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How the ‘It's Bigger Than Me’ Campaign Is Harming Fat People for Profit

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Editor's Note

Editor’s note: The Mighty has an existing business affiliation with Novo Nordisk; however, The Mighty’s editorial team operates independently and remains dedicated to giving our community a voice in the issues that matter to them.

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

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A new campaign called “It’s Bigger Than Me” has launched worldwide. The campaign purports to be about “destigmatizing ob*sity” but is, in fact, funded by Novo Nordisk as part of what they have promised will be “one of the fastest Novo Nordisk launches after approval ever” of their new weight loss drug Wegovy. Per their Chief Financial Officer, Karsten Knudsen, they hope to more than double their “ob*sity sales” by 2025 versus their 2019 baseline. 

Novo Nordisk has explained to the press that one of the barriers to this massive profit play is insurance coverage (including Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA), and so they are using campaigns like this to try to turn fat people, desperate to escape the weight stigma that the diet industry perpetuates, into an unpaid marketing force to do their dirty work for them.  

At the time of writing this article, partners in this effort include the Obesity Action Coalition, the Media Empathy Foundation, and The Mighty.

This part of their massive, profit-driven rollout is the kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing campaign that the “Obesity Action Coalition” was purpose-built to launch and run. The OAC bills itself as an advocacy group for fat people but is, in fact, fully funded by (and operates as a lobbying arm of) powerful pharmaceutical interests that seek to sell progressively more dangerous and expensive weight loss treatments. As you can see on their website, their “Chairman’s Council” (aka group of funders) is made up of weight loss drug and surgery companies, with Novo Nordisk at the top, as their sole “Platinum” member with a minimum funding commitment of $100,000.

The Media Empathy Foundation appears to be a legitimate organization with the noble and critical goal of destigmatizing illness. They should, but apparently don’t, understand the difference between their actual mission and this co-option of anti-stigma language for money. So instead of undoing harm they are perpetuating it. They are responsible for the harm that they are causing here and they should address it and do whatever they can to repair that harm.

As for The Mighty, it was heartbreaking to see their logo on the site as a named partner. In response to my pitch, editorial director Ben Berkley shared with me that The Mighty has a business relationship with Novo Nordisk and through that affiliation, the editorial team supported the initial launch of the “It’s Bigger Than Me” campaign with a social media post. (Editor note: The Mighty was not paid to promote the “It’s Bigger Than Me” campaign.) Berkley said the editorial team looks to fulfill these partner requests as a way of navigating the balance between editorial independence and the funding The Mighty receives through pharmaceutical sponsorships, which allow The Mighty to continue operating. At the time, Berkley told me he was “foolishly unaware” of the harmful nature of the campaign and, while he shared that he didn’t know if The Mighty’s larger business relationship with Novo Nordisk would continue, he assured me The Mighty’s editorial team would no longer be promoting or supporting the campaign. He promised to invite this article’s submission (and others like it) that are critical of the “It’s Bigger Than Me” campaign, wanting to stand “as a force for good in combating fatphobia and any other instance of body biases.”

I appreciate the candid response and the opportunity to use The Mighty’s platform to speak out about the harm that is being done, and I hope to see them publicly withdrawal their support from the project, acknowledge the harm and actively work to repair it, including insisting that their logo and information be removed from the campaign page.  

The weight loss industry has been working hard to co-opt the idea of ending weight stigma and transform it into a marketing tool, and they have deep pockets to hire the best people to do it, so it can be difficult to tell what’s going on. Here are some of the ways you can tell this campaign is about weight loss propaganda and not about ending weight stigma or supporting fat liberation:

  • The group can’t bring itself to use the word fat, choosing instead words like “ob*se” and “overw*ight,” terms that were literally created to pathologize fat bodies with a basis in racism and specifically anti-Blackness. (Please read Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia and Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness and Anti-Blackness to learn more about this critical area of intersectional oppression.)  
  • They called their campaign “It’s Bigger Than Me.” Get it? Bigger than me because… fat people…are big… If the campaign sounds like it was named by a schoolyard bully trying to make a fat joke, it’s probably not actually helping end weight stigma. The campaign is also replete with its own hashtag and celebrity spokespeople.
  • The campaign claims to be about ending weight stigma but when you start clicking the links, it’s all about eradicating fat people through the sale of weight loss drugs. At best, their message boils down to “we don’t want to stigmatize fat people, we just want to make billions of dollars marketing a strategy that risks their lives and quality of life with the goal of eradicating them from the earth.” This may be a profitable message, but it is not, in fact, an anti-stigma message. 

One of the side effects of Wegovy is “suicidal ideation and behaviors.” So they are claiming to be about destigmatizing fatness while pushing a drug that causes fat people to want to engage in self-harm and suicide.  

OK, this program obviously isn’t actually about ending weight stigma, so what is it about?  

It’s about selling Wegovy, which is just a higher dose of a medication (Semaglutide) currently marketed as diabetes medication Ozempic. This marketing plan is riding the wave of a long-term campaign by weight loss drug companies to classify simply living in a fat body as a “chronic lifelong health condition.” This allows them to expand their market, push for insurance coverage, and sidestep the fact that all the weight is regained as soon as people go off the drugs, by suggesting people take the drugs for the rest of their lives. 

Let’s talk about the possible side effects

Then there is the delightful collection of “most common side effects”: nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, stomach (abdomen) pain, headache, tiredness (fatigue), upset stomach, dizziness, feeling bloated, belching, gas, stomach flu, and heartburn. 

You cannot destigmatize fatness while suggesting that it is reasonable to risk damage to multiple organs as well as self-harm in order to be a little less fat.

And just how much weight are we talking about? Wegovy was approved based on a trial in which 33% of patients lost more than 20% of their body weight over a 68-week clinical trial period. 

I imagine they are listing their trial period in weeks because it sounds longer than 1.3 years and helps avoid the obvious issue that most intentional weight loss methods show weight loss in the first year, with people gaining back all of their weight (and often more than they lost) in years two to five. Even their own graph suggests that is what is going to happen to their test subjects. 

The reality, then, is that we are risking multiple organ issues and self-harm for a chance of losing less than 20 pounds for a year, with a high probability of total weight regain, which will happen even faster if someone has to go off the medication because of the many, many side effects.

A recent study by Gaesser and Andari found that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that weight-neutral interventions have similar or greater health benefits than intentional weight loss attempts without these risks. That should be a good reminder that weight loss drug companies (and the “advocacy organizations” that do their dirty work) are not here to end the weight stigma, or to support fat people’s health. They are here to get our money. 

This kind of bait-and-switch campaign does serious harm because it co-opts that language of fat liberation, while being completely out of alignment with actual fat liberation principles, instead utilizing the cover of “destigmatizing” fatness to sell fat eugenics. 

Weight stigma is real, and it impacts fat people in every area of our lives. Shame on Novo Nordisk, the OAC, and anyone else who suggests (for profit) that the solution to weight stigma is for fat people to risk their lives and quality of life trying to change themselves to appease their oppressors.

I spent years doing the diet industry’s bidding – fighting my body on behalf of weight stigma. No more. Now I fight weight stigma on behalf of my body. We don’t have to buy into the weight loss industry’s con. We don’t have to shrink ourselves. We can be bigger than this.

Photo by Tabitha Turner on Unsplash

Originally published: October 22, 2021
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