Weight Loss Drugs Thin Worship and Crash Diets The Unwelcome Return of Eating Disorder Culture
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Weight-Loss Drugs, Thin Worship, and Crash Diets: The Unwelcome Return of Eating Disorder Culture

There was much to feel optimistic as it seemed diet culture was dying and as the body positivity movement grew into body neutrality—and yet, well, here we are. However, writer Michelle Konstantinovsky argues that our whiplash back to the ’00s could teach us ways to make our next battle against the “thin at any cost” culture more effective.

Warning: This article includes discussion of eating disorders, weight-loss drugs, body image, and diet culture.

The Y2K renaissance is showing no signs of slowing and, while I’m in full support of bedazzled denim and the resurgence of Lindsay Lohan’s career, I can’t cosign what it’s resurrecting in terms of the normalization of disordered eating, thin worship, and a societal obsession with shrinking our bodies at any cost.

As a verified geriatric millennial (1984, thankyouverymuch), I feel qualified to speak on this topic with some authority. And as an eating disorder survivor who was first diagnosed with anorexia at what I consider the peak of societally sanctioned body terrorism, I can no longer ignore the looming threat of the twisted ’00s-era ethos creeping back in. When I wrote about the multitude of ways the early aughts seriously screwed up an entire generation’s perspective on food, fitness, weight, and more, I clung to a naive optimism that this sort of cultural psychosis could never return. After all, there seemed to be unprecedented upswing in body diversity across all forms of media, TikTokers were calling out the outdated almond mom mentality, and artists like Tove Lo, Jax, and Taylor Swift were courageously chronicling their own ED recoveries while admonishing the unforgiving standards they’d been held to.

But what I initially wrote off as anomalies of bad taste in our progressive new world of body diversity started becoming the norm—again. Kim Kardashian bragged about the extreme measures it took to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s dress for the 2022 Met Gala; the New York Post ran the sincerely sick headline “Bye-bye booty: heroin chic is back”; and buccal fat suddenly became the least desired asset of 2023. Taking the place of facial fullness, this year’s most coveted accessory seems to be Ozempic and its pharmaceutical brethren—diabetes drugs that have gone viral for their ability to act as weight-loss drugs by boosting insulin sensitivity and suppressing appetite. The return of cropped tops and ultra-ultra-low-rise jeans that seem specifically designed to hang from jutting hip bones just seems to add insult to reinjury as the skinny-by-any-means-necessary aesthetic is once again reigning supreme.

Maybe it’s because I already lived through this trauma once or because I’ve been working on a book proposal dissecting the myriad ways the ’00s-era normalization of disordered behaviors seriously effed up an entire generation, but this cultural backslide has me feeling exhausted. That’s the same word that Erin Parks, PhD, cofounder of Equip, uses to describe her fatigue at the current boomerang effect of this millennial brand of thin worship. The online recovery platform, who blog I’ve written for over the plast few years, currently provides evidence-based eating disorder treatment for patients between the ages of 6 and 24—the demographic most likely absorbing the majority of these warped messages. 

“Gen Z, the body neutrality movement…so many things had me feeling optimistic that we were finally seeing the tide turn on diet culture,” Parks says. “But while I’m deeply disappointed, perhaps this whiplash back to the ’90s and ’00s will teach us something that will make our next battle against diet culture more effective.”

The weird thing is, it felt as though we’d already won that battle. But then the body positivity movement that flourished through the 2010s started to be coopted and corporatized while being simultaneously (incorrectly and ignorantly) criticized as a “glamorization of obesity.” It feels as if we’re experiencing a slap-in-the-face backlash to the steps we’ve taken since the turn of the 21st century, and I’m starting to question if we ever really made progress at all. 

I asked model and self-proclaimed “CEO of confidence” Ella Halikas for her take. Halikas has found success in an industry that’s evolved enough to embrace a variety of body sizes but hasn’t evolved enough to resist categorizing certain sizes as “curvy” or “plus-sized”—a labeling system she has vocally opposed. With more than 840,000 followers on both TikTok and Instagram, she’s experienced the highs of our supposed cultural headway beyond thin worship, as well as the lows of persistent size discrimination (her TikTok about being denied entry to an LA club went viral last year). 

“Our culture has made significant strides regarding eating disorder awareness,” Halikas says. “But we need to focus more of our efforts on topics like Ozempic and drastic celebrity weight loss, as the amount of press coverage these topics are getting is incredibly dangerous to society.”

Halikas is right—the continued extolment of pursuing thinness at any cost is undoubtedly contributing to the rise in these illnesses, as much as fat-shaming concern trolls would have us believe it’s really for the sake of “health.” And while it’s important to remember that eating disorders are brain diseases—not vanity issues—that doesn’t mean that the backslide into ’00s territory won’t push those who are prone to these illnesses over the edge.

“This isn’t about fitting into a dress or looking a certain way for an event—these are life threatening brain disorders with the second-highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, and people need to take them seriously,” says Equip cofounder and CEO Kristina Saffran. “While the existence of Ozempic and celebrity headlines won’t cause eating disorders on their own, the climate they create makes it more likely that those who are vulnerable will develop them.”

But all of this is so familiar, I have to wonder if the ’00s are actually back, or if the toxic messaging of that era never really left at all. “Perhaps diet culture never retreated but just rebranded as ‘wellness,’” Parks says. “At least now we aren’t lying to ourselves that we’re eating kale because it's delicious. We’re doing these things to align with the cultural thin ideal.”

This increased transparency may be a side effect of the social media shift toward “authenticity” (typically portrayed in the glow of a ring light and through the pore-eliminating effect of a filter, of course). But unabashedly positing thinness as the ultimate goal, as Kardashian did during the Met Gala, reinforces the same tired trope that falsely equates a lean body with success, discipline, and yes, health. It’s no accident that every TikTok “wellness” trend (see: the “that girl” phenomenon) seems to center on slim influencers—and in some cases it can all feel like a thinly veiled version of the same thinspo content that thrived in the pro-ana Tumblr days. 

The problem is that despite all of our supposed growth and heightened awareness, we’re still conflating thinness with health and equating both to moral superiority—all of which is fatphobic, ableist, and, as writers like Chrissy King argue, inherently racist. “The pressure to fit Eurocentric standards of beauty and keep up with the ‘in’ body no matter the cost is being sold to us under the guise of ‘health’ instead of the reality of what it actually is: disordered behaviors,” says King, author of The Body Liberation Project. “More and more people are being drawn to taking prescription drugs for weight loss, but under the guise that weight loss is necessary to be healthy or that weight loss will fix disordered eating behaviors, which is simply not the case.” 

But given all the glaring similarities between ’00s-era diet culture and our current landscape, there are important distinctions that can actually empower us to end this cycle. Not only do we now have the language to talk about these issues frankly, but we have the public platforms to call out the bullshit when we see it. Social media coach and recovery advocate Nia Patterson regularly tackles issues like fatphobia and recovery—particularly in marginalized communities—on Instagram. Patterson believes that in order to short-circuit the perpetuation of the same disordered ideals, organizations and recovery leaders have to actually commit to enacting change—not just raising awareness. 

“It’s about taking actual action, passing legislation, getting people the information that they need—especially fat people—so they can advocate for themselves,” Patterson says. “We need to advocate for the most marginalized people. When we show up for the most marginalized people, everyone else gets affected. When we start at the root, that is how we make change.”

King agrees that in order to avoid the same trappings of old-school diet culture, we have to start recognizing and addressing the reality of who may be suffering as a result of these constant messages. “One thing that can help us all is individually unlearning our biases about eating disorders and who they affect,” she says. “So many of us have the idea that eating disorders only affect people in thin bodies, which is simply not true. It’s also helpful to have more candid conversations about what disordered eating behaviors actually look like. A person could appear healthy but actually be quite ill or dealing with extreme disordered eating behaviors.”

The only way we can really debunk the myths that abound about disordered eating and call out the damaging effects of diet culture is to use our voices—online and IRL. “Eating disorders exist and evolve on a spectrum. They don’t magically develop overnight,” says licensed marital and family therapist Alyssa Mass. “The less we talk about them and/or the more we sensationalize them, the worse they get.  I often lead school workshops on eating disorders for both parents and wellness teams, and I’m consistently surprised how engaged and grateful these circles are to have this conversation opened up and to feel armed with relevant and tangible ways to think and respond to red flags.”

Halikas believes that influencers, brands, and all media should all be responsible for stoking conversations about harmful weight-loss tactics and dismantling systemic biases that have turned bodies into trends. And in a very uncharacteristic move for someone who is, by all accounts, an influencer herself, she urges individuals to think critically about the images and messages that flood their feed and resist conforming without question. 

“We don’t have to change our bodies to feel worthy, and we don’t need to follow trends and celebrities,” she says. “There’s no winning when it comes to beauty standards, so just show up as you and know that you’re enough.”

Maybe there is hope here after all. Despite the déjà vu, the new proliferation of diet culture doesn’t have to mean an inevitable repetition of our previous missteps. We don’t have to keep repeating this pattern and internalizing the messages of thin worship, fatphobia, and normalized disordered behaviors. We can actually and actively choose to opt out and support organizations like Project Heal and Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association, which are both committed to promoting recovery for everyone. And maybe we pick and choose which pieces of the past to feel nostalgic about and which we refuse to resurrect. It’s up to you to choose for yourself, but I’m officially writing off appetite suppressants, crash diets, and “trending” body types as relics of the past. Bedazzled denim, pop punk, and LiLo, however, can all stay.

Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco–based journalist who has written for a number of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Shape, Teen Vogue, and O: The Oprah Magazine.