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Ozempic and the commercial medicalisation of beauty

There is no doubt that beauty culture penetrates all aspects of contemporary society. According to a Mckinsey & Company report, in 2022, the beauty market generated approximately $430 billion in revenue, and is expected to reach approximately $580 billion by 2027. In 1849, it was a tiny industry worth $349,000 and was situated mostly in small chemists. So what is behind the economic growth? The medicine market increases with new scientific discoveries, but there is no obvious reason why the cosmetics industry should grow proportionally. The correlation between medicine and cosmetics is not an organic one, but rather a correlation manufactured by business and advertising agencies.

The modern narrative of beauty successfully blurs the line between beauty and medicine. Products such as ingestible supplements and makeup with probiotic and Ayurvedic ingredients are on the rise. Ozempic, and similar weight-loss drugs, fall in the dangerous grey area between beauty and medicine. The gradual purposeful blurring of the boundary between medicine and beauty by both the medical companies and advertising agencies, has catalysed an unprecedented commercial medicalisation of modern beauty.

In an article which mainly criticises the rise of Ozempic, it would be an oversight to ignore the drug’s original purpose and the countless benefits it can have if used correctly. Made up of the drug ‘semaglutide’, Ozempic is used along with diet and exercise to improve blood sugar (glucose) in adults with type 2 diabetes and to reduce the risk of major cardiovascular events such as heart attack, stroke, or death in adults with type 2 diabetes and known heart disease. The anti-obesity medication has been used since 2017 in the US and 2019 in the UK. A study conducted by researchers from University College London at the European Congress of Obesity found that Ozempic could reduce heart attack risk by 20%. According to the British Heart Foundation, about 7.6 million people in the UK are living with heart or circulatory disease. So, a certain segment of the population do indeed benefit from such a drug. However, the drug nowadays is far too often distributed to people who are neither overweight nor diabetic. Magazines and social media are packed with news of Hollywood stars and influencers’ post-Ozempic transformations.

It is hard to disregard the insane popularity of Ozempic. CNBC states that Novo Nordisk’s (Ozempic’s manufacturer) share price has more than quadrupled in the past five years. According to analytics firm Trilliant Health, in the last 3 months of 2022, US health-care providers wrote more than 9 million prescriptions for Ozempic, Wegovy and other diabetes and obesity drugs. However, it is extremely concerning to consider how easy it is to get hold of these repurposed diabetes drugs. WeightWatchers has started prescribing semaglutide via Zoom. Search up ‘ozempic’ on Google and your page is flooded with ads: ‘start.joinvoy.com’ and ‘numan.com’ list ‘Free Next Day Delivery-Weight Loss Pens’ while ‘Pharmacy2U’ boasts ‘Weight Loss Injections – No Appointment Needed’. This speaks to a society that capitalises on medical discoveries, even when they are unnecessary and harmful for some people. 

Beauty, for the first time, has gained an increased importance in the medical area. The consumption of cosmetic products in general has risen rapidly due to the global acceptance of capitalism and the subsequent rise of related advertising. In a floor-to-ceiling ad in the New York subway, the American telehealth company ‘Ro’ advertised the weight-loss medications as “a weekly shot to lose weight,” with the campaign showing individuals injecting the medication into their arms or stomachs. This speaks to the unethical and unsettling relationship that the US health industry has with advertising prescription drugs and bears an alarming resemblance to the way in which Purdue, through extreme marketing tactics and promotional videos, persuaded doctors to prescribe Oxycontin, in spite of its terrible side effects. 

In a way, modern advertising draws heavily on the concept of interpellation, proposed by French Structuralist Louis Althusser. This is the idea that individuals accept myths when they are conditioned to do so by society, to the extent that they believe the myths are their own ideas. In an advertising-driven world, the myth that unattainable beauty is possible ultimately drives the cosmetic industry.

The health industry, as it has often done before, is monetizing society’s need for weight loss. Professor Jason Halford (Head of the School of Psychology at the University of Leeds) states that it could be economically beneficial for the drug to be prescribed widely and would save great costs for the NHS. “You need to get your workforce as fit as possible”, Halford states. This ignores the many severe side effects of Ozempic. According to ‘ozempic.com’, common side effects of Ozempic include nausea, stomach pain, constipation, diarrhoea and vomiting. Ozempic can also cause “Possible thyroid tumours, including cancer…inflammation of pancreas (pancreatitis), changes in vision, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), kidney problems/failure, serious allergic reactions and gallbladder problems.”

Last November, a 32 year old woman fell seriously ill after using an unlicensed version of semaglutide from Instagram in order to lose weight for an event. She ended up in A&E vomiting blood. The BBC study found that the drug was also being offered in beauty salons in Manchester and Liverpool. Given these risks, what would drive healthy people to use Ozempic? Perhaps, Herbert Marcuse had a point in his theory of false consciousness as the imposition of ‘alien needs and alien possibilities’. Similar to Althusser, Marcuse argues that ‘false needs’ are rationalised as social requirements for public participation and these needs are socially reproduced to the extent that the individual may believe that the needs are their own. Thus, the media and advertising publications and beauty industry have formed a symbiotic relationship in which they both benefit from advertising products that people perhaps do not need.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, these ‘false needs’ are feminised. The increased publicity and use of Ozempic contributes to a detrimental feminine beauty myth, which exerts pressure on women to look a certain way. The use of Ozempic by celebrities and ‘influencers’ simply reinforces these standards especially on young and more vulnerable women. 

The point of this article is not to condemn the use of Ozempic, but rather to examine a world in which beauty is often indistinguishable from health, advertising from advice. As individuals, we must be wary of the way the beauty and advertising industries and society as a whole impose unattainable standards on us. 

We must advocate for a healthier and a more normative variety of body shapes and sizes in advertising. Rather than allowing our idea of women to be moulded by whatever is trending in society at that moment, we must form a realistic standard for women that is independent from current fashion.

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