About a month ago, 21-year-old Eloise Parry took four times what is considered to be the lethal dose of a diet pill that she had bought over the internet, and later drove herself to hospital when she began to feel unwell. Shortly afterwards, she began “burning up from the inside” and her metabolism “exploded like TNT”; there was nothing the doctors could do to help her. She died later that day.
She is not the first. In 2013, Sarmad Alladin and Chris Mapletoft, both 18, died after taking diet pills; Sarmad is thought to have been recommended the pills by somebody at the gym. In the same year, Sarah Houston, a 23-year-old medical student, died after taking diet pills in combination with antidepressants.
The culprit in all four cases: 2,4-dinitrophenol, otherwise known as DNP, a metabolism-boosting chemical which can legally be bought and sold as a fertiliser; it is commonly used in pesticides. When DNP is ingested, fat and carbohydrate in food are broken down but the production of useful energy for cells is impaired and is instead released as heat. The enormous increase in metabolism causes drastic overheating and nausea; the former is, in many cases, lethal, and yet, despite the risk posed, people continue to buy pills containing DNP because their effect in terms of weight loss is unrivalled by safe and legal alternatives available on the shelves in shops such as Boots and Superdrug.
Anyone who supplies the drug for personal consumption is liable to be legally pursued, but it is far more difficult to stop people from searching it out for themselves: websites selling diet pills are widespread and terrifyingly easy to access, catering to the desperation of the masses to lose weight.
The deaths of these young people, driven to extreme measures, are surely symptomatic of our society’s toxic attitude towards body image and should serve as a warning against promoting an ideology which dictates that, in order to be successful, one must be thin.
And it is everywhere. We are fed a constant stream of images of women displaying thigh gaps and bikini bridges, with ribs and collarbones clear to see, and men with perfectly chiselled six-packs and cheekbones. We are told over and over again that food and drink products are ‘skinny’ or ‘light’ or ‘low-calorie’, given the impression on a daily basis that our lives will be infinitely better if we could only exercise enough self-discipline to drop another pound, to refuse a second biscuit with our cup of tea – which is made, of course, with Splenda instead of sugar. Instagram feeds are full of #cleaneating and #thinspo, with the hashtags accompanied by snaps of brightly coloured smoothie bowls topped with exotic fruit and selfies joyfully announcing yet more weight loss.
A society should be made up of people of all body shapes and sizes, from very slim to very overweight and everything in between, but ours shamelessly upholds that only thinness will do. Anyone who fails to conform to this culture is shunned, made to feel ashamed in their own skin, and this shame can undoubtedly spiral into the all-consuming self-hatred that leads to the development of eating disorders or the decision to risk one’s life by, for example, taking DNP. Instead of being told that it is okay for each individual to be who they are, we are indoctrinated with the idea that beauty comes in one form and one form only. The matter is made to seem black and white: anything other than thin signifies failure. This is clearly a massively damaging and warped attitude.
Yes, obesity is a problem that we urgently and undeniably need to address – two thirds of British adults are either overweight or obese, according to a 2013 report – but so are health issues at the other end of the spectrum, such as eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and low self-esteem. Between 2006 and 2014, there was a 34% increase in inpatient hospital admissions for eating disorders; 20% of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely from their illness. Morbid obesity and eating disorders are both resultant, at least to some extent, of a difficult relationship with food and body image, but, this is rarely the beginning, especially for eating disorder sufferers – deep-seated and unresolved issues, perhaps about relationships, trauma, or something else, which have been festering for years without ever really being addressed, invariably come to light when somebody is trying to work their way through food-related problems.
By the time somebody with anorexia or bulimia reaches an inpatient unit, or an obese person is hospitalised for heart failure, we as a society have already gone a long way to failing them as an individual. They have been bombarded with messages and images telling them how they should or shouldn’t be, made to feel ashamed for the way they are, always told to be thinner, healthier, better. Young people die after taking diet pills and we feel a profound sadness, but we should also feel ashamed of ourselves for making them feel that they had no other choice by promoting an ideal which is, quite frankly, unattainable. As a society, instead of endorsing a culture of self-hatred, we should teach our young people to recognise and accept the fact that the body image pictured in the media is simply impossible to reach, and encourage them to lead a healthy and, crucially, balanced lifestyle whilst cultivating a feeling of self-love and embracing themselves in all of their uniqueness.