Stephanie Yeboah, Jameela Jamil & White Feminism
Stephanie Yeboah is a leader in the body positivity movement. Her website nerdabouttown.com is a treasure trove of sartorial and intellectual musings from the blogger and body positivity advocate. Far from new to the game, for years Yeboah has done and continues to do the very important necessary work of dismantling societal perceptions of what an acceptable body looks like. Her identity as a dark skinned black woman means her work takes place on two battle fields hostile to fat women and black women.
Jameela Jamil (yes, again) was interviewed by Marie Claire. The Good Place actress has a problem with the body positivity movement.
“It was supposed to be inclusive, and again now, it’s been taken over by very slender, often Caucasian women.” She explained. “Me spending all my time thinking about my looks just feels like a dumb investment.” Jamil is committed to upending the movement because women should “Focus on things that will grow.”
Hold my hand tight, friend. I’m gonna take you on a tour of how as a woman of colour you can weaponise white feminism against black women. Sounds mad, innit? But somehow Jameela Jamil achieves the impossible. This is complicated but as your tour guide I’ll attempt to make sense out of nonsense. All aboard? Choo choo!
Stephanie Yeboah recognised some of the comments from Jamil’s interview as mirroring a conversation they had previously in Twitter DMs. “Body Positivity is such a multi layered thing to approach I think. It stems from the fat acceptance movement… Now it’s used as a marketing term…” In these messages from April, Yeboah explains to Jamil the roots and value of the movement regardless of its co-opting by evil corporations.
As outlined in a later thread, Yeboah’s concern pertained more to the erasure of black women’s voices from the discourse especially given black women’s sizeable contributions. Yeboah also highlighted that Jamil’s popular I Weigh campaign boasts mostly “smaller light skinned/white women” and asked “Why the erasure?”
“Before I read any more depressing BP in-fighting let’s clear this up.” Jamil replies. “I’m just fucking trying to do something good.” First of all, who tf are you swearing at? Secondly, lower your voice and adjust your tone because the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You want to be a feminist? Sometimes that means getting it wrong and being corrected by women who know more than you. When Jamil received pushback on her poorly worded statements she tweeted “I have received a lot of abuse from Stephanie’s followers in the past 24 hours.” Yeboah apologised and reiterated her commitment to the inclusion of “the voices of minorities/non-privileged bodies when it comes to issues regarding body positivity.” Jamil then issued her own apology and asked for leniency during her learning and unlearning process.
What you’ve just read took place on Thursday and Friday just gone. This morning, I cracked my eyes open and slid onto the timeline looking for banter. Lo and behold Jamil didn’t leave this in yesterday. “…to boldly claim that I am racist is too far. I’m sorry you didn’t get credited as ONE of the people who explained body positivity to me. I did my best to fix it, but this is truly unkind.” she replies to Yeboah’s thread on the erasure of black women.
Herein lies Jamil’s problem. Perhaps without meaning to, she employs the most toxic elements white feminism. By claiming Yeboah has called her a racist and focusing on that, she shifts focus away Yeboah’s pertinent points regarding black women and girls’ alleged absence from Jamil’s campaign. The idea that being called a racist is worse than black women and girls looking at her campaign and not readily seeing themselves reflected is a tactic white feminists use to centre their perceived slights ahead and above of the black women’s concerns.
Many have discussed the ways the body positivity movement has been hijacked but Jamil’s commitment to derailing this movement entirely from her position as a woman who despite her heritage adheres to white European standards of beauty is audacious af. It is important to understand Jameela Jamil is not white. She is an Indian and Pakistani woman of colour. However, you do not need to be a white woman to utilise white feminism (think Naga Munchetty’s recent take on Serena Williams US Open). The same way you do not have to white to apply white supremacy (think Kanye West espousing Toupee Fiasco’s virtues).
What is white feminism? Rachel Elizabeth Cargle recently outlined the tools white feminism uses to disenfranchise black voices; white saviour complex, spiritual bypassing, tone policing and centring. With Jameela Jamil’s interaction you can recognise at least two of these tactics. “I wish you had just tweeted me” Jamil tells Yeboah during their exchange. This is tone policing. She doesn’t like how Yeboah’s expressed herself. The implication being that had Stephanie simply been more polite and accommodating, they could have ironed this out more easily. Again fully ignoring what prompted this whole thing in the first place. And the centring. Rather than focussing on the discourse and your attempts to dismantle something you a) didn’t build and b) do not understand, Jamil is determined, even as I type, to be in the middle of this. “…you are suggesting I sit there and choose to exlude black women?! You don’t know me.” And you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Your campaign and your discourse like Sex and the City excludes black women. Did Sarah Jessica Parker wake up in 1997 and say “I’m going to erase black women from my show on purpose because I hate them and I’m a racist.” No. However the pervasive, insidious nature of racism, sexism and misogynoir mean that rarely without black women’s voices drawing attention to our marginalisation do white women and other women of colour ever give us a second thought- this is how white feminism works and if you’d do the work educating yourself about the heavy lifting necessary to effectively attempt to dismantle the patriarchy you’d know this and avoid these pitfalls. Was Stephanie presumptuous in claiming you choose who to post on your page? Fine, I’ll give you that. But it is important that you recognise there is a gap when women like Stephanie cannot easily see themselves in a campaign about redressing the new toxicity in body positivity.
I appreciate and value Jameela Jamil’s experience struggling with her body. I have shared how much I relate. But I wonder if Jamil has ever taken time to recognise the position of immense privilege she occupies and the damage she has done to body positivity by using words like “dumb” to describe movement in international publications. Jameela Jamil occupying the space she does with the body she has, one that in part affords her the visibility she has and then condescending women who do not look like her whose work she misappropriated is frustrating. At one point Jamil tells Stephanie Yeboah to “tell me what steps to take and I will take them.” And that’s the problem with Jameela Jamil and white feminism in general. We’ve been telling you. You lot don’t listen to us.