Let Them Not Eat Cake

A tattoo style illustration of a disfigured face, barbed wire and a hand injecting an Ozempic pen
Those who already have the most are embracing rich person minimalism

By Natalie Adler

Art By Clarissa Liu

Self-denial never goes out of style. After a brief foray into body positivity, we’re hearing that thin is back in — at least, according to trend pieces from any legacy media with “New York” in its name. Cultural producers from fashion designers to podcasters are returning to the aesthetics of the thin, white, and wealthy.

Those who already have the most are embracing rich person minimalism, whether it’s surgically removing the fat from their faces, attending a gala commemorating the viciously fatphobic Karl Lagerfield, or, on a subtler note, embracing the “quiet luxury” of elevated basics. Think of Shiv Roy’s nondescript but well-tailored wardrobe or her estranged husband Tom maligning a hanger-on’s “ludicrously capacious handbag.” The bag is gauche, presumably, because its print is instantly recognizable as Burberry plaid (which clashes with her floral Sandro dress), and because its size suggests schlepping a lot of crap on the subway to work.  

So what if the Succession siblings don’t eat the pastry spread set out for them? Let them not eat cake. The problem is that those who suffer from moral poverty are squeezing out the rest of us. As the worst days of the pandemic recede, our immiseration is yet unrelenting. Everything costs too much, and as the pandemic officially “ends,” the last vestiges of Covid-era social services are stripped away. I’m writing this note as I ride the starved NYC subway system, flooded with cops who play Candy Crush on their phones. This is what my city has money for: not for the hungry, not for those without a home, and not for the trains and libraries that offer, at a minimum, a place to be.

Instead of wanting more, demanding more, enjoying more, and of course, working less, we get discipline and denial. If “thin is in,” it’s a thinness of imagination. It’s giving upper middle class aspirational. It’s giving nothing.

This obsession with starvation is a surface symptom of deep malaise. The pandemic robbed us of the pleasure of community, the diversion of plans, the thrill of going out. Food was one of the only pleasures we had left. If you were a nonessential worker, your leisure time may have taken a turn for the frivolous: elaborate sourdough rituals, Zoom cocktail hour, leaving neighbors cookies on their doorstep. It was possible to believe that ordering takeout was virtuous if you were saving your favorite local restaurant from going out of business. And yet, the pandemic also saw a rise in rates of eating disorders. Isolation, reduced social services, disruption to routine, and overwork left many more susceptible to disordered eating.

Somehow, we haven’t understood the depths of how we are not being sustained. Three years later, no one wants to eat anymore. Martinis are in, but skip the fries — we’re eating tinned fish instead. Suddenly slender celebrities are rumored to host “injection parties” for diet drugs; the rest of us have to endure subway ads for “a weekly shot to lose weight.” On bookshelves, “slim volumes” about slim women, anhedonic heroines who chase the high of not eating, who dabble in sex with women just to feel something. On the runway, micro-minis, all the better to show off those hip bones. The return of the return of the return of heroin chic. And to top it all off, for some reason, the reactionary podcaster girlies are converting to Catholicism. Starve your soul but drench your body in gold.

The grimmest of all these trend pieces (or at least, for your Lux editors who survived their Y2K adolescences of low-rise jeans and pro-ana forums) is the diet drug exposé, as seen in New York Magazine, and also covered by the New Yorker and the New York Times. These drugs were developed for diabetes treatment and make you lose weight by mimicking the hormone that induces satiety so that you cannot eat too much without becoming ill. Read too many of these essays and you’ll choke down comments about whether barfing all the time might be worse than being fat, or how you can take Klonopin and melatonin to ease going to bed hungry, or that it’s a relief to not be thinking about eating every day

Samhita Mukhopadhyay wrote in her personal essay on taking an injectable weight-loss drug that, “What these drugs can’t fix is what underlies the ‘obesity epidemic’ — a culture that continues to hate fat people, a health-care system that incentivizes our weight loss over our actual well-being, and a food system that denies us access to whole, healthy foods.” Many people are taking these drugs to take care of themselves, but the trend pieces imply something else: that we can stop all that virtue signaling crap now, we can stop pretending that you can be healthy at any size, that Black is beautiful. If body positivity was also about unraveling our investment in white beauty standards and expanding the framework of beauty to include women  of color, then the white women who blackfished to capitalize off curves are the whittled-down stake in the heart of the movement.

These trend pieces are a symptom of hunger, of people who can’t get what they want — abundance, care, nourishment — and so they’re coping with powerlessness in a society by deciding that they’ll just want less. “It’s a bit of a pleasure to not be so hooked to this stuff” — meaning food, not the drug, an Ozempic user admits to New York Magazine. It’s seductive, this relief from need. But it’s not liberation. And while there is obviously a disconnect between who gets written about in trend pieces and the vast majority of us, it’s understandable, in a time of war and plague and disaster, to imagine that by abstaining, by disciplining ourselves, we are doing some kind of greater good. 

Maybe it’s a backlash against the social justice movement, against BLM, against Covid lockdowns interfering with party plans, and just generally having to give a shit about other people. A way to reassert the primacy of whiteness while maintaining edgelord cred? Apathy chic — the denial of feeling?

We have a right to be in need. And we have a responsibility to care about each other’s needs.

As we close this issue of Lux, we are outraged at the death of Jordan Neely. Daniel Penny, a white ex-Marine from Long Island, killed Jordan because he was unhoused and Black and struggling in public. According to a witness, Jordan shouted his complaint while riding the New York City subway: “I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink. I’m fed up.” Penny put Jordan in a chokehold for several minutes while bystanding subway riders watched. (One suggested Penny be careful to not “catch a murder charge.”) They were more uncomfortable being in the presence of a man experiencing poverty and homelessness and open need than they were watching him die. They met his need with disgust and contempt and ultimately discipline unto death.

Jordan Neely was right to yell. He had the right to yell, the right to scream that he needed food and water. He had the right to take up space. He had the right to be alive. 

We’re all so hungry. We should be screaming for more.

Natalie Adler is an editor at Lux. She is an Emerging Writer Fellow at the Center for Fiction, where she is working on a novel.