Note – This post due to nature of the film will discuss behaviours that will be triggering and I would advise if you read this as an ED sufferer, dependant on where you are in your recovery you consider this before reading.
Also -spoiler alerts!
Like many in the recovery community I had been awaiting the release of the Netflix bought feature length film ‘To the Bone’. It had been shown at Sundance and bought by Netflix for an estimated $8 million. The reasons I awaited the release was not as a lover of films who just couldn’t wait to lose myself in something for 2 hours but because this was a film, a highly publicised one at that, that had gained a lot of attention even prior to its release on how it depicted eating disorders. Specifically, in this film its depiction of Anorexia nervosa. Having suffered from Anorexia for 2 years and Bulimia for almost 10 years, the illness I am currently in recovery from, I wanted to see how a film so high profile handled this subject matter. To date most portrayals of eating disorders in films have been of the Hallmark variety, made for TV lifetime movies. Yet, here was one that had been bought for a huge sum of money by Netflix and had notable names in it; namely Keanu Reeves as the handsome ‘unorthodox’ doctor and Lily Collins as the ‘tragically messed up’ anorexia sufferer Ellen.
Firstly, this film is triggering, no doubt about it, and to those battling an ED you need to be honest to yourself about where you are in your ability to handle it. I began to lose count of how many behaviours were shown and described, the frequent mention of calories, as well as the very emaciated bodies on display. The film was released on the 14th July 2017, it took me over a week to bring myself to watch it. I surprised myself in how long I actually put it off. Not because I feared being triggered as such, but because after seeing the trailer and the depiction of behaviours in it, it took me back to a point in my life that hurts me. My eating disorder has dominated almost half of my life and it all began with anorexia at 16. When it was released I became afraid to see it. To see in part where it all began for me and the reality of what I put myself through; the visual distress of seeing what I too have done to my own body and mind.
Yet I was curious to see how it was handled, given the sum of money the film was bought for I knew that it was obvious that it was going to be handled in a way that would attempt to be entertaining or at least attention grabbing for viewers. Cause hey, why would Netflix pay so much otherwise? I realise that profit doesn’t necessarily equal responsible/accurate portrayals.
Yet, I also knew that both Marti Noxon – the writer and director and Lily Collins – the central character Ellen are both former sufferers of anorexia. Both have been very open and vocal about this in the press coverage, all power to them, I believe that these illnesses should no longer be shrouded in secrecy. Far too many of us suffer in silence, a huge problem given how prevalent eating disorders are. However, because both these women have personal connections to this illness I was also keen to see how they handled it, keen for them not to perpetuate stereotypes. As former sufferers I believe they have a responsibility not to do this. And this is where I believe this film falls down (from the perspective of an ED sufferer). It perpetuates the most common and damaging stereotype:
– that a valid eating disorder means you look thin, emaciated even.
I want more of a light to be shone on eating disorders. I want that conversation to be started. I want more people to be aware of how common this is. I want people to know how damaging it is. I want sufferers to know they can ask for help even if they don’t look like the characters in this film. I want friends and family to recognise behaviours and distress beyond weight that may mean someone has an eating disorder. This is a disease shrouded in secrecy, sufferers go to great lengths to hide it. In order for people to recognise this illness and sufferers to feel valid enough for help, awareness needs to be raised; and I accept and welcome that depiction in mainstream film and TV may aid that. Yet, it needs to be done in a way that in my opinion doesn’t perpetuate a stereotype that stops many receiving help in the first place. That you only have an eating disorder and deserve help if you are bone deep thin.
I was as valid and worthy of help when I was 26, bulimic and normal BMI as I was when I was 17, anorexic and clinically underweight.
The difference was when I was 17 I ‘looked’ like I needed help and there was intervention, poorly managed intervention (that I go into in my first blog), but my weight and size made me a visible anorexic. People began to look out for my tricks, I was made to eat, teachers approached me, friends questioned my eating habits. Yet throughout my 20’s when I was bulimic I was normal BMI, no one was any the wiser to the fact I was throwing up whenever I ate. I am not for one second saying this is anyone’s fault, I went to great lengths to hide it but if there was a greater understanding of the fact that eating disorders are not dictated by weight then maybe those around me may have noticed I spent too long in the bathroom – particularly after meals, that my knuckles were scraped and hands dry, that I was constantly getting fillings, that I ate too much and then would disappear. If the myth that eating disorder = thinness wasn’t so commonly perpetuated maybe I would have believed I was worthy of help. As it stood, because I had been a former anorexic turned bulimic I believed that as a bulimic I wasn’t thin enough, ‘I didn’t really have an eating disorder’ – I did.
This film tries to play the edgy, hipster, angst-ridden dark comedy game in tackling such a serious subject matter, all quirky characters, black boots and indie music. Ellen the central character is made out from the get go as ‘not just any anorexic’, but a ‘cool’ edgy one. She smokes, she swears, she draws and despite her gaunt appearance is still ‘stereo-typically beautiful’. It centres around Ellen’s struggle with anorexia, her dysfunctional family and her experience in an ‘unconventional’ group home for eating disorder sufferers, treated at the hands of the unorthodox Dr Beckham.
That Collins was made to lose weight for this role to such a shocking degree was in my opinion wholly unnecessary, and also dangerous given Collins has admitted to a history of anorexia. Collins is by all accounts at normal set weight a small actress, she could have played and shown the behaviours and struggles of her character without the camera constantly panning over her bone ridden body, if it was done for dramatic effect it worked. It’s not easy to watch, and yes this is what anorexia and bulimia can look like but not always. Most anorexics and bulimics are unassuming, particularly when clothed. By equating an eating disorder with weight, we miss the fact that it is a mental illness, weight is but the symptom of that. All but one character in the group home, the binge disorder sufferer Kendra, look stereo-typically very very thin.
The film however was clearly written by someone who has first-hand experience of an eating disorder, the list of behaviours and descriptions was utterly staggering. There is no way a sufferer can watch this and not see their own behaviours, its why it’s pretty triggering. Ellen’s sister referred to her as having ‘calorie Asperger’s’ after she reeled off perfectly the calorie content of a meal, I’ve joked in the past to friends that I used to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of calories. Yet what I found personally jarring was the repetition throughout the film of watching Ellen wrapping her two fingers around her arm to measure her thinness, this wasn’t something I’ve ever really discussed even in therapy about my anorexia and in this I saw myself at 17, and it was challenging. The bulimia patient in the group home talking about what foods were easiest to purge, that was my thought process when I ate foods during bulimia. These things to a sufferer are all too real and they are difficult, but the film tries too hard to ‘show’ eating disorders and doesn’t delve into the emotional and mental struggles that lead to these compulsions. The film touches upon some insightful ideas that it doesn’t truly explore in favour of the shock factor. It links eating disorders to addiction, I think this is bang on, that the behaviours of ED sufferers are like that of an alcoholic or a drug addict – it is a bid to soothe a greater emotional distress. The film shows Ellen clearly has intimacy issues, she’s uncomfortable with affection, again why not explore this more, it’s accurate. The dialogue in family therapy involving her sister Kelly when she states “I don’t understand why she just doesn’t eat”. This was a simplistic yet correct statement of why many involved in the life of an ED sufferer struggle to understand it. The common misconception that not eating, or purging, or over-eating is the issue. When it is not. It is symptomatic of the greater mental issues that need addressed. This is why when Reeves character, Dr Beckham, disregards Ellen’s family’s ability to help her it is wrong. Yes, Ellen has a dysfunctional family but they still need to understand her root issues. No one expects the family dysfunction to be ‘fixed’ but they need to understand and Ellen needs to live in a world in which she can normally process her feelings, even if her family is highly messed up. She needs to learn to process and not turn those feelings internally on herself. Later in the film Dr Beckham even states to Ellen “bad things are going to happen; that’s not negotiable. What is, is how you deal with it”. A statement that is true but flies in the face of the earlier disregard for Ellen’s family in the recovery process. Yes, she has a messed-up family but that can’t be ignored in her recovery, that’s a dangerous message to send out about recovery.
I don’t actually have huge issue with the fact that this film shows triggering behaviours, I accept that to show the reality of eating disorders this will on some level need to happen. What I have issue with is that this film favours the visual and descriptive acts of anorexia to such a high extent, even if perhaps well intentioned, that the writer ends up inadvertently perpetuating the myths that stop sufferers getting help and has led to a lack of understanding about these illnesses in the first place – that it’s all about food and that having an eating disorder equals being very thin. These are damaging stereotypes and ones that sufferers in recovery have a responsibility to break because our stories are not uncommon.
Eating disorders are a toxic coping mechanism that can feed off or lead to low self -esteem and body dissatisfaction. It becomes like a relationship that you know, and everyone else knows, you should walk away from. That it hurts and damages you; but it is also all you have known. In its own way it brings you security, even when it hurts you. These learned behaviours and thoughts are both our downfall and our coping mechanism. This is why recovery when embraced correctly is hard. We are shedding something that has toxically held our hand and meant we have never really processed our emotions ‘normally’. Eating disorders are a mental illness with dangerous physical impacts. Your weight and size does not determine your need for help.
I welcome the springboard this film has created in eating disorders being more widely discussed but the film in isolation unfortunately perpetuates some of the myths surrounding eating disorders in the first place.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, there are charities who can help you:
Beat – https://www.b-eat.co.uk/
Helpline 0808 801 0677 Youthline 0808 801 0711