My fascination with eating disorder movies developed suddenly one day years ago, when I had a free afternoon and access to YouTube. For example, Growing Pains actress and anorexia survivor Tracey Gold played someone named Nancy in a Lifetime movie that is one of the most cinematically horrendous things I’ve seen.
Did these stories perpetuate my already severe eating disorder symptoms by including numbers, behavior details, and images of thinness? Yes, probably. However, I watched movie after movie, memoir followed by documentary, for another separate reason: I wanted to feel understood.
In the isolated pain of anorexia, I had shut out all my friends. I had stopped going to treatment appointments. Cold and alone in a prison that became unmanageable, I wanted someone to take my hand. I wanted someone to tell me, “I get it.” I wanted to connect with stories that made me feel safe and validated.
So, I turned to YouTube.
These films did not “heal” me. They did not constitute treatment. However, years later, these narratives stick with me. Nowadays, I am not seeking “tips” or numbers; I seek understanding.
I want eating disorders to be understood.
So many films have broached the difficult subjects of schizophrenia, addiction, and bipolar disorder, to name a few. But eating disorders? People are primarily directed to Lifetime movies and documentaries so corny, outdated, and ridiculous they can barely be taken seriously.
Cue my excitement when I learned about To The Bone months ago. Perhaps this would be a good movie about eating disorders. My high hopes were based on the fact that lead actress Lily Collins and director Marti Noxon struggled with eating disorders in the past. In addition, Project HEAL, a recovery organization I respect very much, provided consultation during filming and has endorsed the movie.
The conversation began to shift when the trailer premiered last week. Controversy spread across the opinion spectrum. Many eating disorder sufferers are infuriated (understandably) that the already small lead actress lost weight for the movie, as well as the trailer’s triggering images of empty plates and protruding collarbones. Project HEAL founder Liana Rosenman released this statement:
It’s a challenge to make a truthful movie about eating disorders that sheds light on their severity and complexity — capturing the patient and family experience of this real mental disorder — without glamorizing the disease ‘To the Bone’ tows this line beautifully. While the movie has the possibility to be triggering to some, I strongly believe that it will make a huge difference of raising public awareness of this silenced disorder.
In this post, I will be giving a layered critique of To The Bone by highlighting some key issues at play.
While I have not watched the movie, both the trailer and my understanding of the social and psychological factors of eating disorders will equip me to preemptively raise some questions and critique aspects of the upcoming film.
The Power of Eating Disorder Narrative (For Good and Bad)
Let me preface what I am about to say by noting that I will be watching To The Bone when it premiers.
I believe in the power of narrative.
When harnessed for good, the power of story can bring peace, hope, and understanding to the weary. Eating disorders are complex, misunderstood illnesses that have not captured adequately in film. Dozens of movies embrace plot lines surrounding alcohol and drug addiction, but eating disorder themes are often swept under the rug.
Historically, movies that cover eating disorders are truly awful.
I cannot say that more emphatically.
The level of cinematic creativity and diversity can be represented by me describing one scene that is inevitably in all these movies: Brooding teenage girl staring at the mirror with a bra on feeling like she is fat.
Is that the best we can do?
Elementary school-aged children have body image issues, dorm bathrooms have clogged drains from vomit, and the American diet industry is worth billions, but let’s look at a white, upper-class girl looking in the mirror with disdain?
American film is better than that. Eating disorder research is farther along than that.
It’s treacherous territory making a movie about an eating disorder. To accurately depict the hell and pain of these clusters of symptoms, while promoting recovery versus the pro ana/ mia communities, is like tiptoeing on a cliff.
“Honest” depictions of eating disorders such as Wasted and Thin have done much harm in inadvertently exacerbating a pro-eating disorder mindset. Included in these films are details that have served as “how to” tips for those who are very much embedded in an eating disorder mindset.
What can be most triggering for eating disorder sufferers in film is mention of numbers, images of grotesquely thin people, and vivid descriptions of ED behaviors.
This brings us to To The Bone.
To The Bone is advertised to be a movie that doesn’t “hold back,” in terms of showing a woman out of control in her life, with a sunken face and empty plate. Lily Collins is emaciated in the movie, a role for which she lost weight from her already small frame, despite having an eating disorder history.
I have no doubt that the movie will promote full recovery for Collins’ character, nor do I doubt the film’s intentions. I also believe it will be a great conversation-starter for the general public surrounding the secrecy of eating disorders.
However, the trailer is disturbing.
Upbeat music and triggering imagery are paired with colorful sayings like, “I am in control,” and, “I am strong.” There is a scene of a friend joking that Collins has “calorie Asperger’s.” Snap shots of group therapy and psychiatrist Keanu Reeves indicate that the movie will have a “happy ending.” The treatment center is led by a cool, hot, “unconventional” doctor (Keanu Reeves) who takes the residents to a waterfall, I guess. Sunken faced Collins asked a fellow sufferer, “How do you just eat?” The boy replies, “I’m not going to lie. I’m really f%&#ing hungry.” Cue the upbeat music and bold colors.
Let’s start with the obvious emotional disconnect between the cheerleader music that could as easily introduce Bring It On, paired with disturbing words, phrases, and images. It’s obvious the movie is trying to promote an upbeat, “pro recovery” vibe in the weirdest way.
I’m also fixated on the hot doctor thing. There is nothing realistic about a doctor somehow going on treatment outings with clients. Sorry, been to treatment, and they have mental health techs do that kind of stuff. Usually people are lucky if they see psychiatrists once every 90 days. They’re billed at way too high of a rate to take treatment residents to waterfalls. In real life, that treatment center would cost at least $100,000 per month.
I get that the upbeat attitude of the trailer intends to foreshadow a happy ending, but it doesn’t fit. There is nothing sexy or upbeat about an emaciated girl with a protruding spine in a doctor’s office, or having “calorie Asperger’s,” whatever that means. How do any of these movie clips warrant the musical equivalent of high fives and bubble gum?
This trailer had me shaking my head as a once-enthusiast of this movie. I will still be watching To The Bone, but my concerns about this narrative are seismic, especially after the trailer. If this movie opens up the conversation about eating disorders and helps sufferers feel understood, I will celebrate. At the same time, this trailer depicts the sad reality of the lack of eating disorder education to the larger public and highlights persisting stereotypes.
Oh Look, Another Young, Upper Class White Girl With Anorexia
It’s a tale that is unfortunately the plot line of almost every eating disorder movie. A white, cisgender, upper-class, long-haired, intelligent, already-thin girl who needs control develops an eating disorder. She has issues with her family, probably. At the end, she gets better or dies.
To The Bone uses these same demographics with the main character.
The reality is that eating disorders affect those in any ethnic group, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, age, and geographic location. Moreover, the rates of eating disorders are rising in other key demographic areas: males (especially gay males), younger children, and middle aged women.
Director Marti Noxon defended this story choice, “It’s important to remember EDs is unique and To The Bone is just one of the millions of ED stories that could be told in the US at this very moment.”
Noxon is correct in that millions of ED stories could be told, but this is the one being told in the film. This cinematic choice has broad implications. Many who watch this movie might not be familiar with eating disorders, so the choice to feature a thin, white, young female will shape the way others view what an eating disorder looks like.
The problem with a white, emaciated woman of privilege being the heroine of this movie is two-fold:
- It does not represent the reality of eating disorders, nor does it accurately portray the significant crossover between disorders across a lifetime (e.g. shift from bulimia to anorexia to binge eating back to anorexia). I’m not going to lie, Lily Collin’s emaciated frame and overdone sunken-eye makeup makes me roll my eyes. Many people with eating disorders are not underweight. It certainly doesn’t represent the physical “norm” of someone with an eating disorder.
- These demographic choices of the main character highlight existing stigma. Sadly, Lily Collins’ emaciated frame will draw in viewers. I wonder what would happen if Lily Collins had gained 50 pounds for the role rather than losing weight, or if the heroine of the film was another beautiful, but overweight, actress, such as Melissa McCarthy or Queen Latifah. What about James Corden? I don’t think a film like this would be popular. Starving is the most culturally sanctioned eating disorder behavior. Do I think a story needs to be told of someone who binges and is obese as a result, for instance? Absolutely!! But it won’t be, for a long time, anyway. I’m not surprised that the dominant narrative of this movie plays into societal fascination with anorexia and the cultural thinness ideal. I have been disgusted by interviews discussing Collins’ weight loss. “How Did an Already Thin Girl with an Anorexia History Lose More Weight to Play Someone with Anorexia?” might be a popular headline, but it’s nonsensical for those in recovery.
The problem with this one story fitting the predominant cultural narrative is that it makes us more likely to miss someone who doesn’t fit the physical “type” of Lily Collins but is displaying eating disorder behaviors. We are more likely to overlook an older female who is always in the gym or a young male who sneaks off to his car and comes back hours later smelling of food and vomit.
Moreover, those who don’t fit the mold To The Bone sets forth might feel even more shame. These are things I’ve heard or said dozens of times:
“Someone like me shouldn’t have an eating disorder.”
“I don’t look like I have an eating disorder.”
“My insurance company denied me treatment because my symptoms weren’t severe enough. I think if I lose weight they’d pay for it.”
“What if my church/ friend group/ school/ ethnic community found out I have an eating disorder? I’ll disappoint everyone.”
I am not knocking stories of women in privilege. In fact, my story is in some respects that story– white, small girl in a seemingly normal, upper-middle class environment with straight A’s develops anorexia. I had access to health care, even when my insurance refused to authorize treatment. This is not to say that I fit the standard mold entirely. There is no “normal” eating disorder story. People are dimensional, complex beings. Those of any religion, race, cultural group, age, and sexual orientation can develop an eating disorder.
My concern is that To The Bone will fall into a category of story of a woman in privilege, stifling and silencing other narratives. To the third grader chewing gum instead of eating popcorn with her friends as an attempt to reduce “baby fat,” to the male model who drinks and smokes to avoid daytime meals, and to the middle-aged housewife who finds herself needing inpatient treatment, I say this: Your story is valid. Just because To The Bone features an unrealistic, seriously emaciated young actress doesn’t mean your pain is less valid.
Eating disorders are eating disorders. They don’t discriminate.
The Mundane Reality of Eating Disorder Recovery
Keanu Reeves apparently plays an “unconventional psychiatrist” in the movie and seems both hot and cool. I worry that these unconventional methods will serve as the vehicle of healing in the movie. As if meeting a cool doctor and coming to a profound understanding of the “why” of symptoms leads to recovery.
For years, I expected when I found out the “why,” perhaps through lots and lots of digging during therapy, I would stop my eating disorder. Maybe would no longer be necessary. I was trying to find the elusive “it,” which often doesn’t come.
I never found out why I have an eating disorder.
Does it matter, at the end of the day? To really, truly know why I developed an eating disorder, I would have to dissect my brain with the science of 200 years from now and look at every single circumstance in my first 13 years of life. I would have to look at my family history, get data from my mom’s pregnancy and my prenatal care, etc. It is impossible to know exactly why.
I did not find recovery from talking about my family background for years or going to restaurants with my therapist in treatment. Yes, I have done these things, and to an extent, they helped, but they never got me “there,” to the elusive “it.”
The reality of eating disorder recovery is a secret, but I’m going to tell you it anyway:
It is boring.
There, I said it. Eating disorder recovery is choosing to sneak a mid-day snack between meetings because my stomach is grumbling. It is paying the damn $100 every few weeks to check in with my dietitian. It is filling my medication on time. It is grocery shopping on Sunday night because I am tired.
It is ongoing, and it is not fun. Well, sometimes recovery is fun. Eating ice cream on a warm night is a fun part of recovery. Most parts are not fun. I hate having to wake up, knowing that the extent to which I restrict will guide my body’s well-worn path of switching to starvation mode. I hate forcing myself to eat lunch when my stomach is in turn due to anxiety, knowing that I have to eat anyway.
Boring is not Hollywood. Boring will not gain ratings. And so, I assume To The Bone will be filled with exaggerated moments of truth and insight, as well as dramatic sensational images and numbers. Showing a protruding spine is extreme, so it’s better for ratings. Getting weighed when you’re bloated and haven’t taken a shit in 2 weeks is gross and not sexy, so it will not be included.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of having a hot, cool psychiatrist taking us to waterfalls in treatment.
Real eating disorder recovery is boring and regular. It isn’t sexy or worthy of a red-carpet Netflix debut, but it is so worth it.
Proceed with Caution
As I said before, I will be watching To The Bone on July 14th. I hope my concerns will be unfounded and that others will benefit greatly from this film. I hope I’m not going to be on the couch eating sour candy rolling my eyes because of unrealistic “aha” moments, too many protruding spines, and calorie-counting.
I know the film will open up conversation about what eating disorders are like.
I just hope it opens up good, informed conversation, conversation that heals rather than shames and stigmatizes.