a very important message (delivered light-heartedly) to freshers: DON’T JOIN TWITTER. She urged freshers to shield themselves from the temptation of Twitter rants, but told them, and all Cambridge University students, to use the immense opportunity we have by going to such a renowned institution to educate others, use resources and help communities. Jamil suggested we drop the “get-the-bag-culture” her generation adopted, and focus on health and happiness as we struggle through a mental health crisis. She highlighted that this year more than ever, our traditional value system has been challenged and hopes that we come out of our time in Cambridge with a better sense of self. She was adamant that we should focus on “how to make the world a better place, not how to become important in it”. 

The Good Place: Progress, not perfection

Jamil went on to praise The Good Place (the NBC “fantasy-comedy” TV series in which Jamil played a leading role) for two reasons. Firstly, she said the show consistently preaches progress; it emphasises the journey to being a good person through progress rather than perfection, and how being a good person does not mean having to be a saint. Secondly, she claimed the show was fundamentally about people from different upbringings and families working together to get to a better place; an attitude Jamil believes we can all adopt and exercise.  

Due to Jamil’s extensive work regarding eating disorders, she is involved in three separate bills in progress in the USA, and gave a powerful speech in Congress. She was also named by Harvard striped Scientists as more effective than the FDA in creating awareness around the dangers of eating disorders. She has changed global policies at Facebook and Instagram in a bid to protect children against diet products and cosmetic surgery procedures.

Jamil also emphasised that, only being 34 years old, she is nowhere near finished in her endeavours to use her platform to project others. Intent on not being complicit in the deterioration of the mental health of teenagers constantly bombarded with unrealistic expectations of who they should become, or how they should look, she vowed to keep working to protect us.

Featured Image Credit: aitchisons (Flickr), via Creative Commons License