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Why it matters that weight loss drugs are one of Oprah Winfrey's new favorite things

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Pan Media Agency/Getty Images, Getty Images (2)

What’s happening

Oprah Winfrey hosted a new TV special earlier this month in which she shared her personal experiences with new weight loss drugs and discussed how the revolutionary new medications have changed the lives of people struggling with obesity.

Over the course of her career, Winfrey’s honesty about her own challenges with weight made her something of an avatar for the nation’s broader struggles with diet, health and beauty. For a time, tracking her weight became, in her words, a “national sport.” After spending decades chronicling the latest fad diets, wellness plans and weight loss innovations on her megahit daytime show, it was all but inevitable that she would give her opinion on the emergence of drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy.

It’s difficult to overstate how much these new medications, known as GLP-1 agonists, have changed the conversation around weight in their short time on the market. Though there’s been strong pushback to certain predictions that they might end obesity, the drugs have shown to consistently provide significant — sometimes dramatic — weight loss in ways that diets and exercise plans do not.

Winfrey acknowledged taking a weight loss drug, without specifying which one, late last year despite having said she viewed the injectable drugs as “the easy way out” for weight loss. She was also a member of the board of directors at WeightWatchers when the company opted to begin offering the drugs as a potential supplement to its long-standing weight loss programs. She recently stepped down from that position to avoid any “perceived conflict of interest” around her decision to host the special.

During the show, Winfrey spoke of the “shame” she felt for years because of the false belief that her weight struggles were caused by her own shortcomings.

“All these years, I thought all of the people who never had to diet were just using their willpower and they were, for some reason, stronger than me,” she said. She added that, thanks to these new drugs, “there is now a sense of hope.”

Why there’s debate

Winfrey has been such an important voice in the discussion about weight for so long that her endorsement of drugs like Ozempic is bound to shift the conversation.

Some commentators said the special’s core message, that struggling with weight is a matter of personal biology, not a lack of commitment, could really resonate with a whole generation of people who have been stuck in the same failed dieting cycles as Winfrey through the years. They believe that the deep connection between Winfrey and her audience could also inspire people to consider trying the drugs for the first time after seeing her success.

But others said the special came off as more of an infomercial for Big Pharma than a true discussion of the complex issues that underlie the emergence of GLP-1 agonists. They argue that Winfrey glossed over important facts about the limitations and potential risks of the drugs while completely ignoring the primary barriers that prevent people from accessing them: high costs and lack of insurance coverage.

The harshest critics believe that Winfrey’s embrace of weight loss drugs only serves to solidify our culture’s widespread bias against overweight people. In their eyes, she should be using her enormous power to help end weight-based stigma and combat misconceptions about the correlation between weight and health, rather than celebrating that she finally found a way to satisfy society’s harmful beauty standards.

Perspectives

Her experiences resonate deeply with so many others

“Oprah is conceding an uncomfortable truth: Diets rarely work. It doesn’t matter how much grit or willpower you have or how hard you’re willing to work, the weight comes back; it nearly always does. If Oprah’s army of chefs and trainers couldn’t transform her into a size 6 without drugs, then maybe it’s time to question the tired American (diet) dream that hard work = success and redefine success altogether.” — Adrienne Bitar, CNN

Her honesty, as always, is commendable

“As Winfrey herself explained last year of her regimen: ‘It’s not one thing. It’s everything.’ Let’s respect Winfrey for finally finding that ‘everything’ and being frank about her weight-loss journey.” — Charles Passy, MarketWatch

She should be battling to end weight stigma, not celebrating a new way to dodge it

“She doesn’t stop to ask if maybe fat phobia is the problem, not fat people.” — Mara Gordon, NPR

Her special felt like a love letter to Big Pharma

“Winfrey could have acknowledged the inequities around who can and cannot afford these drugs and their cost to the healthcare system, and asked what that will mean for evolving attitudes around shame and stigma about weight — the very issues that she claims to want to dismantle. But instead, she moved right on without using her platform to forcefully challenge the drugmakers on price, and then let her obesity expert guests (who had myriad industry conflicts) and even the drug makers themselves have the last word.” — Lisa Jarvis, Bloomberg

It’s not her job to defeat anti-fat bias all by herself

“I have a weird need for Oprah to be happy, because it feels like our happiness is intertwined. People like us will never relinquish the desire to be thin. ... I didn’t create this system, I’m just trying to live within it. Like Oprah, I’m not going to be shamed for my desire to be thin.” — Kristine Lloyd, Salon

She should be commended for not acting as if these drugs are a miracle cure

“There aren’t simple answers here. But Winfrey’s wise words — that the availability of this medication feels ‘like redemption, like a gift’ — offer a jumping-off point for some honest talk about how to handle this wonderful new opportunity that science has brought us.” — Ruth Marcus, Washington Post

She has every right to find joy in finally meeting her own personal goals

“Watching Oprah stand onstage, towering above the audience, wearing the kind of figure-hugging monochromatic jumpsuits she now favors, I realize that this may not be about us. This is about Oprah. You may find inspiration in her final weight-loss chapter. Even if you don’t, she clearly has found a way to love her body. It is hard to judge that.” — Tressie McMillan Cottom, New York Times