Earlier this week, the British actor Jameela Jamil took a familiar stand. For the BBC, she wrote with passion about an issue she’s championed for much of her career: the impossible beauty standards that shape how the world sees women (and how women see themselves).
This time, though, Jamil made a particularly bold claim—that airbrushing images should be not just discouraged, but also illegal: “I think it’s a disgusting tool that has been weaponised, predominantly against women, and is responsible for so many more problems than we realise because we are blinded by the media, our culture, and our society,” she wrote.
For Jamil, the omnipresence of airbrushed photos of women isn’t just a societal concern; it’s also a personal one. “I suffered from eating disorders as a teenager,” she continued, “and so I know how damaging ‘perfect’ images in magazines can be.” The 32-year-old actor went on to detail the numerous reasons she believed the tool ought to be outlawed: It’s a lie to the consumer; it’s bad for the person being photographed; it’s so, so bad for the public, especially young women. These statements aren’t, on their face, particularly controversial—and Jamil backs up her assertions with a number of statistics about how distorted images shape the public’s view of women’s bodies.
Still, Jamil’s latest crusade is troubling for a host of reasons that together reveal the larger limitations of both commodity-driven feminism and celebrity activism itself. It is, in the grand scheme of women’s causes, fairly easy to point out the corrosive effects that advertising has on young women’s self-esteem. What’s more difficult, and more important, is earnestly grappling with how one tool—in this case, airbrushing—functions as a symptom of a larger social ill. The dangers of navigating the world (and the mirror) in an othered body—a body read as black or queer or trans or fat or disabled, for example—extends far beyond the blight of photo-editing tools. Naming this reality, though, is far less sexy.
It may very well be tempting for Jamil’s supporters to believe that banning Photoshop or Facetune, an editing application often used on selfies, would lead to a proliferation of images that showcase women’s so-called imperfections—stretch marks, visible pores, scars, hyperpigmentation, cellulite. But there’s no evidence that such a revolution would result.
That’s in part because, notably, any trends toward “natural” aesthetics have tended to idealize the kinds of people who can afford to look flawless without much manipulation. Think dewy-faced Glossier models or “makeup-free” Alicia Keys. “The barefaced beauties in these magazines are not like the majority of us,” the BuzzFeed News reporter Bim Adewunmi wrote in June, exploring the rise of minimalist makeup. “The cover’s job is to remind you of that, even as it tells you this is something to aspire to. It’s not a bellwether for a worldwide movement; it’s a display of gentle superiority.”
Adewunmi’s assessment is not a defense of airbrushing or makeup so much as it is an acknowledgement of the fact that beauty hierarchies—which prioritize whiteness, youth, and thinness—reassert themselves even when mediums change. Whether in magazines or on Instagram, with the help of PhotoShop or Facetune, women are invariably bombarded with images presenting some sort of idealized beauty. Removing the mechanisms by which these images become so aspirational does little to change the fact that aspiring toward beauty is an inherently tainted project for many people.
Beauty, after all, is not apolitical; it has always been about power. In an oft-quoted 2011 blog post culled from the keynote speech she delivered at the Femmes of Color Symposium in Oakland, the disability-justice writer and organizer Mia Mingus offered a lens for considering how beauty functions alongside structural violence: “We must shift from a politic of desirability and beauty to a politic of ugly and magnificence,” Mingus wrote. “The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but unhuman. The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly.”
The prospect of abandoning the pursuit of desirability is admittedly fraught. Many people are unwilling to look past the vanishing horizon of beauty—and understandably so. Beauty, however contextually defined it might be, confers significant privileges on those who can access it. Frustratingly, Jamil routinely fails to acknowledge the immense status that her own conventional good looks have afforded her. In the context of her public campaigns against airbrushing, this oversight is counterproductive. In an Instagram post following the publication of her BCC column, she again made the case for refusing to retouch photos—in the caption of a photo in which she looks quite literally stunning:
Say no to airbrushing. Pores and lines and spots and dry lips are something kids need to see so they don’t grow up thinking there is something fucking wrong with them. I want to look like a person, not an emoji. Thanks for never retouching me @selashiloniphoto ps. I’m aware I still have fairly clear skin these days. But it’s sad to know a magazine would 100 percent blur all of my little lines and “imperfections” because they would see this as “offputting” because they don’t like human beings.
Jamil is, of course, correct in noting that magazines have historically retouched women’s photos beyond recognition. Again, this point is hardly controversial in 2018. Feminist activism over the decades has decried the effects of media bias on women and girls. What Jamil’s caption neglects to mention—except with that small disclosure about her “fairly clear skin”—is that Jamil herself is not a candidate for the most extreme forms of visual alteration. An unblurred stretch mark might ruffle a magazine editor’s feathers, but it’s not going to keep Jamil from accessing the many benefits that beautiful women enjoy.
It’s worth noting that Jamil’s attention to the effects of media scrutiny on women’s bodies, however incautious, isn’t a new endeavor. The actor seems genuinely invested in challenging what she sees as a dangerous status quo. Last year, she started @i_weigh, an Instagram account dedicated to “life positivity” through which she encourages people (and especially women) to share images of themselves along with words representing the aspects of their life that make them proudest. The core tenet of the “I Weigh” campaign isn’t body positivity—a complicated social movement—so much as it is a rejection of the idea that women’s worth is measured by appearance. Where most interpretations of body positivity call for women to celebrate their body in the face of sexism and especially fatphobia, Jamil seems more invested in a kind of disembodiment. In her figuring, the body is not just unfairly judged, but also irrelevant. This aim is fine, if also a bit facile—and complicated by the actor’s own work.
On NBC’s The Good Place, a deceptively entertaining highbrow sitcom about four humans who navigate ethical quandaries in the afterlife, the actor plays Tahani Al-Jamil, an heiress whose personality is driven by equal parts familial insecurity, self-obsession, and yearning for increased visibility. The show regularly skewers Tahani’s narcissism while making no secret of the fact that she is an objectively beautiful woman; it is literally written into the series.
Comparing actors with the characters they most famously portray can be a lazy, logical shortcut, but Jamil’s history of criticizing other celebrity women—among them, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, and Cardi B—echoes her Good Place character’s own blind spots. Jamil seems unwilling to separate her activism from an odd investment in judging women’s behavior according to a rubric she herself is not evaluated by. Many of her callouts have been more concerned with punitive measures than with considering how different women navigate their body and their celebrity. “They got Cardi B on the laxative nonsense ‘detox’ tea,” she captioned a screenshot from the rapper’s Instagram last week. “GOD I hope all these celebrities all shit their pants in public, the way the poor women who buy this nonsense upon their recommendation do.”
Cardi responded in jest, and the news cycle moved on, but Jamil’s habit of clumsily addressing feminist causes remains a curious posturing. Even if airbrushing were the primary factor contributing to women’s oppression—as opposed to, say, voter suppression, reproductive injustice, or economic discrimination—it would still be dismaying to watch the actor continue to paint complex topics with so broad a brush. In her pursuit of an optical feminist justice, Jamil often overlooks—or reifies—the same structures that harm other women. She seems to delight in the spectacle of mockery. More worryingly, her push for criminalizing behaviors like airbrushing—as opposed to even just banning them—is misguided. Like recent calls to criminalize street harassment, Jamil’s invocation of legal recourse for airbrushing is both legislatively dubious and potentially harmful to the same people she claims to support. (Consider, for example, which kinds of people are most easily targeted by legislation designed to curb issues like revenge porn.)
Absent larger structural analyses, suggestions like Jamil’s offer reductive slogans at best. It is far more compelling to consider the body’s potential for resisting the cultural status quo. Take, for example, some of the most stirring questions Mingus asked in her speech: “How do we take the sting out of ‘ugly’? What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel?”
Magazine covers and Instagram feeds don’t tend to value emotional currency. Earnest reckonings with the flesh are difficult to convey with images, airbrushed or otherwise. But trying to dismantle beauty hierarchies—or at least to diminish their power—isn’t glossy work. Honesty, especially about the self, is hard. Sometimes it feels ugly.