You feel a weird twinge, and your doctor doesn’t have an opening for four months, so it’s almost inevitable you’ll go looking for more information on the internet. You know it’s not a good idea, that it can’t possibly end anywhere good, and yet you feel compelled. The result is usually the same: WebMD and Yahoo Answers will tell you it’s cancer, YouTube will tell you your bowels need flushing, some guy calling himself a fitness guru with very white teeth will try to sell you capsules of some exotic sounding herb for $125, and soon your Google ads are filled with prescription medication designed to fight Alzheimer’s or lymphoma.
And for every article, podcast and expert opinion that attempts to debunk the latest “wellness” fad — no, ice baths don’t actually cure cancer, Gwyneth Paltrow — there are dozens of others: shocking, absurd, ridiculous trends circulating online that by the time you hear of them have already killed at least ten people.
That’s how I felt listening to the fascinating first season of One Click, Elle Fanning’s new podcast about how one wrong move on the internet can ruin our lives. The series debuted with the story of 2,4-dinitrophenol, or DNP, a World War One-era chemical used in the manufacture of weapons that has been rebranded online as a diet drug. And it does cause you to lose weight — factory workers exposed to the chemical a hundred years ago found themselves with hideous fevers, cognitive confusion and plummeting weight. It was, to be sure, the bad kind of weight loss — the kind that precedes death. And many did die, as did some of the desperate dieters today who started to discuss and distribute the chemical online.
For some, especially in the age of the selfie and social media, the possibility of losing weight is worth the risk of death. Fanning and her co-host, journalist Jessica Wapner, take a look at subcultures where eating disorders and dangerous diet fads flourish. It’s not just the teen girls getting their lives ruined by Instagram, it’s also the body builders who long to look like the veiny, intentionally dehydrated superheroes of Marvel films. Everyone is looking for a way to attain the ideal body, even if they know that ideal is created through starvation, surgical interventions, airbrushing, physical suffering and spiritual torment.
Weight is discussed as a health issue, but the usual line that health care workers give their patients — “exercise and eat better” — doesn’t really work. It can be an overwhelmingly difficult thing to ask of those who are exhausted by work, living in food deserts and unable to afford the latest plant-based diet. For the sufficiently discouraged, shortcuts in the form of weight-loss fads look more promising than another ten years of trying to remember to go to yoga class.
But if you want to understand why so many people are drawn to these online spaces through problems with sickness and bad health (and made vulnerable to con-men and plastic gurus), you should take a listen to KCRW’s Bodies. In each episode, a new figure is given the space to tell the full story of an issue concerning healthcare, whether it’s a person discovering the corporate corruption behind their case of ovarian cancer or a young mother whose baby is refusing to eat. Most of the stories go beyond a list of symptoms and tales of physical suffering. These are tales of neglect and abuse: of doctors misleading, ignoring or hurting their patients, of individuals whose agency and bodily autonomy are taken away by authority figures.
In one recent episode, for example, a person named River discovers, long after invasive and painful medical interventions, that they were born intersex. Their parents and doctors hid this truth from them and decided on a course of treatment on their behalf, giving them no say when it came to hormonal replacement or cosmetic surgery. It wasn’t until they left home and went to college that they discovered the truth of their condition. Elsewhere, a woman’s pain during sex is downplayed, someone with debilitating period pains is told to take ibuprofen and so on. It’s disturbing how many of these stories sound the same. Not just women’s health but sexual health in general has been understudied by the medical community for a long time.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.