Jameela Jamil’s guest edit of Stylist this month features her on the cover of the magazine attacking sets of scales with a hammer. The cover has received praise and some backlash, from the troubled optics of a slim woman “smashing diet culture” to the fact that many of the clothes in the accompanying fashion shoot aren’t available past size 18.
While some frustration is understandable, it feels depressing to focus too much on unpicking Jamil’s well-meaning efforts, not least because of her own history (she has spoken openly about body dysmorphia and struggling with an eating disorder, saying she now approaches her body image with neutral acceptance as opposed to celebration). The rest of the magazine does have much progressive content, too.
What the discussion points to is a bigger issue: not just how difficult it is for each of us to navigate our attempts to challenge beauty standards, but that society’s willingness to let us is often determined by how we look. This is too often a catch-22 in fighting sexism: that women must largely meet the norms of conventional attractiveness before they are allowed to criticise the demand to be attractive.
This is partly about cold economics. As Jamil responded on Twitter, she is “doing her best while straddling this industry”, and she had to wear the clothes the magazine gave her to wear – because those brands are the sponsors of the magazine. But it’s also surely about our own conditioning. As a culture, we are programmed to listen to pretty women – to the extent that studies show bosses are even more likely to hire them. The fashion industry is naturally a hotbed of such bias, so much so that even the recent rise in “body positivity” can actually end up conforming to the very standards it is trying to challenge. Take the trend of female influencers being praised for showing the “reality” behind the scenes of their glamorous photo shoots, which consisted of a white, slim blond woman pulling her head back to produce a “double chin”. This is viewed as cute and relatable, whereas a black, disabled or plus-size model simply existing is still seen as challenging. If these women were truly confronting body ideals – fat, disabled, hairy – it’s unlikely they would be able to make a living as influencers.
Meanwhile, women with certain body types are judged as courageous for feeling at all positive about their appearance. Fresh from a summer of headline-grabbing performances, the singer and rapper Lizzo told Glamour this month that she is sick of people calling her “brave” for showing off her body. “I’m just fine. I’m just me. I’m just sexy,” she said. “If you saw Anne Hathaway in a bikini on a billboard, you wouldn’t call her brave.” The reality is that, in a world in which women are told that only a narrow selection of characteristics is beautiful, it does take courage to counter that – to hear the criticism, put on a bright pink leotard anyway, and say: “This is me.” But there is something seriously toxic in seeing women who are proud to look any other way than thin, white and non-disabled as partaking in a subversive act of bravery. Put it another way: we only think it’s brave to be confident as a black, plus-size woman if we accept the idea that there is something shameful about such a body for Lizzo to overcome.
That more women in the public eye are speaking out about weight, beauty ideals and confidence is only a positive. But for women’s bodies in all our glory to really gain acceptance, the agenda has to be big. That it isn’t radical for a woman to be different and confident. That it becomes the default for fashion lines to be produced in sizes all of us can enjoy. That women can speak out, and be heard, no matter how we dress or wear our hair. There are still many barriers to smash.