Ozempic: the TikTok famous weight loss drug sparking controversy

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Content warning: this article makes brief references to eating disorders and body image

TikTok is buzzing with talk about the new hot drug, Ozempic. It has bombarded the media and become intertwined with divisive discourse about pop culture and beauty standards. So what exactly is Ozempic, and why is everyone talking about it?

Ozempic is the brand name for the drug ‘Semaglutide’, developed as a medication to treat type 2 diabetes by the Danish pharmaceutical company, Nova Nordisk and approved for medical use by the US in 2017. Taken as a weekly injection, it regulates blood glucose and insulin levels and has proved a highly effective form of treatment.

However, there is another key side effect that has made Ozempic so famous: weight loss. In 2021, a clinical trial found the drug to have the largest weight loss effect ever observed among anti-obesity medications. This occurs due to the drug’s ability to suppress appetite hormones, slowing down the movement of food in the body and making people feel full for longer. Since this study, Nova Nordisk has licensed a version for weight loss called ‘Wegovy’ and global interest in the drug has soared.

Promotion of the drug has been particularly prominent amongst celebrities and social media sites, being hailed as a ‘miracle weight loss injection’. TikTok is flooded with videos of people showing off their Ozempic weight loss journey, proudly posting before and after body transformation pictures and tallying up the pounds they’ve lost.  Amy Schumer, Elon Musk, and Sharon Osbourne are amongst the list of influential figures who have talked openly about their experience taking the drug for weight loss purposes.

Proudly posting before and after body transformation pictures and tallying up the pounds they’ve lost

Although there are controversies surrounding the drug, many obese patients have had positive experiences using Ozempic, allowing them to lose weight and come off of medicine for blood pressure. The 2019 Health Survey for England estimated 28% of adults in the country were obese, meaning the drug could be a life-changing solution for millions of people facing health issues related to excess weight.

So where do the issues lie? Although Ozempic is a new drug, so its long-term effects aren’t clear, known side effects include intense vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea. The rapid weight loss caused by the drug also causes a loss of muscle mass, making people look older as their facial skin sags. Furthermore, a recent paper published in ‘Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism’ found that those taking the drug regained two-thirds of the weight they had lost in the first year after stopping the medication, causing issues surrounding ‘yo-yo’ dieting, which research has continuously shown to cause metabolic damage.

Despite the dangers of the drug, there has been an explosive trend of already physically healthy people taking Ozempic for the cosmetic purpose of achieving one ultimate goal, ‘thinness’. Throughout much of history, and particularly for women, the skinny body has dominated as the ideal beauty standard. Although in recent years we have seen a boom in the body-positivity movement, with a more inclusive range of bodies being represented and accepted in the cultural mainstream, it seems that the Ozempic trend is reversing this and once again hailing smaller bodies as superior. The key issue here is that due to both genetics and reasons of economic inequality, thinness is not accessible to everyone, and never will be. Therefore, the skinny ideal promotes unrealistic body standards that people have gone to extreme and unhealthy lengths to meet.

There has been an explosive trend of already physically healthy people taking Ozempic for the cosmetic purpose of achieving one ultimate goal, ‘thinness’

Young people are the most vulnerable to absorbing these harmful messages, with body image issues being most prominent among teenagers. The media’s worship of the skinny body comes hand in hand with a worrying climate of diet culture and eating disorders which have had detrimental effects on people’s relationship with food. Kate Moss’s infamous quote, ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’, represents the normalisation of disordered eating associated with the early 00’s aesthetic of ‘heroin chic’. Although a recent social media wave has started to call out fad diets and encourage proper nutrition and healthy eating in their place, the rise of Ozempic is showing cracks in this messaging, suggesting society’s idealisation of skinny has never really left.

The craze for Ozempic has become so extreme that there are ongoing global shortages of the drug, meaning those with type two diabetes are unable to access it. Novo Nordisk has reportedly reduced their promotion of Wegovy to ‘dampen demand’, however individuals are so desperate for the weight loss drug that they are resorting to using off-label Ozempic, causing a situation where demand surpasses supply.

In order to create a society with a healthier relationship with food, the harmful idealisation of smaller bodies that the Ozempic craze is contributing to needs to be addressed. By challenging media messaging and embracing that bodies come in different sizes, there is hope that we can prevent future battles for weight loss.

Image: Spjalle Frisk via Flickr

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