There was a period of time when the aggressive Photoshopping of women's bodies felt like society’s biggest problem. I was young, and body image was the most important issue to me, because I was unhappy about my body. It seemed that in order to not hate myself for weighing more than an Olsen twin, I had to hate the world for making me feel that way.
I was of course right to be angry. It’s outrageous how much female brain power is wasted on feeling bad for not looking like a fictional photo illustration. But I also wish I had channeled that angst towards making art or protesting the Iraq war. Caring deeply about body image issues was, for me, a way to keep thinking about my weight and other people’s bodies all the time.
I’ve been thinking about that period lately, as I follow Good Place actor Jameela Jamil’s body positivity crusade. Jamil, who had an eating disorder as a teenager and has been mocked by tabloids for gaining weight, is currently Hollywood’s loudest critic of media and celebrities that promote unhealthy weight loss agendas or focus too much on women’s weight. “The patriarchy profits from conditioning women to only think about our exterior, to spend all our money and time obsessing over our aesthetic rather than building what’s inside,” Jamil told ELLE in September. Reading the interview, I remembered how electrifying it was to encounter this idea for the first time. I could practically smell the musty dorm room carpet.
Jamil has called for airbrushing to be outlawed because it’s a crime against women. She started a campaign in which women say what they weigh but, instead of a number, list their accomplishments. I cheered when she criticized Iggy Azalea, Khloe Kardashian, Cardi B and Amber Rose for promoting discount codes for Flat Tummy Tea and Teami on Instagram, as if laxative teas (and not genes and money) explained their enviable physiques. “Give us the discount codes to your nutritionists, personal chefs, personal trainers, airbrushers and plastic surgeons you bloody liars,” Jamil wrote.
But Jamil’s most recent effort reminded me of the worst aspects of my body image warrior days. Yesterday, Khloe Kardashian posted a typical January diet meme to her Instagram story: “What girls want: 1. Weight loss 2. Food.” Jamil tweeted that the meme made her sad. “Sending love to this poor woman,” she wrote. “This industry did this to her. The media did it to her. They fat shamed her into a prison of self-critique. Dear girls, WANT MORE THAN THIS.” Jamil followed up today to say that she doesn't care how "humorless" she seems, she will keep speaking out against "anything that encourages eating disorder mentality" until we are "annoy[ed] into submission."
This makes me sad. I hope my daughter grows up wanting more than this. I want more than this. Sending love to this poor woman. This industry did this to her. The media did it to her. They fat shamed her into a prison of self critique. Dear girls, WANT MORE THAN THIS. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/RFkb0GzxZY
— Jameela Jamil (@jameelajamil) January 10, 2019
I don’t want to defend Khloe Kardashian, executive producer of Revenge Body, but I liked the meme. It doesn't sum up the totality of the female experience, but it nails one aspect. What women are conditioned to want requires denying themselves everything else they want. It’s a Greek mythology-grade trap, one that Khloe—the sister who’s struggled publicly with her weight from within America’s most image-conscious family—knows well. And it’s a little bit funny, in a dark kind of way.
I don’t care how humorless or annoying anyone will find me, I will make it too difficult to get away with fat-phobia, fat jokes, fat shaming and food shaming, and frankly anything that encourages eating disorder mentality. I will annoy you into submission. Watch me. pic.twitter.com/WpfARuBY4B
— Jameela Jamil (@jameelajamil) January 11, 2019
Still, I can vividly remember how angry I used to get about jokes like Kardashian’s—and how prickly and judgmental of other women my focus on body image issues made me. If a classmate mentioned she’d done the art history reading on the elliptical, it felt like she was bragging. If a friend had a salad at the dining hall on chicken finger Friday, she was being disordered. One Christmas break, my mom made some benign comment about all the holiday indulgence going in our house, and I snapped at her. Something about how the notion of “good” and “bad” foods contributed to my “toxic” relationship to food and my body and I couldn’t be around that kind of talk. After years of sympathetically agreeing that society had damaged me and my peers, my mom hinted that my own fixation on the topic might make things worse for me. “I’m worried this is going to be an issue for you. Women talk about dieting all the time. It's like background noise.”
WHAT WOMEN ARE CONDITIONED TO WANT REQUIRES DENYING THEMSELVES EVERYTHING ELSE THEY WANT.
If Khloe Kardashian is on a diet that makes her feel deprived, she’s not some poor woman. She’s extremely normal. 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, according to the Boston Medical Center, and 30 million Americans will have an eating disorder at some point, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese and, right or wrong, may have medical professionals joining the media chorus telling them they need to lose weight.
I wish I could have followed Jamil on Twitter when I was younger. I also wish I could have followed the Instagram accounts that churn out diet memes like the one Kardashian posted. I know I shouldn’t care about the perfection and fake perfection depicted in every other Instagram post; the memes are acknowledgement that they make me feel bad anyway.
We’re all living in this mentally unhealthy “prison of self-critique;” some people are responding by dieting. I started to feel a little less unhealthy once I stopped reading the tabloids tracking celebrities’ weights and the blogs criticizing the tabloids for doing so. I no longer feel strongly that I must look a certain way, and I’m no longer pretending I have totally eradicated that feeling. I care a lot less about body image and dieting, but I talk about it a little more with friends, in between talking about books and politics and careers and money. If I didn’t, I would feel more alone in my irrational, nagging, periodic self-loathing. And I would have missed a lot of opportunities to tell other women, “lol, you look amazing, we’re all sick in the head.”