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Can Mainstream Media Stop with the Lady Mag Pieces About Ozempic.
At the very least, let’s stop pretending that this kind of coverage is Serious Journalism.
Content warning: We’re going to talk about anti-fatness, eating disorders, and weight loss drugs today. Take care of yourself and please click links with the utmost caution.
One day in 2004, when I was a wee editorial assistant at Seventeen Magazine, it was my job to call an eating disorder therapist quoted in a story we were running about bulimia to ask a few follow-up questions.1 I cannot remember the expert’s name, but I can remember the art for the story: A somber, but very blond, tan and thin model, standing inexplicably on a beach. (Where bulimics go to be sad, I guess?) And I can remember scrolling past said model’s face in the article layout as I looked for the spots my editor had marked TK, which in magazine speak means “to come.” Statistic TK. Better quote TK. More details TK. My job was to fill in the TKs.
I think it was when I started asking my source to help with the “more details TK” that she balked. “I know the goal of this story is to raise awareness,” she told me. “But if you include lots of details about what people with bulimia do, you might be teaching some of your readers how to have it.”
One goal of that story was to raise awareness. Another goal was to sell magazines. I found the details my editor wanted and filled in all the TKs. That therapist didn’t understand, I decided; getting all of these details was just good journalism. How can you raise awareness without good story telling?
Well, on the one hand, you can’t. On the other hand, you can be much more thoughtful about which details are absolutely necessary to tell a story, and which ones push it over into the kind of breathless, salacious journalism that cares some, but maybe not so much, about raising awareness and cares much more about how fast readers will text the link to a friend, or take to Twitter to say, “Can you fucking believe this shit!” During the 15 years I wrote for women’s magazines, I walked that line almost every day. Readers expected this. We were giving pages to women’s health and life issues that prestige media outlets edited by men didn’t give a shit about. But we were also trying to move issues on the newsstand. And that meant living with the perpetual paradox of “raising awareness” about bulimia in one feature, and teaching women how to get their best bikini bodies in the next.
Women’s magazines did (and do!2) a ton of truly great journalism, most of which got dismissed as fluffy lady mag stories every year at the industry awards ceremonies. But we also pushed that line as far as we could. I spent a lot of time cajoling sources into putting their names on stories about their most traumatic life experiences—eating disorders, but also rape, poverty, depression, you name it— because “good journalism” requires that transparency even though being a good human means protecting people from the further trauma of public scrutiny and humiliation.
As regular readers know, I ultimately decided that I couldn’t continue to find that line writing exclusively for women’s magazines and I expanded out, first into other mainstream media outlets. Where I discovered an absolutely identical set of ethics and standards. General interest magazines did less casting of stories (at lady mags, it was not at all uncommon to write about say, someone’s experience of stage 4 ovarian cancer, only to have your editor say, “Great but she’s too old for our reader. Can you find someone with this exact same experience between the ages of 23 and 35, and also ideally in a Midwestern city?”). But they also just wouldn’t run your piece if the sources didn’t look like their readers. Or if the story wasn’t aggressive enough to elicit the “can you fucking believe this shit” response.
Last week, New York Magazine ran a piece called “Life After Food?” which almost broke the Internet with the weight of the “can you fucking believe this shit” response. The piece traces the rise of Ozempic, one brand name for the diabetes medication semaglutide, to “status symbol” and recreational weight loss drug for, as author Matthew Schneier claims, most of Hollywood. Schneier’s piece is getting extra attention because it’s a cover, drops a lot of celebrity names and hints, and is over 5,000 words long. But: This isn’t the first time a prestige media outlet has covered weight loss in this kind of unexamined way.
The New York Times’ recent piece on Ozempic Face, takes a similar “can you believe what these rich people are doing, and don’t you maybe want to do it too” tone. So does this Wall Street Journal piece (see: “This is the Hollywood drug”). A lot of the almond mom coverage walks this line as well, leaving open the question that maybe counting out almonds is a perfectly reasonable piece of parental advice. Last year, I wrote about the cautionary tales of Vogue Mom and Fat Sam, which both included explicit details of disordered eating behaviors in the name of promoting discourse. And consider This American Life’s extremely uneven 2016 episode “Tell Me I’m Fat,” where insightful explorations of anti-fat bias by Roxane Gay and Lindy West are interspersed with Ira Glass’s awkward fat jokes and zero critical examination of Elna Baker’s story of diet drug dependence. (Rather than listening to the whole episode, just read Virgie Tovar’s breakdown of it.)
These pieces take a maybe-it’s-a-thing diet culture moment—any odd and slightly-to-very dangerous new tactic, which only a handful of rich people are doing—and make it, undeniably A Thing That People Are Doing Now. They frame headlines, decks, or nut grafs around questions — “Life after food?”—which leave open the possibility that maybe this isn’t that unreasonable. Maybe there is life after food.3 Maybe you can do this bananas weight loss thing safely.4 Authors of stories like these work up a few cursory paragraphs that dig into the harm of such practices, and then include a ton of hyper-detailed reporting of sources’ most extreme behaviors and eating habits, without any consideration of how dangerous that might be for vulnerable readers. Adding these paragraphs lets them check the "both sides" box, or even claim the piece is "investigative journalism." (Hint: If a diet brand's PR people aren't furious about the piece then you did not do investigative journalism.) These stories claim to take a critical eye towards whichever weight loss trend they dissect, but end up tacitly supporting the whole anti-fat premise. They never question the importance of weight loss. They never reject the thin ideal.
I know this because I wrote these stories for so long. And those pieces did harm. In her newsletter last week, Bethany Brookshire writes about the teen magazine story that lodged in her brain and contributed to her eating disorder, and sketches out just how much in common it has with the New York Magazine piece:
"Everyone told her how great she looked." That is one of the two things from that article that still rings in my head, decades later. She was ill. Possibly close to dying. But everyone told her how great she looked.
The other thing from that article I remembered was the detailed description of exactly what this beautiful girl ate every day at the height of her sickness. […] The article (I've looked for it a few times since, but this was before widespread internet mags and I've never found it) was in theory a cautionary tale about how some girls could take the new desire for super thin too far.
In reality? I took notes, and I know I am not alone.
But at least the lady mags that ran this and so many other eating disorder how-to stories soon sat wrinkled and forgotten in beauty parlors and doctor’s office waiting rooms. Nobody called our covers “iconic,” as folks are saying about the New York Magazine piece. Nobody considered our reporting brave or intrepid. When men write about diet trends, we imbue their reporting with a sense of importance because we assume they are somehow immune to the pressures of the thin ideal. We think they are objective critics of these trends, rather than participants. This isn’t true. Men are diet culture creators, perpetuators and victims. And mainstream media outlets run disproportionately by white men tend to have entrenched institutional anti-fat bias.
This isn’t to say that men can’t also do very good journalism about tough issues. I’m sure they can be just as good at it as women! But it’s maybe no accident that the two pieces that jump to mind as examples of doing better were… not written by men: I’m super grateful for Samhita Mukhopadhyay’s smart new essay in The Cut about her experiences on semaglutide, which takes a far more nuanced look at what the drug can and can’t do and more crucially, centers the story of a fat woman of color navigating our culture’s prolific anti-fatness along with her own health concerns. And Kate Siber’s New York Times Magazine piece last year on atypical anorexia is a master class in how to write about eating disorders without giving people eating disorders.
It can be done. But we do have to decide to do it. And prestige media outlets are, most of the time, making the same editorial choices they always have.
The piece had been written by a freelancer, but back in the days of $2/word, freelance writers were not only paid better, they also weren’t expected to do all of their own fact-checking and revisions. Instead, especially in women’s magazines, the piece was really owned by the editor, who usually had an underpaid EA to chase down better quotes or various missing details or sometimes to completely re-report the story if the editor-in-chief had a sudden vision about what it should be instead. This wasn’t a perfect system, to be clear! But it did teach assistants a lot of reporting skills and, in theory anyway, protect freelancers from assignment scope creep.
The two that are left!
For the love of God, THERE IS NOT. Humans need to eat.