To The Bone: the troubling relationship between drastic weight loss and Anorexia

*Trigger warning: this article discusses eating disorders*

I’ve written a lot about eating disorders, body issues and mental illness over the past two years, but I’ve found it difficult to put my contradictory feelings about Netflix’s To The Bone into writing. There is always a sharp intake of breath in the eating disorder community when a film or TV representation of an ED sufferer comes out – especially in this instance where 94 million Netflix subscribers have access to the piece – as often this type of mental illness is not portrayed correctly, or is overly romanticized. Body positive bloggers have been very vocal about To The Bone since it came out in July, and my writing will draw on some of these discussions, as I try to piece together the positives and negatives weaving throughout the film.

The main issues that people have with To The Bone can be separated into two points: the first of which is weight loss. As has been circulating the news, Lily Collins lost weight for this film, and as many body positivity bloggers have agreed, I argue that it is simply unacceptable to ask a former Anorexic to lose weight. Even if weight is lost with the help of a nutritionist, it is a process that obviously carries memories of distress and trauma for many Anorexia sufferers, and there is always the danger of becoming obsessive with the number on the scale. But asides from the potential danger that Collins agreed to be put under, the fact that makers of the movie needed a small actor to play the role of Ellen is even more disturbing. As @nourishandeat (a blogger renowned for her body positive Instagram) sums up beautifully in her article, “why did they require her to lose weight in order to ‘convincingly’ portray someone she already was (an anorexia sufferer)? Why reinforce the stereotype you say you want to break?”

Focusing on an underweight main character suggests that a film with the ‘shock factor’ of weight loss will attract more viewers, but moreover supports the misconception that to be anorexic you must be small. Again I turn to @nourishandeat’s article, as she sums up the problematic nature of drastic weight loss:

 Its the fact that when the media consistently personifies anorexia as a skeletal, white, beautiful girl, it sends the message that this is the only story worth telling – that if you dont look like this, you dont fit the requirements for an eating disorder. Youre not sick enough.

Megan Jayne Crabb – body positive activist and writer famous for her Instagram @bodyposipanda – also wrote a fantastic piece about To The Bone. Rather than giving her personal opinions of the film, Megan focuses on soothing those affected by the distressing themes and content:

Rock bottom looks different for everyone, and its not necessarily an all time low weight. Its simply the point where you realize that you cannot carry on like this [] And rock bottom in general is not a requirement before you can start recovery. You can start now.

The severity of an eating disorder cannot be judged by weight alone, and unfortunately many representations of these illnesses in media tend to reinforce this misconception, rather than break it.

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Secondly, bloggers have been discouraged by the film’s focus on Anorexia. This is the most well-known eating disorder, which many argue means that To The Bone adds nothing new to the perspective of an eating disorder sufferer. We are used to the most mainstream depictions of EDs involving a petite girl – such as Cassie from Skins. Gina (@nourishandeat blogger aforementioned) argues that the perspectives less seen in the media – that of Ellen’s sister, the binge eating disorder sufferer, the therapists – are stereotyped in the piece, and could have been explored as the main character rather than the anorexic female we are used to watching. As a former sufferer of Bulimia, I often felt that there was no place in the media for people like me, who were an average weight and yet suffered the same torments as those smaller and/or forced to go into inpatient treatment. Body diversity is certainly an issue in mainstream media, with anybody above a size 8 ridiculed. To me it makes sense that a film about eating disorders should progress to be more inclusive, rather than portraying the same stereotype over and over.

Whilst I agree that a different eating disorder could have been explored, and that drastic weight loss is focused on too much, the film does effectively highlight some gritty realities of living with Anorexia. For instance, scenes with Ellen’s therapist open up the film beyond visible bones and fainting episodes. Supporting Ellen, Dr Beckham states: “what you crave is the numbing of what you don’t want to feel”. From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem that food is the ultimate focus of an eating disorder. However, an eating disorder is often a sign that you are desperately trying to escape from another factor, such as exam stress, grief, body dysmorphia, or sexual violence. Starvation, binging and/or self-harm becomes a hopeless cycle of trying to run from whatever it is that is chasing you. Moreover, To The Bone portrays the complete dissociation of the mind from the body. Talking with her sister at the dinner table, Ellen says that she does not “feel that unhealthy”, despite her step-mother showing Ellen a photo of her skeletal figure. The discussion of emotions and feelings in this film identify the fact that it is a mental illness, and that weight loss is a side effect of emotional turmoil rather than the most focal point of Anorexia.

To The Bone is a gritty depiction of Anorexia, and romanticization of the illness is thankfully limited to a cheesy dancing scene and a potential relationship. We see pure desperation as the characters exercise excessively, hide laxatives and spit out food in restaurants. Ellen’s family has been torn apart by her illness, Megan loses her baby at 3 months pregnant and Pearl struggles to accept the calories fed to her through a drip. In fact, Dr Beckham condemns the romantic notion that many sufferers aspire to: “this idea you have – that you have to be saved – it’s childish and cowardly”. Life with an eating disorder does not mean a slimmer figure; it means misery, physical injuries and hard work to recover your former self.

This film shows a lot of harsh truths, but it still serves as a stark reminder that the representation of eating disorders in film has a long way to go. The focus on severe weight loss shown in To The Bone is unjustified, and ultimately does not help the recovering ED community, or those still trapped within their illness. Megan Jane Crabb reminds us that the raw agony of eating disorders can never be displayed through a film, and encourages us not to fall back into bad habits: “If you go back into your eating disorder, it will not be filled with moments of light-hearted entertainment. If you go back into your eating disorder, it will be no gauzy sunset lighting glowing over your darkest moments. There are no beautiful songs playing in the background and no great love story to aspire to.” It is worth pondering if a very physical representation of Anorexia is the best thing for our world, in which eating disorders are on the rise, and average sized people are still encouraged to think that they are not sick enough to receive the care that they deserve.

Charlie Collett

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