When actress and podcaster Jameela Jamil began sharing her thoughts about mental health and body image on social media, she was aware backlash might come with the territory. Though she didn’t anticipate being called 'gobby' — and worse. Nevertheless, the actress is adamant she will not be silenced. "I'm not going to go away," she tells me when I meet her in a studio in Camden Town's Park Village.
When I arrive, Jamil is sat looking perfectly at home on the floor, hugging her knees to herself. The Good Place and She-Hulk star has been hosting an event called #MoveForYourMind to promote the mental health benefits of fitness in connection with her popular 'i Weigh' podcast. The concept (i Weigh meaning: I am a sum of all the things of value about my life, not my body mass) began as a social media post in 2018 and snowballed into a movement to challenge societal norms. The Instagram account has 1.2M followers. It means Jamil now counts 'activist' among the titles under her belt.
The actor and former presenter, who lives in LA, has alluded to her personal struggles over the years on social media: be it eating secretly or having weighed herself daily and letting the number on the scale dictate her mood. It inspired her to "pass the mic" with her podcast and welcome guests to speak of their own struggles.
It’s something she feels others before her haven’t done as “there’s just so much fear, and also, there’s just no money made [speaking out] like that. But it’s not about money, it’s about empowering people and creating a happier society. Don’t we all want to live in a happier society? So if we’re going to do that, it’s not about nitpicking each other to death to look perfect online. It’s going to be about helping the community.”
Jamil has been the subject of headlines and even accused of inflating health claims in the past, due to her outspoken statements, but she insists she’s not worried about cancel-culture, “I get in trouble all the time. I think cancellation is very much your decision; whether you are so egotistical that you disappear. Or if you go, ‘sorry my bad’, and you come back. So I have gotten into trouble before, but I’m not going to go away because of that.”
She continues, “especially for women of colour, there’s this idea that you have to be so perfect which is just not the case at all. So, no. I just like to be as honest with my followers as I can, and I think I strike a good balance between saying what I think and protecting my privacy."
So why does Jamil think others with a similar sized profile haven’t been banging the drum as consistently as she has? “Well, they think their body will change or things will go wrong for them if they stay away from the norm," she posits.
Veering from the norm and voicing her opinions hasn’t been without its hurdles for Jamil, however, and she admits speaking too fast in the past. "I think I used to be a much more negative person publicly and a little divisive, but it’s just because I was angry and had this stored up rage that came out in a way that led me to speaking too fast. I accidentally made a name for myself that was ‘gobby’,” she recalls.
“I think my heart was in the right place and that what I was talking about was correct, but I really reconsider now whether that was the best way to communicate,” she reflects.
Her latest project #MoveForYourMind is the culmination of a more positive approach to her activism and desire to change the narrative around body image. “In the last few years, my work has been about putting as much love out there as possible,” she says.
Though she insists, “I’m not saying I’m changing people’s lives, but we all have the ability to facilitate helping people to feel like they want to move or want to start being active. And it takes a while to build and to facilitate but it’s so f***ing worth it when you can do something." Providing an entry point to exercise feels pertinent given that research from ASICs found that 68% of those surveyed said they feel too embarrassed to go to the gym because they don’t fit the mould of the typical gym goer, while just under a third said they never see people like them represented in the exercise world.
Jamil says walking has become her movement of choice, "it’s the way I’ve most looked after myself and changed my life," she explains. And she’s not afraid to be competitive about her step count with her partner, artist and record producer, James Blake. “I do sometimes get into competitions with him to the point where last night, at midnight, we were walking as quietly as we could and trying not to make any noise in the hallway — trying to outdo each other's steps. It’s in a gamified way. I never mind if I didn’t walk very much that day, but it is a fun way to compete — and to be better than James,” she says laughing.
In discussing the positive impacts of exercise for mental health, conversation with the actor turns to Ozempic. The weight loss drug is intended for use in people with type 2 Diabetes, though increasingly it is rumoured to be used by Hollywood A-listers and much more widely as a controversial weight loss aid. And Jamil points to fears it’s being seen as a replacement for exercise.
“Far be it for me to tell anyone what they want to do with their body, but what I would say is that one of the main things that concerned me about Ozempic is this slogan I saw somewhere that said it’s 'the result without the sweat',” says Jamil. “That immediately raised alarms, because I was like, they’re portraying exercise as this awful, arduous thing to do. It’s like a cheat. And that shouldn’t be a reason to (avoid) exercise. People are missing out on all the health benefits, and all that extra sleep. This is not a good thing to promote,” she laments.
Jamil also has concerns over a specific aesthetic being seen as a side-effect of exercise on social media and the effects this has on mental health. "I want people to exercise, not in this punishing, painful way, not for the aesthetic. If you build your brain, your life is going to be so much happier than just achieving a nonsense aesthetic that someone showed you on social media.
Which brings us to what might likely be the impetus behind her next campaign, “Hopefully at some point, though I really doubt it, I hope that the people will push for the people who own social media to regulate it properly, because I don’t know how much worse our mental health statistics can literally get before society collapses.” We can trust Jamil will do her best not to let that happen.