Last week I was asked to do several TV interviews ahead of the release of the new Netflix film ‘To the Bone’. As someone who has spent many years of her life living with anorexia, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Eating disorders are hard enough to understand, and I was sceptical that the subject could be explored adequately in 107 minutes. As I sat down to watch the film, I was actually surprised that I hadn’t given it much thought as to whether I would be triggered. I feel pretty stable in my recovery right now, but in hindsight it would have been wise of me to take a minute before hitting play.
The film depicts a young girl, Ellen, played by Lily Collins as she takes us on a journey of her struggle with anorexia and her treatment towards recovery. The opening scene shows Ellen regurgitating (pardon the pun) the calorie content of everything on her plate. This instantly left me feeling uncomfortable about what was to come. Ellen’s sister quoted her as having “Calorie Asperger’s” and almost applauded her accuracy in detailing the contents of her plate. Whilst it’s true that anorexics are generally walking, talking food trackers, it’s nothing to be proud of.
As the film continued we saw Ellen acting out all the typical behaviours associated with eating disorders; body checking, over exercising, chewing/spitting, purging and laxative abuse. One scene when Luke, a fellow patient, (and love interest) attempted and failed to get Ellen to eat one of her favourite biscuits, made me remember the numerous times I refused food that I desperately wanted to eat (anorexics love food). The scene though, that I thought was most disturbing was when Ellen and Luke were in a restaurant and Ellen chewed and spat her food into multiple serviettes. Whilst this is a behaviour that someone with an eating disorder could do, it was presented in a way that I found incredibly tasteless and unnecessary.
As the film continued, I felt as though I was watching myself. My story resembled Ellen’s in many ways. I also went to a treatment centre in the US, but it was most definitely not as easy to access. My family spent months fundraising and my mum even sold her house to pay for my stay. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to have this opportunity, but the reality is, I spent years and years not being able to access adequate treatment. I had to pay for private treatment, as and when we could afford it, because I was offered very help little by the National Health System. I wish the film had highlighted the difficult decisions that many families face in trying to save their loved ones life.
Whilst the film did portray seven patients with varying diagnoses, body shapes and even gender, with a male patient, I feel it could have done more to acknowledge the many communities and religions that are often neglected from eating disorder dialogue. I have a friend from the Latino community who told me that she wouldn’t be watching the film, because she knew she would not feel represented. The film did highlight the difficulties of family dynamics and how relationships or a lack of, play a huge role in the causes behind an eating disorder. The scenes of family therapy are all too familiar to me. I had numerous sessions with my family – many as excruciatingly awkward as Ellen’s. I too have had to watch the shock, sadness and disbelief at my physical appearance, my tiny frame vanishing before their eyes. I too have had people make remarks such as “you just need a good burger.” It has become a running joke when my dad says “Just GO LARGE.” I think he genuinely believed that I would be cured once I had been to McDonalds and ordered a ‘Big Mac.’ At the time, it was the last thing I wanted to hear, but we laugh at it now. It was just his way of making light out of dark. The film shows just how hard it is to know what to say to someone with an eating disorder. Most people mean well, but are yet either misinformed or ignorant. ‘To The Bone’ goes someway to highlight this.
So, to the point that has been raised by many of the films critics. Lily Collins has herself had an eating disorder. I question the ethics surrounding the choice of lead character. Lily lost a lot of weight to play Ellen and although she was supported by a huge team to keep her well, I still think it was risk that could have been avoided. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and perhaps the film could have highlighted this with a character who wasn’t emaciated. Even though my own eating disorder was anorexia, I know many girls/boys/men/women who are not underweight and are suffering just as much. Ellen’s frail appearance with close-up shots of her spine and hollowed cheek bones just reaffirmed social attitudes that you need to look like as thin as Ellen in order to be worthy of help. Throughout my illness I have experienced incredibly damaging comments relating to my weight, and have even had professionals infer that I wasn’t ‘thin enough’ to warrant treatment.
In 107 minutes, a film cannot answer everything and it will not satisfy all. Will it trigger people? I’m sure it will, but the film cannot and should not be blamed for causing or exacerbating eating disorders. Anyone who wants to learn more about how to lose weight can do so within seconds of going on social media. My eating disorder did not develop because I wanted to look a certain way, it was because I did not know how to deal with my feelings or emotions. My anorexia gave me a place where I felt in control; it’s a myth that eating disorders occur because we all desire to look like a supermodel.
There were many things I did not like about the film. I would have scrapped the love interest and I wouldn’t have chosen a white middle class girl (just like me). But, and I say BUT, ‘To The Bone’ is the first film to even be brave enough to tackle an illness that is so ugly. We also need to remember that the film is based on the director, Marti Noxon’s own experience, who felt it was important to tell her story to raise awareness about a subject that still remains largely misunderstood. Marti has opened up a conversation and promoted a subject that still does not demand nearly enough attention. In my opinion patients do not need to watch the film, they already know everything the film reveals, but I would advise parents, carers, teachers and academics to watch it. We all need to become more educated and informed to enable the correct care to reach as many sufferers as possible.
As the credits came up I felt a multitude of emotions. I felt a melancholy in my stomach because I was reminded of a time when all I felt was of hopelessness and pain. Mixed with these feelings though was a huge sense of gratitude and joy. Gratitude for now being in recovery, and for being in a place where I’m able to give back to those who sacrificed so much for me. Joy for being able to live a life that is full of connections, meaningful relationships and hope. The film had its weaknesses and missed some key opportunities, but ultimately the message was clear – recovery is possible, and that is one that is worth telling.