opinion

COLUMN: "To the Bone" shows an over-represented view of eating disorders



Take “To the Bone” to the trash.

Marti Noxon, director of Netflix’s new film "To the Bone," said the movie was made not to glamorize eating disorders, but to start an honest conversation about "an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions." If that was Noxon’s goal, she couldn’t have been more off the mark. 

Like many cult films about eating disorders, “To the Bone” feeds off of every stereotype already attached to anorexia and fuels them. Once again, the trope of the underweight white girl from a broken family is front and center in this film, and that is supposed to be our idea and explanation of not just anorexia nervosa, but all eating disorders. 

Lily Collins’ character in “To the Bone” is 20-something-year-old anorexic Ellen, veteran to in-patient centers and therapies alike. In the opening scene, she’s not just some frail girl in the hospital. She is edgy, cynical, “aware.” In this review, Anna Leszkiewicz sums it up best — Ellen isn’t just an anorexic, she’s the “cool” anorexic. 

Once again, anorexia is portrayed as ferocity in a frail body. In reality, anorexia is just fragility without a fight. By choosing once again to focus on the idea that having an eating disorder means being unnaturally thin, the stigma that you have to be thin to be sick takes root.

The fact that Hollywood continues to perpetuate the idea that mental illness needs to be visible to be valid is sickening and harmful. 

Eating disorders do not discriminate. You can have an eating disorder without being overweight or underweight. They affect both men and women, and people of all ages. There’s not one certain way to look anorexic, bulimic or otherwise. This movie strengthens that voice in your head telling you "if you don’t look like this, if you don’t weigh this, you are not sick." And if you believe you’re not sick when you are and can’t get help, the outcome is less than desirable.

 For those watching this movie with no prior knowledge of eating disorders, the result can be dangerous. While this movie was intended to spark conversations and get information out there, the only takeaway is that if you starve yourself until you pass out, you might get to go to a quirky rehab facility and be the tortured artist. That is not what it means to have an eating disorder. 

For most, even if recovery options are an option, the path to recovery is seldom linear. Recovery is not a straight line in any sense, and a six-week stay in Dr. Keanu’s fix-it house will not mean you are “cured” of the disorder. Recovery is a daily struggle. And the most complex part about recovery is that it doesn’t work unless you want it. At some point in an eating disorder, you have to want to be better, and if you don’t, no amount of doctors, therapists or PediaSure can save you.

“To The Bone” completely ignores that recovery processes, especially in-patient ones, are a luxury. It can be difficult to find or cost-prohibitive to have insurance plans that will cover in-patient treatment or specialists for eating disorders. If coverage is available, companies often require a physician’s note explaining that the patient's body mass index is at such a dangerous level that it should be considered a medical emergency. 

The fact is, no matter what the scale says, if you refuse to eat for five days, that is a medical emergency. But because of movies like "To the Bone," starving oneself is never seen as a medical emergency, despite the numerous other health factors that come with having an eating disorder, including low blood pressure, blurry vision, hypertension, ulcers, low bone density — the list goes on.

“To the Bone” also ignores the presence of eating disorders outside of anorexia. Anorexia is one of several eating disorders, making up only about 40 percent of eating disorders diagnosed. The remaining 60 percent includes bulimia, binge eating disorder, eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) and more. 

The majority of people with diagnosed eating disorders are not diagnosed with anorexia. So why is there a list of movies about anorexia, yet virtually none about bulimia, a disorder just as deadly? 

“To the Bone” could have discussed bulimia. It could have discussed binge eating disorder. It could have included segments, if not the whole film, about the range of people who battle these disorders every day. But like the rest of the films in Hollywood about eating disorders, it all gets summed up by anorexia. 

It is important to recognize everyone has their own experience and own recovery story to tell. Everyone experiences eating disorders in different ways, at different times, under different circumstances. Noxon said this was just her experience, her story. 

Being able to tell one's story is important, but the eerie similarity of “To the Bone” to other movies focusing on eating disorders, makes you wonder why an artist seeking to raise awareness about eating disorders wouldn’t have taken this opportunity to shed light on what has not already been discussed. “To the Bone” sheds no new light on eating disorders. “To the Bone” illuminates all the stereotypes that were already there and puts them in the spotlight, once again leaving the rest of us in the dark. 

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