On a cold November morning halfway through my sophomore year of high school, I was sitting in a hospital examination room feeling an acute sense of relief when a doctor told me I was not allowed to go out for basketball season. I’d lost too much weight to make physical activity viable. This relief was two-fold; I hated basketball, and I’d been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. My doctor was unimpressed, but something like pride welled up in me. I’d earned something; anorexia nervosa rang in my ears like an accolade. Now others would intervene to take away what I’d fought so hard for, but at least I knew I had the capacity to achieve it.
Recovery was a two-year process, at turns hilarious and horrific. One morning during a weigh-in, in cahoots with my mother, I waited to poop because the bowel movement added about 1.1 pounds to my overall weight which mattered immensely at that point in my recovery. The doctor, a terrifically strong and direct woman, called us out on it and told us that from then on I would have to poop prior to my weigh in. I sobbed in therapy twice a week about my disturbing lack of self-worth, and my grandfather secretly stuck my favorite snacks on top of our fridge.
Sometimes, it feels like I’m shouting in water whenever I try to tell other women that there is air—if only they’d swim to the surface.
This was my time straddling the violent edge of an eating disorder. I made it out with clarity and some determination that I’ve carried into adulthood: I do not and refuse to hate my body or the bodies of other women. I’ve hated it, I’ve hated others, and I had to resolve to change that or risk emotional and physical paralysis. I’ve wondered in the intervening years if I’m too eager to see disordered eating. Perhaps I’m sanctimonious in my “authority” with the subject. Does my past give me the right to diagnose others? Sometimes, it feels like I’m shouting in water whenever I try to tell other women that there is air—if only they’d swim to the surface.
In the last year, on a much grander platform than my own, I’ve watched Jameela Jamil fight this battle. I know Jamil as Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC’s The Good Place. In my rush of admiration and fandom of the show, I started following all the cast-members on their various social media platforms, and Jamil’s viral “I Weigh” campaign came to my attention. Inspired by a meme featuring the Kardashians that paired each sister with her weight, Jamil retaliated with a post that read “I weigh…” and listed the things in her life she’s truly proud of, i.e. her relationship, her job and her accomplishments. She ends the post with the text “I like myself in spite of everything I’ve been taught by the media to hate about myself. Fucking KG.”
Her campaign soon gained traction with thousands of women posting their own versions of her post. I felt a sense of relief—greater than the one I felt that November morning—every time Jamil fearlessly called out those more established in the industry for perpetuating dangerous narratives about women’s bodies. And that sense of relief begs the question, why the hell haven’t I seen this before?
It might be trite to say that the external pressures of the media lead vast numbers of women—and men—to hate their own bodies, and for a long time I resisted this explanation. I have OCD, which flirts with my depression, and I believe this cocktail led me to my eating disorder. However, when I look back on that time, I realize I was handed a branded strategy for handling the vacuous self-hate I felt. When asked by Krishnan Guru-Murthy on his podcast Ways to Change the World if these external forces pushed her into her own eating disorder, Jamil replies “Oh for sure, ’cause I was bombarded with a narrative that had no alternative.”
Bombarded is an apt word. Information on how to hate your body is plentiful and never-ending. During my struggle with anorexia, the weights of celebrities my height were my goal weights. I religiously educated myself on weight loss methods, and I could parse out tactics to stay thin when reading interviews with famous, beautiful women. One woman talked about how she always made sure she left about 30% of her meal on her plate. Another said black coffee was the best appetite suppressant.
I don’t blame these women. I don’t blame the rail thin celebrities who hovered around 120 pounds at 5’9″. I, with legions of other women, inherited the legacy of shame, and weight was a clear way to deal with it. Products are marketed to young women to solve their weight, reminding them that it is a problem in the first place. With the advent of social media, influencers can push these products further than magazines or television.
The far reach of these influencers is what concerns Jamil most about the younger generation. Thanks to their phones, young women hold reinforcement for self-loathing in the palm of their hands. We can constantly collect evidence of our own worthlessness. Given this circumstance, Jamil is justified in her response to influencers who push toxic coping mechanisms for young impressionable women.
The narrative is violent, so Jamil retaliates. Much of Jamil’s language is aggressive, and it’s what thrills me about her activism. In response to a post on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram promoting Flat Tummy Lollipops, Jamil writes, “No. Fuck off. No. You terrible and toxic influence on young girls. I admire their mother’s branding capabilities, she is an exploitative but innovative genius, however this family makes me feel actual despair over what women are reduced to.”
Jamil made headlines when she deemed the Kardashians and other female celebrities who promote weight-loss to be “double agents of the patriarchy.” On Ways to Change the World, she explained: “The double agent for the patriarchy is basically just a woman who maybe unknowingly is still putting the patriarchal narrative out into the world. Is still benefiting off, profiting off, and selling, a patriarchal narrative to other women. But it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
She declared on the podcast, “I will not be a part of it, and I will not stop calling it out when I see it. They will have to run me out of this business, which I am sure will happen…but I would rather go down in flames than stick around and be a part of this.” I have never heard such a declaration of allegiance to her audience from any other celebrity. The time and energy women lose to hating themselves is not worth fame to Jamil.
I am not writing this piece to lambast the Kardashians, nor am I claiming Jamil is a perfect activist. She has a history of shaming women for publicly flaunting their sexuality and has been openly critiqued for being an ideal beauty promoting branded “body positivity.” In an article for Vox, E.J Dickson writes that Jamil “frequently refers to bodily functions in interviews and has referred to herself as ‘potty mouthed’ and a ‘constantly inappropriate person,’ filling something of the Cool Girl vacuum left by Jennifer Lawrence.” Putting aside the subtext of condescension aimed at Jamil and Lawrence in this critique, Dickson has a point in noting that this may be a tactic on Jamil’s part, though not a tactic purely built around body-positivity branding.
I cannot speak for Jamil, but as a fellow survivor of an eating disorder, I recognize Jamil’s compulsion to be open about bodily functions. When you starve yourself successfully to the point when your body can hardly function and then recover—if you’re lucky—bodily functions become joyfully fascinating. Pooping regularly became a triumph, and I remember calling my mother into the bathroom to look at my period when it finally returned. I had the proper treatment for hating my body, and recovery made me love it completely. I now find my body objectively hilarious and marvelous for keeping me alive. Jamil’s posturing may not be posturing at all, but an earned celebration of her body in all its multitudes.
It is well documented for those who have researched Jamil, but if you haven’t, the short and superficial history I can give you is that Jamil endured her own eating disorder in her teen years until she was hit by a car. The accident, Jamil says, “changed [her] relationship with [her] body,” suspecting that it “probably saved [her] life” and that she’d “otherwise…still be anorexic now.”
It’s a slow suicide, and rhetoric in the media that supports eating disorders is violent rhetoric.
I am not claiming that I’ve reached some sort of nirvana, but like Jamil, I do feel the need to preach that it is wonderful not to count your calories. It feels like a big fuck you to self-hate when I ask the doctor not to tell me my weight. (My weight was my biggest trigger during my anorexia, so I haven’t weighed myself in 8 years.) I refuse to discuss what other women hate about their bodies with them, and I usually just say, “I don’t do that because I was anorexic.” This reply is usually met with a confession about their own flirtation with eating disorders, and in a strange perversion of body-hate rhetoric, we’ll find ourselves discussing the effort we put into hating our bodies.
I see women exhausting themselves living by the scale, in the middle ground of an unhealthy relationship with food, with exercise, with their own bodies. They never quite concern their friends and relatives enough to get treatment, or they are actively encouraged. I risk sounding sanctimonious again, and I wonder if I am the girl who cried eating disorder. But, then again, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), eating disorders have the highest mortality rate out of any other mental illness. It’s a slow suicide, and rhetoric in the media that supports eating disorders is violent rhetoric.
It sounds trite to talk about the media and its influence because it is so obvious in its attack that the subject is almost boring to discuss. Airbrushing sells impossible, almost alien images. All food is judged by a moral philosophy centered on gaining or losing weight. Also complicit in this narrative are the vague platitudes about self-love that ignore the direct and unapologetic assault on women’s bodies coming from a seemingly infinite number of sources.
Jamil, as imperfect as she is, provides the alternative to the narrative that she hates. Her activity on social media and her willingness to leave herself open to attack by those who have more clout in the industry than she does allows those watching to construct that alternative narrative with her. Again, on Ways to Change the World, Jamil says, “…I have some sort of autonomy, and I’m going to use it as much as I can, and take as much advantage of it as I can to try and never be part of the problem that really destroyed my teen years.”
I wrote the first version of this essay, one that had nothing to do with Jamil, in response to seeing an article in which Kim Kardashian flaunts a 24-inch waist as an achievement. At the time, I still felt pride when I told women what my lowest weight was—the same pride I felt when I was originally diagnosed. It was an achievement and remained an achievement in my mind after recovery. I’d achieved thinness. Only now, almost ten years after my anorexia, can I see those years for what they really were: a tragically fucked up waste of time.
My eating disorder and my struggles with self-esteem are not interesting. They were branded, packaged and handed to me, to my friends, to my mother, my grandmother, and countless other women. Weight is the externalized form of a disturbingly powerful human trait: the ability to hate oneself. I nurtured this ability, and I operated at this deficit because I thought it was my inheritance.
With a voice like Jamil’s, I realize we can control these narratives. To do this, we have to be aware of them, and to become aware of them can be a Herculean effort. It took Jamil being hit by a car, and it took me putting my life at a standstill to reclaim my health. In her interview with Nylon, Jamil states, “I just want to make sure everyone knows what the truth really is…because then we will have the power to make decisions with actual knowledge. We’re making decisions based on lies….And I don’t want to be complicit in it.”
Jamil is decidedly not a victim. I am not a victim. I am an animal who has paid attention to her environment and has learned how to cope with it, forgetting that coping isn’t the goal. Thriving is the goal.