Ozempic. It has been hailed as a miracle drug, endlessly used as a Hollywood punchline, and has been the impetus for nearly $5 billion in sales for pharmaceutical companies in 2023 alone. Since its release in 2017, the injectable weight loss drug and others in its class have changed the landscape of chronic weight management drugs and have been marketed as safe and incredibly effective. But as newer weight-loss drugs hit the market, the popularity of drugs like Ozempic and the heightened discourse surrounding them highlighted a new problem: Ozempic shaming.
Much of the original debate surrounding Ozempic has evolved from the drugs original purpose: an adjunctive treatment for adults with type 2 diabetes. Ozempic, known as semaglutide, mimics the body’s GLP-1 hormone, which regulates sugar. But it also controls appetites and delays the stomach from emptying, making weight loss a common side effect. As of 2021, the need for the drug has created a one-month national shortage that is still ongoing. But even as Ozempics’ success led to the development and approval of GLP-1 drugs specifically for weight loss advances, the medical community celebrated the cultural conversation around the drugs in weight loss has become increasingly toxic.
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First, the popularity of Ozempics has sparked an online debate about whether those using Ozempic as a weight-loss drug are stealing the drug from diabetes patients. They are thieves, taking medicine that is not for them out of vanity. When other semaglutide options were approved for weight loss, users were accused of taking the easy way out. Tabloids spread rumors about dozens of celebrities who appeared to have lost weight, filling checkout aisles and timelines with before-and-after photos. Posting a photo online? You better hope you don’t look too different, or your comments might be flooded with people asking if you take Ozempic. Medicine has gone from something you drink to something you catch people drinking. And even today, with thousands of patients sharing that the drug has a positive effect on their health, people still don’t seem to stop making Ozempic users full of jokes. Creating stigmas around medical treatment is not only rude it’s dangerous.
But some people are pushing back against the Ozempics stigma. Earlier this month, New York Times bestselling author and Booker Prize finalist Brandon Taylor criticized the way society shames Ozempic users, highlighting how other drugs that are equally helpful, such as asthma inhalers or antidepressants, are not nearly as scorned. I don’t know if you realize this, but you’ve developed a really bad fatphobic idiom around ozempic that somehow lets you degrade people for getting it in a way that still calls them fat, he wrote in X. Really if someone looking for proof that fat people don’t win, is in the comments under any article about Ozempic, says culture writer Arianna Rebolini. Real Housewives star Emily Simpson told ABC News online commenters were more upset about her Ozempic prescription than her liposuction. And last week, media mogul and Weight Watchers spokesperson Oprah revealed the People that she was on medication for weight loss, and tired of being embarrassed about it. The fact that there is a medically approved prescription for weight management and staying healthy, in my life, feels like relief, like redemption, like a gift, and not something to hide behind and mock again, Oprah said. I am completely done with embarrassment from other people, and especially myself.
Most medical organizations agree that chronic weight gain is, at its core, a medical condition. Obesity can put patients at increased risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. But patients who are overweight more often struggle to receive accurate and helpful medical attention from doctors, often told to lose weight instead of examining underlying genetic or historical factors. Being fat is treated as a moral failing, a lapse in self-control, rather than an aspect of a person’s medical history. Although Ozempic shame is often couched in body positivity, the underlying belief system is one of hatred.
This does not mean that any criticism of medicine is harmful. Pharmaceutical companies make money when people use their products. As the Food and Drug Administration approves more weight loss drugs under fast-tracked processes, it’s important to make sure patients stay as safe as possible. The internet has also had a long and sordid history with body image as think thinfluencers on Instagram or TikToks continue to be a problem advertising dangerous crash diets to young women. And because Ozempics’ popularity is supported and driven by word of mouth and unregulated online communities, it often looks public about popular trends that can be dangerous. But what advocating for patient safety should not look like is public and pointed humiliation.
The stigma around Ozempic has created a fatphobic world taken to the cruelest, most painful. One where people interested in the weight loss drug are shamed for needing it in the first place and vilified if they decide to take it. It’s a dilemma that people can’t escape and shouldn’t have been put in the first place. As research and medical consensus about chronic weight management continue to develop, it’s important that our cultural conversations about new innovations don’t shame people who need them from seeking help. There is a way to start a dialogue about drugs and their side effects without shaming the people who benefit from them. Its high time we thought of that.
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