The pressure on Black women to have thick, curvaceous bodies has long been the cause of low self-esteem and body issues. Every day our social media feeds are full of highly edited images which present unrealistic beauty standards and can fuel unhealthy relationships with our bodies. This leads some women to opt for risky procedures like the Brazilian butt lift to achieve the snatched look favoured by celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Cardi B and Kylie Jenner.
Now, a new BBC Three documentary is highlighting another trend that can have severe consequences. Dangerous Curves: Get Thicc, Get Sick? is a 25-minute film presented by 19-year-old model and influencer Altou Mvuama which investigates Apetamin, an appetite stimulant which is currently unlicensed in the UK.
Apetamin is a syrup manufactured by the Indian pharmaceutical company TIL Healthcare. It has not been approved for safe consumption by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. The syrup contains cyproheptadine hydrochloride, a sedative antihistamine used for allergies which is available in the UK by prescription only.
However, Apetamin is widely available to buy online from websites such as Instagram, Amazon and Depop and is advertised by influencers on YouTube. The product is marketed globally and sold everywhere from Congo, Ethiopia and Ivory Coast to Asia, Central and Latin America, and Russia.
Altou, who says she took the syrup to achieve a "slim thick" body — a slim waist with curvaceous hips — suffered bad side effects, such as drowsiness, nausea and shivering. "I look up to Kylie Jenner because she's a big influencer and so inspirational and I really like her body," Altou says in the documentary. "I feel like you have to look a certain way if you want to make it big."
The documentary interviews other young women who have taken the drug, some of whom subsequently collapsed in the street, fell down flights of stairs or fell asleep. One woman in the US, known as AshaGrand, whose YouTube video titled "I almost lost my life taking Apetamin" includes distressing footage of the moment she blacked out while driving and crashed her car, also shares her experience.
Altou says that when she first started taking Apetamin, it also made her constantly drowsy. "I was falling asleep at school and my mood swings were crazy," she says. "But that wasn't my mum's only worry. She did not want me to take this medicine."
Altou's mother's concern came from firsthand experience: she fell into a coma after taking Apetamin herself. "She was taking it a long time ago and again, she [loved] being thick," Altou says. "That [had] a huge effect on her because she [had] anaemia and sickle cell. She had to go to the hospital and ended up in a coma." Altou's mother recovered from the coma but her pre-existing health conditions worsened.
Altou continues: "My mum was always there for me when I was starting out as a model, and just as my career was taking off, her illness got worse and she passed away." Altou is now the breadwinner in her family and has to support her siblings. She's been tempted to take Apetamin again to further her career, as it helped her gain more weight than increasing her food consumption, but due to the risk she has opted against it.
According to a report by BuzzFeed News, Apetamin is often taken by people seeking to gain weight quickly. One woman in the documentary says her weight jumped from 54kg to 86kg in three months; another was as young as 12 when she first took the syrup.
What is most concerning is how widely available the unlicensed drug is. Altou goes undercover to see if she can buy it at local markets in London. When she spots the product in a butcher's shop, she asks the shopkeeper if it works, to which a nearby auntie exclaims: "Yes, just be consistent." Altou is able to purchase three different bottles of Apetamin at multiple locations for just £5.99, with shopkeepers insisting that it is a "very good" product.
Knowing now how dangerous Apetamin is, Altou says she regrets encouraging her followers to buy it. "It's really sad that there are girls out there endangering themselves just to look a certain way."
"Social media is extremely toxic," she continues. "The girls of my generation will know what I'm talking about. It makes you feel like if you don't look a certain way, you're nothing. When you see all these public figures like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner and all these other celebrities who have beautiful bodies, we all forget that it's not their actual bodies, they've paid for it. You won't achieve that perfect look, it's unrealistic unless you get surgery. You're endangering yourself."
A spokesperson for Amazon said: "This product has been removed and we've taken action against the sellers in question."
A spokesperson for YouTube said: "YouTube's Community Guidelines prohibit any content encouraging dangerous or illegal activities. We routinely remove content flagged by our community that violates these policies."
A spokesperson for Instagram said: "Buying and selling non-medical or prescription drugs is strictly against our policies and we have removed the accounts brought to our attention."
A spokesperson for Depop said: "Medical products, including unlicensed products such as Apetamin, are not permitted on Depop and will be removed."