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    If you quote a Dickens character in a piece on weight loss drugs, don’t pick one who starves kids?

    Olivia Rutigliano

    February 27, 2023, 3:11pm

    Sigh. Let’s dig in.

    At Matthew Schneier called “Life After Food,” about a new weight-loss fad involving the injectable diabetes drug Ozempic. Ozempic, the brand-name for the medication semaglutide, imitates the naturally-occurring hormone GLP-1, which increases the release of insulin and slows your body’s release of glucagon. If you’re diabetic, it lowers blood sugar levels. But if you’re not, it works simply as an appetite suppressant. And, according to the article, the drug—prescribed off-label or acquired shadily—has become the weight-loss trend of the moment, for its rapid results.

    The article reports on the facts, and then strides off towards cultural criticism, attempting to comprehensively explain why our culture is still obsessed with “thinness” or willing to go to great lengths to attain it, especially after the rising body-positive movement and the mass worshiping of non-skinny role-models. “Weren’t we supposed to have moved on from this?” the article asks. “The discourse on bodies has changed since the days when a slender figure could be blithely and uncomplicatedly celebrated, sought, or advertised.” The article attempts to pinpoint the beginnings of the shift away from this mindset, declaring that it was in fact the moment that the singer Adele revealed her weight-loss photos that the body-positivity sheen shattered. The article drops this supposition and then quickly skips away towards other celebrity weight-loss comparisons.

    It seems to be the article’s ambition to let the subjects speak for themselves—to present a story, and then let the world judge them as the world sees fit. But this can be a dangerous approach when the subject is both so insidiously personal and drug-related. Although the article notes, later on, that this phenomenon poses a healthcare crisis for those who actually need the drug for diabetic or prediabetic conditions, the article concentrates more on a reading of thinness in the zeitgeist, commenting on what it means about our relationship to food and our understandings of our appetites. It emphasizes how people justify taking the drug as informing them about their histories with food, quotes them endlessly about their fears of re-gaining the weight when they go off the medication.

    The article isn’t straight-up reportage; it’s ultimately a thinkpiece. But it’s possible that it reasserts the very harmful mindset it claims once had disappeared. Re-read the headline, “Life After Food,” which suggests that there is one. The banner image of the webpage is an ornate buffet table of silver-plattered dishes, all arranged in front of a candelabra, a vase, and a taxidermied peacock. The whole spread is covered in thick cobwebs, spooky and undisturbed as if it were once Miss Havisham’s wedding feast. It’s dramatic and opulent and gothic—a baroque, romantic tableau of malnourishment.

    But the Satis House-esque aesthetic isn’t the strangest, or least-subtle, Dickens reference in the article. No, no, no. Towards the end of the first section, after introducing a young actress who has to mix the off-brand semaglutide herself and prepare it for her weekly injections and who insists that not having to juice-cleanse or worry about weight-loss instead has helped manage her anxiety, there is an even stranger, out-of-the-blue literary allusion. Here’s the paragraph.

    A profound and possibly unprecedented change, in other words, might be taking place. Isn’t appetite, after all, what makes us us, for better or worse? ‘Subdue your appetites my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature,’ as Dickens’s philosophical schoolmaster, Mr. Squeers, told young Nicholas Nickelby. Of course, his mouth was ‘very full of beef and toast’ at the time.

    Yes, that’s a reference to Charles Dickens’s 1838-39 comic novel Nicholas Nickleby, there, in the middle of an article about recreational starvation—co-opted, no doubt, in an attempt to inject some wisdom, some erudition, some literary-criticism (??) into the piece, turning it from a report into a reflection. As we move away from the anecdotes of the poor actress sticking herself with medication her body does not need, and into a more serious discussion of the phenom, let’s pause with a timeless meditation on the nature of “appetite” and the longstanding human desire to tame its unruliness. In Dickens veritas, after all.

    The thing is, this quote doesn’t belong in here. Or, let me say, it should not belong in this piece. Mr. Wackford Squeers, the “philosophical” figure quoted here, is one of Dickens’s most villainous characters. A sinister schoolmaster and all-around-crook, Squeers beats and starves the young boys who are deposited at his boarding school, the aptly-named Dotheboys Hall. He charges money to guarantee the boys comfortable room and board, and then pockets it himself, so that his family might live in luxury. He spoils his own children, and denies his students suitable food. He whips and beats them ferociously.

    “Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature,” he tells five little boys, while (as Schneier notes) eating “beef and toast.” But what Schneier leaves out is that he is torturing the students while he speaks; pontificating about moderation and control not only while behaving in an contradictory manner, but also while eating their food. He calls them by numbers (not names), and allows them all to have one drink from the same cup, telling them when it’s time to switch. What’s in the cup? It’s a cup of milk, but he doesn’t want to expend too much of it on the kids, so he pours two pennies worth of milk in and then mixes it with lukewarm water. As he gobbles up his fill, the boys watch him “with strained eyes in torments of expectation.” Then, Squeers “[divides] the bread and butter for three into as many portions as there were children,” so each boy gets 3/5ths of a portion of food. As for the quote, he’s making things up to justify his ill-treatment of the children.

    Why is this important? Aside from hinting that the reporter googled “quotes about appetite” to find one that seemed measured enough to pop in to the piece, the irony of including this quote, and mislabeling Squeers as “philosophical” is actually rather useful in revealing the essence of the article, itself. If you’re going to quote a writer in an article that doesn’t come down hard on “starvation,” it probably shouldn’t be Dickens. And if you’re going to mention a character, especially while you’re trying to make a thoughtful point, you shouldn’t mention Mr. Squeers. If there is any one character in all of Dickens’s novels who abusively contributes to widespread starvation, it’s probably Mr. Squeers.

    All of Dickens’s novels are about mistreatment (of the working class and children, especially), but Nicholas Nickleby, an early novel, written when Dickens was twenty-six years old, is very invested in this theme. After he was sent to work at a shoe-blacking factory at age twelve and returned to finish school three years later, Dickens worked as a journalist, writing about London’s busiest and poorest neighborhoods. His novels (especially the early ones) are full of contempt for those who deprive their workers and abuse children.

    Nicholas Nickleby almost exclusively about miserly businessmen making up and enforcing rules that only serve them, and it fancifully gives all of these bad guys their comeuppance. Especially Squeers, whose cruelty drives his employee Nicholas to the breaking point. After Squeers violently whips Nicholas’s friend, the young drugeworker Smike, Nicholas grabs Squeers and beats him up so continuously and creatively that Nicholas winds up having to go on the run. Squeers spends the rest of the novel obsessed with getting revenge on Nicholas. Philosopher he is not.

    He’s not the novel’s main villain. But he is someone who enforces and perpetuates the abuse of characters whom society does not care about. And his presence in the article, misattributed as a thoughtful figure, is a marker of thoughtlessness that permeates the whole thing.

    Articles like this, which take up the task of representing the fraught and frail body-image issues that dominate our culture, should not represent a craze of medicated mass starvations as anything but—lest they feed the problem they report. Journalistic responsibility is important, and giving a platform to people who try risky, experimental techniques because they strive to possess society’s allegedly-preferred body-type, is dangerous and even careless. Repeating statements like the ones uttered by the anonymous actress in the article’s opening—who says things like “‘We don’t talk about it, but everybody knows it. Thin is power'” as explanations of why she must subject herself to such treatments—end up depositing them in our collective consciousness.

    Revealing how many people are under the thumb of hegemonic beauty standards does not debunk them, does not overthrow them. Such undertakings can, sadly, participate in the maintenance of these standards. If anything, this article treats its subject as an exclusive, hotly-desired, no-effort beauty treatment tried by people who are happy to accept the consequences.

    Mr. Squeers is content to perpetuate, even produce, mass-starvation. While the article attempts to find a journalistic middle-ground, it certainly does not take up an… opposing attitude to Squeers’s. Certainly reported features must be factual and non-judgemental, but the piece isn’t that, either. It doesn’t feature nearly enough qualifications, nearly enough discussion of medical consequences, nearly enough of an analysis of “thinness” as a recent beauty fad in human history anyway to be considered an appropriate journalistic response. Even the title “life after food” suggests that food isn’t something that is necessary for survival, or even quality of life.

    And it is. To both. Just ask Dickens.

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