They were lying all along

On the latest in weight loss drug coverage

Welcome to Team Trash, a newsletter about the places where humans and wildlife meet. I'm Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.

Yes. This newsletter is usually about human-wildlife conflict. Sometimes it's about writing (which resonated with a lot of you. Thank you so, so much for the lovely notes!). But it's my newsletter, and I'm not just a pile of raccoons in a trench coat. Though I am definitely a pile of raccoons in a trench coat.*

So today we're gonna talk about Wegovy. Ozempic. (And here is where I say: If you find weight loss stuff triggering, feel free to delete!)

Wegovy and Ozempics and the best-known brand names semaglutide, an injectable drug that stimulates the GLP-1 receptor, to do things like increase insulin levels, which increases blood sugar distribution. It was originally developed for treatment of type II diabetes, and I think we can all get behind that.

But it also, you see, causes weight loss. Most of the articles surrounding the approval of semaglutide for weight loss have focused on people who are in larger bodies. Some people hailed it as a game changer. But there's another, really dark read here. I'll refer you to the fabulous Aubrey Gordon, who was on Slate's The Waves, and spoke about this:

...All of this sort of talk about like, is this the solution to the obesity epidemic? Can we finally be rid of fat people? Is sort of the underlying message of all of that kind of stuff, Right? Can we finally stop having fat people around so I don’t have to look at them any more? Right? Like, great, cool. That feels good.

(Really, read/listen to anything Aubrey Gordon has to say on weight/diet/anything. She's so incredibly well-informed, thoughtful, and passionate.)

What I do want to talk about** is this recent article in The Cut/New York Magazine about these drugs. The article is called "Life after food?" and is a breathless set of blind items of actresses and professional women who are already thin, but realized that, with semaglutide...they could be THINNER.

Two things stuck out to me about this feature:

  1. It is triggering in the worst way to the right people.

  2. It shows just how many people have been lying all along.

Pressing the Trigger

Readers of women's magazines will quickly realize the form this article takes. We begin with a beautiful woman. She looks, in fact, even more beautiful than usual. What's her secret? Ozempic. She's dropping pounds effortlessly, smiling, and drinking some sort of coffee that I didn't even know existed.

What follows is nearly 5,000 words about the people using semaglutide to look better than ever. To not miss food. To feel great and get so many compliments. To feel slightly guilty about taking a life-saving drug away from actually sick people...but not guilty enough to stop.

For people with disordered eating, this article does more than trigger people's old feelings of shame and guilt, their old desires to feel the weirdly-pleasant pinch of self-denial. It doesn't tap those buttons, it smashes them like a monkey trying to play Mario Kart.

Why do I say it presses these triggers? Because I have them.

I've been in treatment for an eating disorder for the past few years (it's going pretty ok, thanks), and before I finally entered treatment, I was various types of ill for more than two decades. Articles like this helped me get there. (Obligatory note: These are my own experiences. I'm not everyone.)

This article in particular reminded me of nothing so much as an article I read when I was in high school in a teen mag. It could have been Seventeen. It could have been Cosmo or Shape. One of those. The story was about a girl suffering from anorexia, a beautiful girl with long, shiny hair (they always have long, shiny hair), but who wanted to be Too Thin Too Badly. She started skipping meals, she grew gaunt. Her periods stopped.

"Everyone told her how great she looked." That is one of the two things from that article that still rings in my head, decades later. She was ill. Possibly close to dying. But everyone told her how great she looked.

The other thing from that article I remembered was the detailed description of exactly what this beautiful girl ate every day at the height of her sickness. I specifically remember that she had half an apple for lunch. In my head, it's an apple sliced perfectly down the middle, a granny smith, tart white flesh with the bite to remind you just how much you're supposed to be suffering. No satisfaction to be found.

The article (I've looked for it a few times since, but this was before widespread internet mags and I've never found it) was in theory a cautionary tale about how some girls could take the new desire for super thin too far.

In reality? I took notes, and I know I am not alone. For years, I considered myself weak because I'd have grapefruit juice instead. Or (shudder) a whole apple. The careful details, the emphasis on how great she looked, all of this was a recipe to appeal to girls like me, who just wanted a little more control over their lives. To be a little less. To shove themselves into the tiny body that would constitute social acceptance, to prove they were enough.

This article is no different. Gasp! These women might be setting themselves up for health problems! Gasp! The side effects are awful! There's a vague gesture to how this is kind of a dark message, even quoting the same Aubrey Gordon interview I did.

But there it is. Right there at the very top.

When we meet up for coffee — she has an almond-milk cortado — in midtown, something’s different about her, but I’m not sure what. She looks like an Instagram version of herself but in real life.

Everyone told her how great she looked.

The instructions are also there, covered in a thin veneer of wide-eyed dismay. Details of cost, how to take it, where to get it. Sometimes, you are definitely taking the drug from people with actual life-threatening conditions who need it, and you might have to drive to pharmacies in Jersey, but if you call around enough...

And the boostering is loud. You'll never be hungry. You'll be "satisfied" with only one and a half meals. You'll stop caring about food all together. Risks and side effects? Minimized, and displayed as entirely "worth it."

“If they said it’s an increased chance of lung cancer, I wouldn’t take it,” she says. “I mean, this is so humiliating, but I’m like, Thyroid cancer’s not that bad?”

- "Anna"

The "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" of 2023.

Did I want it? You bet I did.***

They were lying all along

It's not just this article, though this is the most egregious version. The darkness is coming from all over the house, really. Ozempic was approved in 2017, but the excitement has been building far more since Wegovy was approved for weight loss in January 2021.

And the excitement is based in the idea that with these drugs, people won't have to be/see/pretend to approve of people in larger bodies anymore. They won't have veil their entirely culturally-instilled disgust of larger bodies with "I'm just concerned for your health." They won't have to weakly cheer for body positivity.

Who's they? Well, I've been dismayed to realize that they are often my colleagues and people in the medical establishment (ok, not surprised by the doctors). A few are posting in their newsletters how lovely it is to finally have a treatment for the devastating disease that it is to be fat. Others aren't stating their opinions...but the editors are asking for and approving, and reporters are writing, stories about how, finally, America's "weight problem" can be solved.

What happened to body positivity? What happened to accepting people as they are, recognizing that people in larger bodies have existed throughout history, and that stigma causes huge amounts of mental and physical harm?

Well, those were all when we didn't have an injectable solution for fatness, you see.

He argues that the drugs can be part of destigmatizing obesity by treating it like any other disease that you treat with medicine.

What better way to destigmatize fatness than get rid of fat people entirely?

People in larger bodies are not problems to be solved. They are not inherently diseased (in fact, the AMA declared obesity a disease over their own council's objections).

It truly upsets me to see how many people, especially people in media (who tend to be in smaller bodies!) were merely paying lip service. They will accept you. Until your inconvenient existence can be cured.

Interestingly, The Cut had another article from a contributor who is both in a larger body and also on a similar drug with a similar mechanism. This one was much more measured, and I especially appreciated this:

What these drugs can’t fix is what underlies the “obesity epidemic” — a culture that continues to hate fat people, a health-care system that incentivizes our weight loss over our actual well-being, and a food system that denies us access to whole, healthy foods.

The top feature, of course, is written by a man, which I assume is why pretty much none of this is interrogated. They list a bunch of people who delicately draped fake food in cobwebs for the images in the story, but no sensitivity readers, which really they should probably have thought about. Instead, they repurposed an article that could have been written in 1998 for 2023.

Everyone told her how great she looked.

Where have you been? 

Brain cleanse! Time for SEA TURTLE REHAB. So calm. So sweet. So many squid.

A great article on how we treat urban rats, and how many people apparently want to SEE pest control operators treat them badly. We get really bloody minded, really quickly. Very pleased to see experts like Bobby Corrigan, Jason Munshi-South and Michael Parsons quoted on the inner lives, and ethical issues, associated with keeping rats away from people.

If you like anti-racism and you like yarn, may I recommend Dr. MRO? Her Twitter feed is iconic, and she's dyeing and sometimes selling her own yarn!!!

Where have I been?

Watching nightmares. Seriously, I got to team up with Riley Black to be on the podcast It Came from the Monster Movie. Where we watched a true classic "Night of the Lepus." It was so bad it came all the way around to classic.

And a reminder that March Approacheth! I'll be talking at Harvard and people can come see it! Please do. :)

*This newsletter is also LATE and that's because I was actually doing some reporting for a DIFFERENT topic for the newsletter, and Mike won't get back to me. MIKE?! ANSWER YOUR EMAIL MIKE! Welcome to the life of a reporter, which is filled with loads of people who won't get back to you. I'll post that one sooner or later, it's super cool.

**I am not in a larger body, and so I don't feel it's my place to talk about how this drug impacts people in larger bodies. There are plenty of people in larger bodies talking about this, please listen to them. But when it comes to people in smaller bodies wanting to be even skinnier? I am on firm ground.

***Don't worry mom, I'm ok. I'm not getting this.