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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Arwa Mahdawi

Oprah’s Ozempic brouhaha shows technology advances faster than attitudes

Oprah Winfrey presents the award for best actor during the 29th Critics Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California, in January.
Oprah Winfrey presents the award for best actor during the 29th Critics Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California, in January. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

You get Ozempic! You get Ozempic! Everybody gets Ozempic!

Big news in the weight-loss world this week: Oprah Winfrey is exiting WeightWatchers. The talkshow host has been the public face of the company for almost a decade but is stepping away from the board and donating all her shares to charity “to eliminate any perceived conflict of interest around her taking weight-loss medications”.

No prizes for guessing the weight-loss medications she’s talking about. Pretty much every celebrity and high net worth female (and a fair few men, including Elon Musk) seem to be injecting GLP-1 drugs. These drugs – the most famous of which is the diabetes medication Ozempic – stop you from feeling hungry and can result in dramatic weight loss. They’re seen as a no-effort way to slim down.

Winfrey’s move away from WeightWatchers isn’t just a professional transition – it marks a broader cultural shift. The dieting industry of yore is officially dead. As GLP-1 drugs like Ozempic explode in popularity, the idea of relying on will power to lose weight is becoming obsolete. So too is society’s short-lived flirtation with body positivity: thin is dangerously in again.

WeightWatchers, by the way, is well aware of all this. There’s a reason the company has been around for six decades: it has constantly shifted its positioning to try to reflect changing attitudes towards health and beauty. In 2018, amid the craze for wellness, for example, the company changed its name to WW and updated its mission to “Wellness that Works”. Now it’s moving away from wellness and leaning heavily into drugs, drugs, drugs. I’m not sure why Winfrey’s use of weight-loss drugs is framed as a “conflict of interest” considering WeightWatchers has gone all in on GLP-1 drugs. Last year the brand acquired a digital health company which allowed its members to get prescriptions to weight-loss medications and grandly announced that it had become a “digital health company”.

GLP-1 drugs are booming and will only become more popular. Still, while they may be widespread in celebrity circles, not everyone is shouting about their habit from the rooftops. There’s a certain coyness about taking the drugs because it is seen, to some degree, as “cheating”. Indeed Winfrey has previously said that she was initially wary about taking weight-loss drugs because it felt like an “easy way out”.

It’s silly, of course, to talk about “cheating” when it comes to weight loss. We all have different brains and bodies. Some people are more naturally prone to being thin than others – they have cheat-codes embedded in their DNA. But this sort of language, and the judgmental reaction to Winfrey’s GLP-1 use, does show how deeply weight is linked to morality in society. It lays bare the fact that we associate thinness with virtue. The fact that losing weight is now something you can easily take a drug for has the potential to massively disrupt this association.

“[This is a technology that will reorder society,” Paul Ford wrote in Wired last year in a piece about how Mounjaro (a similar drug to Ozempic) had changed his life. “I have been judged as greedy and weak since I was 10 years old – and now the sin is washed away. Baptism by injection.”

I’m not cheerleading GLP-1 drugs here, I should note. Far from it. They may be killing off one form of diet culture, but as the obsession with Winfrey’s recent weight loss shows, they’re simply ushering in another. Women are still very much judged by how much space they take up – technology is advancing a lot faster than our attitudes.

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•This article was amended on 5 March 2024 to remove an incorrect description of France’s move to enshrine abortion as a constitutional right as ‘a world-first’.

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