Will Weight-Loss Drugs Change Our Ideal Bodies?

5 min read

Elon Musk on X replying to a question about his weight loss

Source: X

by Heather Widdows, University of Warwick, and Jessica Sutherland, University of Birmingham

Discussion of new miracle weight-loss drugs are all over mainstream and social media. Ozempic and Wegovy (brand names for Semaglutide) are new types of weight-loss drugs which are becoming household names. They are in huge demand, and there are now reported shortages of supplies for the diabetes patients the drugs were designed to treat. Last month, Novo Nordisk, the Danish company which makes Wegovy, became Europe’s most valuable company, worth more than the rest of the Danish economy put together.

If feels like everyone is using these drugs, or at least everyone who can afford them and get their hands on them. In some places the drugs are only available to some; in the UK they must be prescribed by a doctor, and to qualify for their use as a weight-loss treatment, a patient must have a BMI of 35, or over 30 with a weight-related co-morbidity. But there are numerous stories of individuals acquiring the drugs online or finding other ways to obtain them; for example, a Channel 4 documentary showed just how easy it can be to obtain Ozempic via private clinics. Novo Nordisk has recently had to issue a warning about the risks of buying fake versions of Wegovy and Ozempic online.

These drugs work. They deliver the holy grail of beauty. They offer us thinness and without extraordinary (and impossible) levels of willpower. The drive to thinness is well-recognised, and thinness is one of the four features of the global beauty ideal, along with firmness, smoothness, and youth.1 Women of all ages want to be thinner more than they want almost anything else. A study of the appearance ideals of women in the U.S., Italy, England, and Australia reported high levels of internalisation of the thin ideal in all of the countries.2

Celebrity transformations are dramatic. Elon Musk admitted on X (formerly Twitter) to using Wegovy and is widely reported to have lost 30 pounds. And it has been rumoured, but denied, that Kim Kardashian used Wegovy to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy-Birthday-Mr-President” dress.

Assuming that these drugs continue to be relatively safe (side effects include dizziness, diarrhea, gassiness, sickness, and headaches), and that they gradually become available to everyone who wants them, isn’t this great news? Won’t this reduce the amount of body dissatisfaction and feelings of failure that most women feel for much of their lives, as they struggle to diet and exercise to maintain weight? After all, at any time over two-thirds of women and over half of men report wanting to lose weight.3 Yet losing weight the traditional way is hard: Diets generally don’t work, leaving us repeating the cycle of losing and gaining. For the first time, these drugs promise easy and sustained weight loss (at least while you remain on the drugs). What will this mean for how we value thinness? The truth is that we just don’t know.

There have recently been suggestions that the advent of these drugs will reverse the work we’ve done to make different body sizes acceptable. For example, a recent Guardian article describes the shame the author felt when a family member suggested she start using the drug, and Virginia Sole-Smith warns of a new “two-class system, a hierarchy of body sizes” fuelled by the notion that weight loss can be achieved either through willpower alone, or, now, by using a drug.

The concerns might be well-founded; only time will tell. But if they are, this brings into question the extent to which we really are embracing different body types. If we’d all choose to take the drugs, then how deep does our body positivity really go? Are such claims masking rather than addressing the extent of appearance discrimination? In earlier posts here, we’ve questioned whether body positivity is really as positive and diverse as it claims.

There are other possible futures. The widespread use of these drugs might mean that in time thinness becomes valued less. If this happens, then it’s possible that we might come to value differently sized bodies more. If anyone can be thin we might start valuing other features over thinness. Currently thinness is only one feature of the global beauty ideal and in recent years ‘thin with curves’ has become a dominant body ideal. Unlike thinness alone, thin with curves requires more than dieting; it also requires a huge amount of intervention in one form or another—either extreme exercise to build the right curves in the right places, or implants on an otherwise thin frame. Drugs might help us be thin, but they might not be the holy grail of beauty we imagine. For example, Sharon Osborne felt she’d lost too much weight taking the drugs. And Vogue has highlighted the risk of the gaunt and saggy ‘Ozempic Face.” One could of course fix the Ozempic face with yet more treatments, tweekments, and modifications. But the ideal we are chasing requires more than thinness.

The impact of these drugs is as yet uncertain. If thinness becomes easy to attain, we might desire it less. Alternatively it might become required – as other body-modification practices such as body hair removal, are required, therefore making us even less tolerant of those who are not thin. We simply don’t know. But we do know that in an world where appearance is a dominant value, it is likely that whatever we do or don’t do to our bodies, many of us will continue to feel that we need to do more.

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