Invisible Illness in Pop Culture: What Do Jameela Jamil and Jake Paul Have in Common?

She's a strident activist and he's a piece of YouTube trash, but they both point out how far our culture still needs to go in terms of understanding health.

Jameela Jamil

Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock

In true crime, there's a mythical notion of the "perfect victim" (young, beautiful, often female, with no criminal history of her own).

How closely one fits this arbitrary model is sadly correlated with how much public attention and sympathy a victim will receive. Similarly, there's a strange cultural expectation that sufferers of chronic illness need to be the "perfect sick person" (graceful, quiet, grateful) in order to be believed. Recent celebrity backlashes underscore the misconception that crippling chronic illnesses are rarer than they actually are and that they exist in isolation (in reality, many conditions come with co-morbid, or simultaneous, illnesses). From Jake Paul claiming that anxiety is all in the mind to actress Jameela Jamil being accused of having Munchausen's Syndrome, the reality of "invisible illnesses"–conditions that don't necessarily cause visible disabilities– is still wildly misunderstood and misrepresented in the media.

For years Jamil has been an outspoken activist for mental health, LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, body acceptance, and female empowerment. That's included open criticism of toxic diet culture on Instagram and Twitter and launching her movement I Weigh, a "rebellion against shame" that highlights people's accomplishments and worth beyond their physical appearance.

But in February, a writer named Tracie Morrissey took to Instagram with an extensive collection of screenshots of Jamil's interviews dating back over 10 years. She pointed out what she perceived to be discrepancies throughout Jamil's accounts of her health struggles, accusing her of purposefully lying about or causing her own illnesses for attention (Munchausen's Syndrome). Aside from being born partially deaf, Jamil's been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder, and the condition can weaken various joints, organs, and whole body systems.

In response, Jamil pointed out how insidious stigmas about disabilities lead to accusations that individuals are faking their illnesses. She posted on Instagram, "I have had to fight like a f-cking dog this week against false accusations, people framing my words, and deliberately taking them out of context, trying to discredit my entire integrity, and going after disabled members of my family. And for what? To stop me from being an activist against eating disorders? To stop me from de stigmatizing conversations about mental health, suicides, sexual consent, abortions, women's rights, trans rights?"

She continued, "I've been in this business 11 years and am a smart woman. I wouldn't lie in print or on camera knowing how permanent the internet is. Especially knowing how much our media loves to portray women as liars and hysterics." She concluded, "At least we've started a huge mainstream conversation about invisible illness/chronic illness and the mockery and disbelief that comes with what is already a near impossible existence. So something good always comes of a shit storm. Big love for the messages of support and similar stories of gaslighting you've all faced. I'm so sorry. That's so painful."

Indeed, too many genetic anomalies and illnesses go unheeded by doctors, as the medical community remains uninformed about many established diseases, such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which disproportionately impacts women and takes an average of 10 to 20 years to receive a proper diagnosis. In 2019, the Ehlers-Danlos Society awarded Jamil with the Patient Advocate of the Year. Upon acceptance, Jamil said, "I am sorry it took me so long to speak publicly about my condition. I think I was afraid of being discriminated against, and I think I feel, I felt, discouraged by how little information there is about it publicly, and still how little research is being done around this condition. It's terrifying how many doctors still haven't heard of it, and it's been around for a very long time. So many people have it, and so many more people than we realize as they don't know the symptoms, because the symptoms aren't being discussed en masse."

Part of this problem is, as Jamil pointed out in her Instagram post: Women are still commonly not believed, and their pain is not taken seriously within the medical community. Research consistently shows that women are prescribed less pain medication after surgery, wait longer to receive pain medication during visits to the emergency room, and are far more likely to be told that their pain is "psychosomatic" or due to emotional upset. One survey of 2,400 women found that at least 83% of respondents had experienced gender discrimination from a health care provider. Dr. Fiona Gupta, a neurologist and director of health in neurosurgery at Mount Sinai in New York City, says, "I can't tell you how many women I've seen who have gone to see numerous doctors, only to be told their issues were stress-related or all in their heads. Many of these patients were later diagnosed with serious neurological problems, like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. They knew something was wrong, but had been discounted and instructed not to trust their own intuition."

James Blake, who's dating Jamil, defended his girlfriend on Twitter: "I'm not gonna stand by and let some total strangers try to push my girlfriend over the edge to what… stop her from helping kids with eating disorders? Stop removing mainstream shame of talking about mental health?" he said, before concluding, "What are any of you even doing? And why are so many of you enjoying this? It's sick to watch, and I don't ever see men treated like this, the way we tear women limb from limb."

The dual challenges of stigma and lack of awareness are only exacerbated when it comes to invisible illnesses, which can range from heart disease, fibromyalgia, diabetes, psychiatric illness, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer. These individuals are often told they "don't look sick," which exemplifies the cultural ignorance that still exists about illness: There is no such thing as "looking sick." People with visible disabilities or who use mobility aids or other visible health care devices are not broadcasting their health condition so they can defend their diagnoses. In the same vein, people whose illnesses don't involve visible impairments aren't invalid in their struggles. Their illnesses go undetected and can be difficult to diagnose due to slow-developing or inconsistent symptoms, their similarity with other more common ailments, and, above all, a dangerous lack of cultural awareness.

For instance, Jake Paul recently invalidated every individual who's struggled with anxiety with the thoughtless (since-deleted) tweet, "Remember anxiety is created by you. Sometimes you gotta let life play out and remind yourself to be happy & that the answers will come. Chill your mind out. Go for a walk. Talk to a friend." In reality, this kind of advice not only minimizes the mental and physical damage caused by anxiety but implies that sufferers are ultimately to blame for their own symptoms. In reality, anxiety disorders affect roughly 15% - 20% of the population and not because those people fail to "remind [themselves] to be happy." The director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association, Dr. Vaile Wright, clarified, "Anxiety is a combination of physiological and emotional responses typically to stressful things in our life or things that are going on." Specifically, during times of stress the brain releases a hormone called cortisol, among other chemicals, and elevated levels of cortisol over a period of time are proven to negatively affect memory, learning, the immune system, and the heart's ability to function. She added, "You can't avoid anxiety. You can't avoid the triggers that cause it, but you can learn how to cope with it and you can seek out the help that you really need to learn those behaviors."

As an influencer with nearly 20 million YouTube subscribers, Paul's irresponsible remark befits the online reputation of him and his brother, Logan Paul, for having thoughtless, juvenile, and exploitative online presences–with an alarmingly large audience of young people. Both brothers were criticized by mental health professionals in 2019 when YouTuber Shane Dawson created a series on Jake Paul speculating if the creator is a "sociopath," which is an outdated layman's term from pop culture that was never part of scientific criteria. Logan said, "A lot of us, me included, will do some dumb sh—, maybe some stuff that lacks empathy, strictly for views. It gets us views, which gets us subscribers. Our motivating factor is to reach the next, next, next level." He added, "Sociopath is, boiled down, someone who is just more savage than everyone else." No, it's not. Again, "sociopath" is a now-outdated informal term that only carries meaning in pop psychology–and, like all lazy language, it can have damaging consequences.

This is especially true in the age of Instagram, with chronically ill communities and activists using the platform to spread awareness. Writer Caira Conner of NBCNews commented on the discrimination and stigma inherent in accusations that Jamil had Munchausen's Syndrome. She wrote of the challenges of chronic illness from the point of view of someone who's been diagnosed with three autoimmune conditions, among other illnesses. "The sense of culpability that pervades chronic illness can be a gnawing, wicked companion to the illness itself," she wrote. She adds that she's not personally a fan of Jamil's kind of advocacy, because social media, the main medium Jamil uses to spread her message, presents a filtered version of life with a chronic illness. "The helplessness of it all isn't captured," she wrote. "It is a snapshot... deliberately self-flattering and decidedly detached from the context it pretends to highlight."

She added, "The point Jamil makes about illness—the idea that someone can be suffering and yet still be perennially met with suspicion, even outright dismissiveness—is important." Since there is, in reality, a "profound sense of loss and disappointment that accompanies a non-terminal lifelong diagnosis. There is more compassion and empathy to be elicited from viewers when they can clearly see the ravages of a particular condition, when the element of tragedy is irrefutable."

The overarching truth, in Conner's words, is our "need, as a culture, to find a third way, somewhere between the cripplingly binary options of victory or defeat, compassion or denial, cheering or cutting down" to recognize and validate all human life.


Jameela Jamil Comes Out as Banksy

Jameela Jamil has received unnecessary bullying for being open about her struggles on social media, so now she wants everyone to know the truth.

Photo by Niv Singer on Unsplash

Finally, we know the truth.

The famed artist Banksy, who has remained anonymous for decades, is actually the actress Jameela Jamil.

For anyone who's confused: This is a joke Jamil made because she has been the subject of a great deal of conspiracy theories and online vitriol lately. She was accused of having Munchausen's, which is an illness that causes people to believe they're sick with disorders that they don't have. But Jamil clarified that she actually suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a disorder that affects connective tissues in the body.

"Being gaslit over your health for entertainment is a very specific pain and trauma that a lot of people with Ehlers Danlos/invisible disability have to face every day from people who don't understand our vastly under-researched condition. And to what end? Who wins?" she wrote. "If I was an oil tycoon destroying the planet, or a serial sex offender I would maybe understand this vitriol and effort to target and harass me. But I'm just a mental health/eating disorder advocate actually taking the time to change public policy and legislation to protect kids."

The Good Place star has become noteworthy on the Internet for her dedication to anti-diet-culture activism. She's also spoken about mental illness and her chronic health issues, but every time she speaks out, Internet users seem to take pleasure in attacking her.

Her boyfriend James Blake came to her defense today, speaking out about how he has personally witnessed his girlfriend's illnesses, which some Twitter users were questioning.


Is Jameela Jamil Queerbaiting (Even Though She's Queer)?

The Good Place actress received backlash for accepting a judge role on HBO's new voguing competition show. Then, she came out.

Photo by Jennifer Katzman/Shutterstock

This week, The Good Place star and self-proclaimed "feminist-in-progress" Jameela Jamil received a great deal of backlash for being cast as a guest judge on Legendary, a new voguing competition show to be aired on HBO Max.

Voguing is a style of dance that rose in popularity from the Harlem ballroom/drag culture between the '60s and '80s, and it's since become a crucial aspect of black and Latinx LGBTQ+ culture and history. Some participants of ballroom culture also belong to "houses"—or shared residences with friends who become more like chosen family members—as many of them have been alienated from their biological families. All of this is to say that voguing, as popularized by the Madonna hit song and documentaries like Paris is Burning,is much more nuanced than just a bunch of fun dance moves.

It's great that many of the hosts and judges of Legendary, like Jamil, are people of color, but critics were quick to point out that Jamil was presumably straight, thus unfit to serve as a judge. She countered these arguments by coming out as queer.

"Twitter is brutal. This is why I never officially came out as queer," Jamil wrote. "I kept it low because I was scared of the pain of being accused of performative bandwagon jumping, over something that caused me a lot of confusion, fear and turmoil when I was a kid...It's also scary as an actor to openly admit your sexuality, especially when you're already a brown female in your thirties."

Nobody, Jamil included, should ever be forced to come out–but accepting the role as a judge on Legendary without having publicized her queerness seems hypocritical. Last year, Jamil turned down a role to play a deaf character because, although she was born partially deaf, she has since regained her hearing. "It wouldn't be appropriate for me to take that role and they should find a brilliant deaf woman to play that role," Jamil explained. "I think you have to make those choices and not be too greedy and make space rather than take space...I don't want to be part of erasure."

Ballroom is an incredibly particular subculture of the LGBTQ+ community, and as Jamil even admitted in her statement, her being queer doesn't automatically qualify her for a judging position, because she's not a member of that specific community. Still, she took the job, despite being completely new to the ballroom scene; is that not erasure?

Hustlers star Trace Lysette, a trans woman who used to work as a dancer, shared her feelings about Jamil's casting on Twitter. "Lol.. I interviewed for this gig," Lysette wrote. "As the mother of a house for nearly a decade it's kind of mind blowing when ppl with no connection to our culture gets the gig. [sic] This is not shade towards Jameela, I love all that she stands for. If anything I question the decision makers."

In Jamil's defense, she's made respectful endeavors in promoting inclusivity and gender equality; her secondary Instagram account, @i_weigh, celebrates body positivity, and she spent much of her time in the public eye as a persistent LGBTQ+ ally before coming out herself. But as many users have observed, the timing and circumstances of her coming out feel, unfortunately, like queerbaiting.

Are queer people in hetero-presenting relationships, like Jamil, valid? Absolutely. Is it fair to gatekeep within the queer community, questioning whether or not somebody is "gay enough?" Absolutely not. But for Jamil, in her relentless pursuit of divine wokeness, to denounce erasure of marginalized voices only to end up doing just that? It's incredibly disappointing.


The Peloton Ad Is Actually the Realest Thing on TV Right Now

If anything, online fitness "journeys" are even eerier than the Peloton woman's.

Photo via: @amyhoy / Twitter:

By now you've probably seen the infamous ad in which a woman receives a Peloton bike for Christmas and then proceeds to make a video diary documenting her "fitness journey."

The ad disoriented Internet users across the board, many of whom called it sexist, critiqued the husband for gifting his already thin wife a Peloton bike, and noted the expression of absolute terror in the wife's eyes.

Let's get one thing straight: "The Gift That Gives Back" is very, very creepy. But the truth is, a lot of the critiques it received are missing the point. What makes the Peloton ad so eerie is the fact that it highlights the problematic cracks that characterize the majority of ads we see.

The Gift That Gives Back | Peloton Bike

Sexism, Weight Loss, and the Female Empowerment Hypocrisy

To refresh your memory, the Peloton ad begins on Christmas morning. In the first frames, the commercial's female protagonist enters the living room of her gorgeous home and sees that her husband has bought her a Peloton bike.

Many critics were horrified at the idea that a man would gift a woman an exercise bike without her asking, and many took issue with this because the woman is slim. Actually, these critiques miss several points.

Firstly, women are constantly sold the idea that they need to lose weight no matter what size they actually are. Capitalism has always profited off women's (and everyone's, really) dislike of their own bodies, and the fact that useless and dangerous diet products are still on the market—and are still being sold by people as influential as the Kardashians—is proof of this.

While people don't typically surprise their significant others with weight loss equipment, normally they don't have to. The desire to change and dislike one's body is already ingrained in most women's minds, tattooed there by advertisements and corporations that usually operate much more insidiously and subtly than the Peloton ad. Most of the time, societal expectations will have given women eating disorders long before their husbands buy them exercise bikes.

The argument that the husband in the commercial shouldn't have bought his wife a Peloton because she's slim is even more misguided. Why would it be more acceptable for a man to buy his fat wife a Peloton? Wouldn't that be even more critical and judgmental? Also, of course, slim people can be out of shape—and most in-shape people would probably appreciate having their own high-tech exercise bike. Needless to say, exercise is healthy for everyone's body and mind regardless of one's health and appearance. The idea that we should only be exercising to lose weight or to alter our appearances is a dangerous concept in and of itself, one that promotes unsustainable mindsets and unhealthy fatphobia.

f course the gender roles in the commercial are sexist and old-fashioned, but we can't blame the entire thing on the husband (and we definitely shouldn't blame the male actor, who recently spoke out in hopes that the commercial wouldn't hurt his chance at getting jobs). It's old news to say that men sometimes treat women like objects, and a little feminist ethos isn't going to scrape this out of our collective consciousness.Pinterest

Nowadays, ideas that subjugate and harm women are very easily packaged under the guise of feminism and empowerment, just as ideas that perpetuate damaging and capitalism-influenced perceptions about health have been packaged under the umbrella of"wellness."

If the woman had bought this Peloton with her own money, would that have made everything better? If she hadn't filmed herself and exposed her horror, would it have been better? If capitalism is disguised as empowerment, self-help, tradition. and freedom, does that make it okay?

When Bad Copywriting Meets Real Millennial Existential Horror

Many people took issue with the ad because of the weirdness of its plot, particularly its video-diary aspect. The female protagonist who receives the bike appears to film herself working out for an entire year, and then on the next Christmas Day, she gifts her husband with a compilation video in which she thanks him for the present.

According to Amy Hoy on Twitter, the ad's main issue isn't its sexism but rather its structure. The main thing that made the ad so awkward, she argues, was the fact that the woman in it seems to be speaking not to her husband, or to herself, but to us. "The scriptwriters actually wrote OUR PERSPECTIVE to be the husband's perspective," she writes. "All her work… is for us… We get turned into a character we didn't ask for, looking out at a world that isn't ours, being pandered to in a way that feels super gross." This voyeurism, because it's so disorienting, seems "gross because we feel gross because she made that scared face AT US."

This is true: The Peloton ad shatters the fourth wall. But isn't that disruption the goal of all advertisements, and of all stories in the end? When characters or bloggers interact with each other on screen or on Instagram livestreams, they're not doing it for themselves. They're blogging or speaking in order to reach someone and to communicate a story.

The problem is that when sales are the objective, stories fall apart and humans lose their humanity, consumed by algorithms and trends. Usually, we just can't see this as clearly––the people selling us products typically smile instead of staring out into the glowing ether of the screen with a look of raw terror in their eyes, making us feel implicated and guilty.

In my opinion, the fear in the Peloton woman's eyes is the most visibly disturbing aspect of the commercial. She really does look like someone is holding a gun to her head, and for good reason, because she appears to be living a dystopian existence. It makes sense that the ad has been compared to the Black Mirror episode "Fifteen Million Merits," in which people ride exercise bikes all day in order to earn a currency (and hope to win a spot out of their servitude via reality TV success).

All in all, the commercial takes the worst of the Instagrammer era, combines it with 1950s-style gender roles, and wraps it together with a bow of millennial anxiety and existential terror. No wonder the Peloton market value has tanked.

Undeniably, the whole thing is uncomfortable to watch. But... are this woman's actions so different from those of fitness bloggers and Instagrammers who constantly document their "fitness journeys," sell their personas as commodities, and pressure millions of followers into buying products they're commissioned to post about? If anything, online fitness "journeys" are even eerier than the Peloton woman's, because the latter are usually persuasive and relatable. They're designed to make you feel bad about yourself for not looking or feeling a certain way in order to sell impossible body images and wellness standards and, most insidiously, to perpetuate pre-existing power structures.

This isn't just a weight loss thing: It happens across the board, in fashion, in the arts, in everything where advertising is involved.

All media funded by someone trying to sell you something is going to attempt to convince you that what they offer will make your life better somehow. That's the golden rule of advertising, and the secret behind all human interaction, in a way. Normally, humans make each other feel loved by making each other feel seen and recognized and by helping each other grow. But advertisements and capitalism devour and distort these natural impulses, promising that we'll feel loved and happy and seen if and only if we buy this product or attain this artificial moniker of success or this level of wealth.

This brings us to the final and most important critique of the Peloton commercial.

Why Peloton: The Capitalist Critique

Despite whatever internal weirdness is going on between the Peloton husband and wife, the family in the Peloton video appear to be the epitome of privilege. They live in a beautiful, hyper-modern home, and the husband has the ability to purchase a $2,294 bike on a whim.

Many people have taken issue with the price of the bike, which is exorbitantly expensive. Then again, many gym memberships cost this much in a year, and Peloton has actually sold well with middle-class people who struggle to access gyms or wellness communities. And of course, for the owning and billionaire classes and for the one percent, this price is almost nothing.

Yet we don't complain when we see ads for much more expensive jewelry or homes or designer clothing. They slip by, fading into the background noise that hums at the edges of our lives, constantly whispering about everything that we are not but could be if we just worked a little harder and made a little more money.

So what about the Peloton commercial is so horrible that it managed to actually get under our skin? 2019 has already seen a lot of controversial ads that hit nerves for everything from racism to plagiarism. Why is this the ad that's suddenly awoken us? Are we just now realizing that maybe the rich shouldn't be allowed to have everything they have, and that a lot of capitalism is bullsh*t? That some people struggle to make ends meet every day, or find themselves tanked in debt because they got sick and didn't have health insurance, or were sold bad drugs by greedy corporations, or find their homes flooded because these same corporations paid to distort facts about climate change? That capitalism profits off our insecurities and selfish self-loathing by manufacturing these things?

I'm probably going a little too far for an analysis of a Peloton commercial. Obviously Peloton did not single-handedly invent capitalist systems of oppression. Plus, many of us have known this stuff for a while, and admittedly it's much easier to critique capitalism than actually take action against it—and action is certainly what we need.

Regardless, let's not think for a second that the Peloton ad is misrepresenting the way that women feel in this world, or the way the wealthy live, or the way that capital drives dangerous, bizarre, completely unnatural expectations and habits. The Peloton commercial isn't dystopian (or maybe we're just living the dystopia right now). It's probably one of the most raw and real things on TV right now, and if it's terrifying you, maybe it's time to ask yourself why.


Why Demi Lovato Is Embracing Body Acceptance, Not Body Positivity

She's joining Jameela Jamil and Taylor Swift in the movement.

Demi Lovato Opens Up About Her Eating Disorder

One year after being hospitalized for a drug overdose, Demi Lovato is speaking out about her year of growth and change.

In her first interview in over a year, the star—who has been open about her struggles with body image and eating disorders—stated that though she still struggles to love her body, she's working towards appreciating her health.

"We hear the term body positivity all the time. To be honest, I don't always feel positive about my body," she said. "Sometimes I do not like what I see. I don't sit there and dwell on it. I also don't lie to myself, used to look in the mirror if I was having a bad body image day and say 'I love my body, you're beautifully and wonderfully made.'" But it's not always that simple, she said.

"I don't have to lie to myself and tell myself I have an amazing body. All I have to say is 'I'm healthy.' In that statement, I express gratitude. I am grateful for my strength and things I can do with my body. I am saying I'm healthy and I accept the way my body is today without changing anything," she added.

Lovato's new ideas about body image reflect the concept of body neutrality, which contrast the message of the popular body positivity movement. Body positivity (of the sort that consists of repeating positive affirmations to yourself) can actually lead to higher levels of anxiety and guilt when you don't feel positive about your body. It can also result in the opposite of its purpose: more fixation on the body, leading to more self-scrutiny and more time and energy wasted.

In contrast, the body neutrality movement is based on appreciating what your body can do rather than what it looks like. Body neutrality or body acceptance is about embracing the fact that your body allows you to move, travel, touch, and dance. It's not about how the body looks, but rather how it feels.

In addition, some say that since body positivity is a storied movement dedicated to carving out spaces and ensuring rights for people who face discrimination or stigma due to their weight, body neutrality is more appropriate for people who are not overtly discriminated against due to their appearances. This is part of why Jameela Jamil is an outspoken advocate for the body neutrality movement as opposed to body positivity. "The [body positivity] movement is not for me," she said. "That movement was designed for women who are discriminated against, like in front of doctors and in our society, because of their size. That is a must-have movement for those people. I am slender, so I'm not discriminated against, because of my size."

Instead, the Good Place star focuses on putting her energy into things other than her body. "Getting on with my day and trying to utilize the minutes I used to spend thinking about food and calories, and cellulite, is how I skate around that to preserve my mental health," she said.

Ultimately, both body positivity and body neutrality are different ways of countering an obsession with weight, either because of your own stigma or society's stigma against it. Obsessing over your body—either by hating it or feeling guilty when you don't love it—is generally a tremendous waste of time, a misuse of energy that could be poured into literally anything else. It's also exactly what brands and other systems that profit off your self-hatred want you to do.

In the interview in which she opened up about her newfound body neutrality, Lovato also emphasized the fact that her journey is ongoing. "What a lot of people don't realize is that I'm actually an extremely sensitive person," Lovato said. "I am human, so be easy on me. And I'm so tired of pretending like I'm not human. That's one thing that I won't do anymore. When you say stuff, it affects me. I'm human."

That sounds like the end goal of the body positivity and body neutrality movements, which are ultimately about remembering that you're not only defined by how your body looks, but who you really are.


Instagram Bans Dieting Products (Thanks, Jameela Jamil)

Hopefully this is the start of a much larger movement.

Jameela Jamil National Institute for Reproductive Health's Champions of Choice Awards

Photo by Jennifer Katzman (Shutterstock)

Instagram just announced that it will block certain diet products and cosmetic surgery from being advertised to Instagram users under 18.

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