Jameela Jamil and the trouble with #NoFilter Feminism
Hannah Giorgis, Staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture/The Atlantic
The outspoken British actor recently wrote that airbrushing should be illegal. But there are far more compelling ways to consider the tyranny of gendered beauty standards.
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.