clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The year of Ozempic bodies and Barbie Botox

Corporate feminism will not save us.

An illustration shows a box of Ozempic with Barbie branding emerging from a cloud with sparkles. Madison Ketcham for Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The buzzy new drug Ozempic was designed in a lab to treat diabetes, but sometimes it seems like it was also designed in a lab to spark bad-faith corporate conversations about body positivity. Ozempic and its generic name, semaglutide, are such provocations: After years of brands selling feel-good taglines about how all bodies are beautiful, the arrival on the scene of apparently effective weight loss drugs is calling a lot of bluffs. Breathless headlines report that, once again, thin is in. Our cultural ambivalence toward a politics of body acceptance has been thrown into sharp relief.

“We’ve paid lip service to body acceptance, we’ve go-girl-ed larger women, we’ve celebrated curves, we’ve recognized the gargantuan societal factors in how people look, we quote-unquote did the work,” observed Vogue in March. “But now with Ozempic, being overweight can instantly (if expensively) be fixed. Larger people can swiftly transition to a more societally acceptable size. Ozempic is a miracle drug, a cure for the fatness we’ve begrudgingly forced ourselves to accept.”

I’ve come to think that we can see the same political ambivalence playing out in one of the other biggest conversation starters of this year: Barbie, the hot pink feminist movie/doll commercial.

“Things can be both/and. I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing,” director Greta Gerwig told the New York Times. Was such subversion really possible when it comes to Barbie and feminism? Was it possible when Mattel was, after all, funding Gerwig’s supposedly subversive picture in order to sell a lot of dolls and accompanying merch? That was the sticking point, the selling, how much the movie was an exquisitely made, lovingly ambivalent and tender commercial for Barbie and all that she stands for.

“So, what are those bevies of pink-bedecked filmgoing females supposed to make of all this?” asked the Guardian, rhetorically, in a pan of Barbie. “They will see seductive but dubious stereotypes embellished rather than subverted. Muddled messaging may dispel rather than stimulate any impulse to crusade. … A clear call to action does in the end emerge: go forth and buy the products of the film’s sponsor, Mattel, and its galaxy of commercial partners.”

Barbie was a movie about how everyone was beautiful and Barbie herself owed us all an apology for ever making us think otherwise. At the same time, it was being used to sell so much. How could we reconcile those two ideas?

The conversations about Barbie and Ozempic are mirror images of each other. They are about what happens when a moment that is ostensibly about teaching women to love their bodies bumps up against the enormous amount of money there is to be made by selling women stuff that teaches them to hate their bodies. They are testaments to the failures of the past decade of mainstream neoliberal feminism.

“I’m not Stereotypical Barbie pretty.”

In early commercials for the doll, Barbie was always “Barbie, beautiful Barbie.” Yet Barbie the movie has a vexed relationship with Barbie’s beauty. Barbie’s beauty is, within the realm of this movie, a political force, a power, a weapon. Like all weapons, it has dark sides.

“I’m not pretty anymore. … I’m not Stereotypical Barbie pretty,” Barbie weeps at one point in the film. Dryly, the narrator cuts in: “Note to the filmmakers: Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.”

Robbie’s Barbie is pointedly named Stereotypical Barbie because she so embodies the beauty standard Barbie is beloved and vilified for: big blonde hair, tanned European skin and perky European features, blue eyes, impossibly tall and impossibly buxom. Since Barbie’s origin in the 1950s, Mattel has added new dolls to the line with different skin tones and hair textures and body types, but Stereotypical Barbie is the one we’re generally talking about when we say Barbie.

Robbie, even while lamenting that she isn’t pretty, comes closer to embodying the Stereotypical Barbie ideal than most human beings can. Yet even Robbie’s Barbie isn’t completely faithful. That’s because Barbie’s proportions are not human: A proportional human-size Barbie would not be able to walk upright or support her head on her neck. This fact, Gerwig told the New York Times, “always stuck with me,” but it doesn’t make an appearance in Gerwig’s film.

Instead, Barbie enjoys celebrating Barbie’s beauty. The camera pans luxuriously over her gleaming blonde hair, her brilliant smile, her kicky wardrobe. Watching the movie, we like her, and we like her because she is beautiful. The part of a Barbie doll’s beauty that is grotesque, that is physically impossible, has been neatly excised from the record.

Yet Barbie the movie is also aware that Barbie’s particular brand of beauty is, let us say, politically problematic.

“You represent everything wrong with our culture,” a Gen Z cynic tells Barbie. “Sexualized capitalism, unrealistic physical ideals.” Then she calls Barbie a fascist, and the camera closes in on Barbie’s shocked, weeping face.

Barbie’s beauty is also, crucially, a vulnerability. When Barbie leaves Barbieland for the real world, she finds herself objectified by men for the first time, and her implausibly perfect beauty only accentuates and amplifies that objectification. It “very much has an undertone of violence,” Barbie realizes with mounting horror.

Gerwig sees Barbie’s plastic and objectifiable beauty as one half of a binary. On the other side is the beauty of Barbie’s humanity, which she realizes after Gloria — the human woman who plays with her — makes the connection for her. “It is literally impossible to be a woman,” Gloria says. “You are so beautiful and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough.”

That moment is the twin to the scene that lies at the heart of the film, when Barbie, in the midst of an existential crisis in the real world, sees an old woman waiting at a bus stop. “You’re beautiful,” Barbie tells the woman. “I know it,” the woman replies.

These two moments are the utopian vision of Barbie, the redemption of all the harm her beauty caused us and the repudiation of all the harm her beauty makes her vulnerable to. Beauty in its truest form in this movie is the strength and humanity of individual women, and we affirm life when we are able to recognize that humanity in one another, in everyone from Margot Robbie to old ladies catching the bus. Beauty only becomes sinister, here, when it is used by men to exploit little girls.

If that’s the message of Barbie as a work of art, it becomes harder to square with the message of Barbie as a commercial property meant to sell dolls and their merch. Mattel used Barbie as an opportunity to score over 100 licensing deals, including many, many skin care and makeup products that exist to teach women to correct all the so-called physical flaws that Barbie doesn’t have.

Writes beauty critic Jessica DeFino:

Barbie profits from both the feel-good performance of embracing cellulite and wrinkles and the practical tools of erasing them. … Accept your imperfections! it yells in its make-believe world. Now reject them! it counters in the real one. Meditate on death! the production proposes. Obliterate all superficial signs of mortality! its products argue. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t have to — in the hands of Barbie’s marketing department, viewers are but Barbie dolls, products being smashed into products.

Off-brand, there’s Barbie Botox, a trend Mattel hasn’t licensed and isn’t profiting from but is sold in Barbie’s name nonetheless. It’s a procedure where you inject your trapezius muscle with Botox to slim and elongate the neck, recreating the anatomically impossible Barbie neck that so haunted Gerwig. It took off as a trend on TikTok in August, shortly after the movie came out, and currently the hashtag has 17.5 million views.

If Barbie the movie wants you to embrace the old woman at the bus stop, lots of women watched it and came away with the desire to inject Botox into their shoulders until their muscles shrank away; to bleach and wax and tone until they, too, were Stereotypical Barbie.

The Kardashians, never ones to miss a body modification trend, are right there with the rest of the Barbiecore.

“Kim dropped twenty-one pounds before the Met Gala, where she wore a dress made famous by Marilyn Monroe,” reported the New Yorker in March. “Khloé, who has spoken in the past about struggling with her weight, posted fortieth-birthday photos in which she looked as slim and blond as a Barbie.”

Which brings us to the Ozempic in the room.

“You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.”

Ozempic is one of the brand names for the drug semaglutide, which was approved as a diabetes drug in the US in 2017. Semaglutide is said to be remarkably effective as a diabetes treatment, but it became famous for one of its side effects: It is very, very good at making people lose weight. Hollywood, ostensibly an industry that now embraces the human body in all its many sizes and complexities, sat up and took notice.

Last September, Variety reported that Ozempic has “saturated the industry” of show business. Movie glamour still has its cachet. “The buy-in of Hollywood,” said New York magazine in February, “took Ozempic from medicine to status symbol.” Now, semaglutide has been approved for use as a weight loss drug under the brand name Wegovy, although it is generally not covered by insurance.

Popular culture has answered Ozempic’s presence with exquisite responsiveness. Plus-size models vanished from the runways. “Bye-bye booty: Heroin chic is back,” announced the New York Post.

The famously curvy Kardashians have shrunk. Adele lost weight. Mindy Kaling lost weight. None of them admitted to using weight loss drugs, with the coyness characteristic of our current Ozempic moment: It’s important right now that women should get skinny, but they should get skinny the right way. (“I’ve tried really hard to let go of this idea of losing weight for vanity reasons and really trying to think of how I can be healthy,” Kaling told People of her weight loss.) If a famous woman admits to using an injection to be thin, her thinness is no longer aspirational.

That’s part of the Ozempic effect. Now that it is theoretically possible for anyone who can afford the out-of-pocket costs to get skinny, all the invisible contradictions of our culture’s body politics are suddenly, blindingly clear: To have a good body, our culture tells us, is to have a thin body. There are bad ways and good ways of getting a thin body. Is there any good way to have a fat body?

Just 18 months ago, these ideas were not quite as visible in mainstream discourse as they are now.

“There was just this era — I want to say, like, 2017 to 2020 — where it was seen as gauche to be, like, I’m on a diet,” observed science writer Olga Khazan on the podcast Radio Atlantic in September. “People stopped dieting. You know, the CEO of Weight Watchers around that time was like, Healthy is the new skinny.”

Healthy was, of course, a euphemism for skinny, but the right kind of skinny. Skinny at the waist, thicker at the butt and breast. That was the look women were supposed to aim for, and it was ostensibly an upgrade from the heroin chic ideal of the 1990s, a sign of how far our culture had progressed. Whatever ideal a woman was aiming for, she couldn’t, as Gerwig notes in Barbie, say so.

“You have to be thin but not too thin, and you can never say you want to be thin,” Gerwig’s Gloria says. “You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.”

Now, Khazan reported on Radio Atlantic, you can just say you want to be thin. And while Khazan argued it was important to maintain the gains of the body positivity movement and not “shame people who are obese or make them feel fat or lazy or somehow ‘less than,’ just because they’re obese,” she also noted that Ozempic put a new asterisk next to their size.

“I do think that this era of semaglutide puts a new focus on the fact that if you’re, you know, severely overweight or obese, there is something you can do about that,” Khazan mused.

There are any number of reasons a person might choose not to go on Ozempic. Right now, it’s not covered by insurers for weight loss, and the out-of-pocket costs are expensive. It is currently in such high demand for weight loss that people who need it to treat their diabetes are having trouble accessing it. Taking it messes with digestive health, and the accompanying side effects can be severe. Some people lose so much of their appetite on Ozempic they experience malnutrition. Plus, if you go off the drug, the weight you lost will come back. That means if you want the weight to stay off, you have to stay on this drug for your whole life, and since it’s a new medication, we don’t know what its long-term use really looks like or what health risks come with it.

All the same, if there is “something you can do about” your weight, choosing to not do something about your weight, for whatever the reason, becomes something our culture will look at askance. People understand this shift instinctively, especially fat people.

On NPR, general practitioner Mara Gordon talked about a patient who begged her for an Ozempic prescription, weeping. The patient was overweight according to the BMI chart, but she was still metabolically healthy. The patient “had tried for years to make peace with her bigger body, but said she was sick of fighting for body acceptance,” Gordon writes. “Even though her blood pressure and blood sugar levels were well-controlled, she was ground down by the fatphobia she experienced every day. She wanted Ozempic.”

Talking to Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker, plastic surgeon Jonathan Kaplan said he thinks Ozempic use is going to tick up among fat people soon — specifically, Tolentino writes, “fat people who had been struggling with discomfort, with inconvenience, with social pressure all their lives, who might have lately felt encouraged to try to accept their heavier weight.” Now, says Kaplan, “They’re no longer going to accept that they should just be happy with the body they have.”

Ozempic seems to give our body-fascist culture permission to say the quiet part out loud, the quiet things we whisper to one another when we sell Barbie merch: Your body is not enough, you should hate your body, you can fix your body only by suffering and injecting and sacrificing money for its eternal maintenance. Those ideas were supposed to be on their way out of the culture by now. Ozempic and Barbie make it clear that they’re just as strong as ever.

“WE demand equal rights for fat people in all aspects of life”

Body positivity as we know it comes from the fat rights movement, and the fat rights movement is one of political action and solidarity.

The fat rights movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an outgrowth of the civil rights and feminist movements. It is rooted in a simple and radical idea: Fat people are full human beings who should be treated with full human dignity.

“WE see our struggle as allied with the struggles of other oppressed groups against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, financial exploitation, imperialism and the like,” declared the 1970 Fat Liberation Manifesto. “WE demand equal rights for fat people in all aspects of life, as promised in the Constitution of the United States. We demand equal access to goods and services in the public domain, and an end to discrimination against us in the areas of employment, education, public facilities and health services.”

Fat activists hosted sit-ins in Central Park and mounted letter-writing campaigns. They picketed the White House and gyms that had fatphobic ad campaigns. This was a movement not of feel-good buzzwords about self-love but of political action, with a concrete agenda and demands to be made of those in power.

One of those demands was specifically about Barbie. It was in the context of an active and radical fat rights movement that feminists picketed the 1972 Toy Fair, singling out Barbie as a tool that teaches little girls to see themselves solely as sex objects.

In the internet era, fat activism birthed body positivity, a movement focused on unapologetic love for one’s body. At first, body positivity specifically meant love for one’s fat body, but over time, it expanded to mean self-love for all, no matter what their bodies look like. The change was inclusive, but it came with downsides.

“Many of the most popular Body Positivity role models only have ‘imperfect’ bodies when they take off their clothes and draw arrows pointing to their imperfections,” writes National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance chair Tigress Osborn for the BBC. “Visibly fat influencers — those who are undeniably fat no matter what they’re wearing — also have their own followings, but they deal with more harassment, more account bans, and more pushback for ‘glorifying obesity.’”

As body positivity became a hashtag that white cisgender straight-size women post under their unretouched bikini pictures, the marginalized bodies that fat activism promised to support drifted to the sidelines of the movement. Meanwhile, the idea of body positivity became a useful cover for corporations that wanted a fashionable veneer of feminism over their products without having to make meaningful structural changes to their work that might affect the bottom line. All you have to do, really, is hire more plus-size models, as long as they have classic hourglass figures rather than big stomachs.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie exists because of the same neoliberal logic. Mattel hired a beloved feminist director to make Barbie because they wanted to borrow Gerwig’s feminist credentials to make their product more enticing. As Moira Donegan mused in The Nation, “In a sense, this cold market calculation reveals some unambiguously good news for American feminism: Mattel is telling us, with capitalism’s cruel honesty, that it doesn’t think a rigidly sexist Barbie can make a profit anymore. People — women — want something different.”

The good news it reveals for corporations: You can still sell your anatomically impossible Barbie dolls, your Barbie cosmetics, your Barbie Botox. You can pretend that it’s different from the old Barbie dolls, the old makeup, the old Botox, but you don’t actually have to change anything.

Body positivity and self-love are valuable, especially within a culture that hates you and your body. Embracing body positivity is nevertheless not the same thing as, for instance, advocating for laws against firing people for the size of their bodies, or to make American health care less reliant on the unreliable and unscientific BMI scale as a metric.

Part of what the Ozempic moment makes clear is how easily corporations and influencers and tastemakers can reverse the shallow, superficial celebration of feminism and body positivity that has become so popular over the past decade. If our only responsibility to one another is to make sure that we love our own bodies, then why not champion a brand new diet drug whose long-term side effects are unknown? Why not humiliate those who don’t take it? Why not tell children to take it, too?

“Anything can be done in the name of self-love, and the selves that society loves have the power to cause harm without reproach,” writes body positivity influencer Catherine Mhloyi for Time. “Dangerous diets and surgeries are bought and sold in pursuit of self-love. … The reason why it’s so easy for people to hop on the Ozempic train is that the mainstream commodification of the body-positive movement is as flavorless and diluted as the low-fat diet regimens of yesteryear.”

Ozempic shows us why we cannot trust this corporate feminism: It is a feminism of aesthetics and individualism and commercial opportunism, not of political commitment. As soon as the cruel honesty of capitalism tells Mattel that it’s in their best interest to do so, they’ll leave feminist Barbie behind, the same way they abandoned the plus-size models and the body positive photoshoots. They’ll start telling us once again, the way they always used to, that the old woman at the bus stop isn’t beautiful. They’ll tell us she’s a loser instead.


Your guide to the 2024 Oscars


Why all the internet’s boyfriends are Irish


Do 1 in 5 Americans really believe Taylor Swift is in cahoots with Biden?

View all stories in Culture

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.