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.


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.


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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How Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump Profit Off Your Outrage

They both have 61 million followers on Twitter, but the parallels don't end there.

Donald Trump

Photo By Evan El-Amin/ Shutterstock

The Kardashians want you to be reading this article. So does Donald Trump.

If you're already struggling to breathe while wearing Kim's shapewear and/or have fallen so unconditionally in love with Trump that nothing he does could change your opinion of him, they're happy you're here. But they're especially happy if you're prickling with rage, or if you're preparing to share this on your news feed, along with an angry comment about racism or cultural appropriation.

They're happy you're here because they've both figured out something about the modern media landscape and its purportedly elusive algorithm: Trump and Kim Kardashian know that they can profit off your indignation. They make money, they dominate headlines, and they win elections off the knowledge that any and all coverage, no matter how scathing, will benefit their careers.

This week's Kardashian publicity ploy: Kim has released a new lingerie line called Kimono. This has sparked instant rage from Japan, as well as anyone who has remotely paid attention to a single headline or news report or tweet about the problems with cultural appropriation.

A kimono, of course, is a gown tied with a sash that has been worn by people in Japan for centuries. To appropriate a kimono when you don't belong to its culture of origins is bad enough, but to package it and sell it for profit is an even more despicable act. Kim and her team's actions are, far and away, much worse than those of the white girl who received widespread backlash for wearing a traditional Chinese cheongsam to her prom.

That act, though not excusable, was one 18-year-old's poorly thought-out decision. In contrast, Kim's brand had to be conceptualized, vetted, marketed, and handled by hundreds if not thousands of people. Many of these people are extremely intelligent and well-versed in the ways of media and the social world, including Mrs. Kardashian West herself. They knew what they were doing and went ahead and did it anyway, applying for trademarks for the name "Kimono" in the United States, as well as "Kimono Body," "Kimono Intimates," and "Kimono World."

It's insidious—and brilliant. If Kim had simply released an underwear line, maybe it would've sold well among its target demographic; perhaps it would've provoked a few tweets from Jameela Jamil about the body-shaming nature of shapewear clothing. But now, because of this controversy, everyone with an Internet connection knows that Kim has released a new product. Everyone's sharing it, reading it, spreading it around like it's the plague in 14th century England (or its 21st century equivalent: the meme)—and so now it will reach people who might otherwise not have cared but who will now roll their eyes and say something about special snowflakes. Ideally, they'll buy the Kimono line out of spite and wear it as a kind of twisted testament to their all-American brand of kommodified, kolonialist, kapitalist freedom.

This marketing strategy is actually quite similar to the tactics used by the Trump campaign in 2016, tactics that the president will continue to use as he launches his campaign for 2020. It goes without saying that Trump's brand runs on a steady diet of outrage. It works: Studies have shown that negative press coverage helped elect Trump and has helped normalize him throughout his reign. In addition, the media's obsession with his personal controversies has distracted people's attention from natural and political disasters, as well as, god forbid, actual policy reform.

Donald Trump has built an empire by being more of a cultural icon than a politician, providing more personal drama and generating more rabid media coverage than arguably any Hollywood movie star ever has. His ammunition is controversy: His end goal is the spotlight, at any cost.

He shares this with the Kardashians, who have been open about their addiction to any kind of media attention. In 2015, Kim toldRolling Stone, "We'd go anywhere and everywhere just to be seen. We knew exactly where to go, where to be seen, how to have something written about you."

For journalists and people against bigotry, hate, and abuse of power in general, this presents an infinite loop. To remain silent would be to ignore atrocity, yet providing more negative coverage fuels the fire. In short, we are running in circles.

So here's another article about the Kardashians and Trump, to be sent out into the labyrinth of the Internet, where it will join the ranks of millions of thinkpieces that burned brightly for a moment, perhaps sparked a flicker of contempt or conversation, and fizzled out to rest in the graves where all thinkpieces older than one week go to die. They'll be covered up by more outrage, more controversy. Fresh cuts will open elsewhere, distracting everyone from the wounds at hands. In the end, we'll all be left with the scars.

Change, if it's possible, will only occur when we open our eyes and see that we are building the walls of our own cage. Perhaps if we realize that we are being played by the same game, we could begin to dismantle this relentless carousel by forgoing brief flares of outrage for critical inquiry and ongoing protests against systemic issues.


How Influencers Are Harming You: Kylie Jenner and Toxic Beauty Products

Criticism that Kylie Jenner's new "walnut face scrub" is unsafe only points to a symptom of the wider problem of social media influencers becoming mouthpieces for companies who don't care about consumer safety.

Kylie Jenner


Another member of the Kardashian-Jenner clan is promoting a dangerous beauty product.

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