February 29, 2024 - 8:30pm

Oprah Winfrey’s hasty departure from the WeightWatchers board of directors — now rebranded as WWInternational — has thrown a spotlight on the broader issue of how weight loss is marketed and the substances celebrities endorse or use to maintain their physique. Winfrey’s admission of using weight-loss drugs like Ozempic as a maintenance tool, after decades of enriching herself by promoting fitness through hard work and lifestyle changes, is rather hypocritical.

In the realm of fitness and health endorsements, this comes as no surprise — celebrities and influencers use what works best, which isn’t necessarily what they’re selling. Albeit on a far grander scale, it echoes the controversy surrounding Brian “Liver King” Johnson, an influencer who rose to fame through his promotion of an “ancestral fitness” lifestyle, which was later revealed to be bolstered by a substantial steroid regimen.

Johnson was just one of many influencers who, behind the scenes, rely on performance-enhancing drugs while publicly espousing natural methods and hard work as the keys to physical success. The Liver King’s case was particularly egregious, given the stark contrast between the rugged, primitive lifestyle he marketed and the modern, pharmaceutical means he employed to achieve his physique.

Oprah’s case, though different in and scope and context, parallels the Liver King’s in a crucial aspect: the gap between the public persona and the private realities of health management. For years, Oprah has been synonymous with WeightWatchers, sharing her weight loss journey and struggles, becoming a beacon of hope for many seeking to lose weight through diet and exercise. 

If even Oprah, with all her billions of dollars and extremely marketable public narratives of struggle and success, resorts to medical intervention for weight management, what message does that send to her followers?

Both Oprah’s and the Liver King’s stories serve as cautionary tales about the complexities of public endorsements and the realities of health management. They highlight a pervasive issue in the wellness industry: the reliance on quick fixes, whether through undisclosed drug use or misleading narratives that oversimplify the journey to health and fitness. Oprah settled on a quick fix after years of extolling the merits of the struggle, which involved considerable weight gain and loss throughout her highly public life: “I use [weight-loss drugs] as I need it,” she recently told People.

Her decision to step down from WeightWatchers and her choice to donate her shares to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, while commendable, do not fully address the underlying issue of trust and responsibility. As someone who has been an influential figure in the wellness industry, her actions have far-reaching implications for her followers and the broader public perception of weight loss methods. The pivot she made was so abrupt and so definitive, it calls into question all the work she spent a lifetime doing (and selling). If any of that work was worth it — as some, like UnHerd’s Kat Rosenfield and myself, still believe — why abandon the struggle so quickly?

Oprah’s use of weight-loss drugs underscores the need for greater transparency and honesty in public endorsements — even if that transparency is unlikely and celebrities and the wealthy will always err on the side of what’s is easiest and most efficient. However, even with Oprah out of the picture, there’s still a need for realistic conversations about health, fitness, diet, and a carefully-limited pharmaceutical role in achieving personal wellness goals. Until that can be achieved, there will be many more like her.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work