There’s no right way to portray Eating Disorders in film and television, but there are many wrong ways. Netflix’s new film To The Bone, while well intentioned, brings nothing of substance to the table. Which raises the question: How can a film written by a person in recovery (producer, director, and writer Marti Noxon), and portrayed by an actress in recovery (Lily Collins has been vocal about her food and body struggles in her new memoir Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me), manage to reinforce so many falsehoods about Eating Disorders and recovery? To say that the film is triggering is a laughable understatement.
I know a lot about the subject matter of this film because I’ve done lots of research. You might call it behavioral research. In other words, I was Bulimic and Anorexic for most of my life. I don’t have any fancy doctorates, but I was where Ellen was, and I’m fortunate today to have a healthy relationship with food and my body. I watched To The Bone very cautiously. A lot of individuals who are struggling (and their families) are going to receive a lot of convoluted, contradictory lessons from the film. Before the trailer was even released, it was the stuff of "thinspiration" for pro-ana blogs. This is in no way a film review, nor is it a commentary on the talents of its cast, or even Miss Noxon herself. Honestly, To The Bone is preferable to all of the dreary Lifetime movies that veer on afterschool specials. But that’s beside the point. Maybe a film that focuses less on recovery and more on disease isn't the story we need today. To The Bone could have brought visibility, awareness, and hope to the recovery community, if only its story were told differently.
1. Most people don’t look like they have Eating Disorders.
Let me get this straight: Lily Collins, an admitted former Anorexic, was told to whittle herself down to nothing in order to play this role? No competent, responsible doctor or nutritionist would ever okay this. Because here’s the thing about Eating Disorders: people relapse. Not everyone who is Anorexic looks like Collins does in the film. Anorexics can be overweight. Binge-eaters can be underweight. Bulimics can fall into both these categories. Many people with Eating Disorders appear to be in a normal BMI range. Yet, all of the patients at Threshold are petite women. Petite white women. And no, including one black girl with Binge-Eating Disorder and one skinny white guy in the mix does not make this film progressive. It only reinforces the idea that Eating Disorders are a petite white woman issue.
2. People with Eating Disorders need a meal plan.
One of the most ridiculous things about this film was the lack of supervision or rules around food. The only rules about meal times are: You have to sit at the table until everyone is done. You can eat as much or as little as you want. Let me be clear: This is absurd. People with Eating Disorders don’t know how to eat. If they did, they wouldn’t need treatment. One of the characters in the film has a feeding tube. Lily Collins’s character refuses to eat. Another character is pregnant. You mean to tell me that at this “treatment center,” no one is being monitored or regulated with their food at all? Let me explain a little thing called refeeding: When a malnourished body begins to eat again, the body doesn’t know what to do with the sudden abundance of nutrients. It can be extremely dangerous, and that’s why nutritionists and doctors need to monitor patients in poor physical condition. Furthermore, why is the girl recovering from binge-Eating Disorder eating a jar of peanut butter for dinner? That’s a binge! But at Threshold, apparently you can do whatever you want.
3. Dialogue about numbers cannot be part of the conversation.
The majority of the dialogue in the film revolves around food and body. More specifically: Weight and numbers. Anyone with an Eating Disorder knows that numbers are a huge trigger. This is a common understanding among Eating Disorder patients. In one scene, Lily Collins’s character Ellen (I refuse to call her by the stupid nickname Dr. Beckham gives her) tells the girl with a feeding tube how many calories are in her drip feed. We see side conversation about better ways to purge, weight comparisons, and sexualization of food. These conversations are harmful and end nowhere. Eating disorder patients need to talk about things other than food and weight. Especially at meal times. These patients should not be allowed to know their weight. The numbers only fuel the obsession. Eating disorders are addictions in themselves. Let’s face it: No one at Threshold is getting any better.
4) Shaming and patronizing someone with an Eating Disorder will not force them to recover.
But the "brilliant" Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves) with his unconventional methods (which, as far as I could tell, just means he’s completely uninvolved with his patients’ care) essentially tells Ellen to grow up. His character is fundamentally underdeveloped. This is one of the film’s biggest failures. Instead of getting something of substance from this in-demand doctor, he spews a couple of clichés and takes the gang on a field trip to inspire them to live. He is completely inappropriate with Ellen (Hi, he just comes to visit his patients in their rooms in the middle of the night?). In the same way, shaming Eating Disorder patients won’t help them recover, and neither will infantilizing them. Threshold has a points system in place, where good behavior (like eating) gets you points. With the points come certain privileges, like being allowed to see a movie. Please excuse me while I go bang my head against a wall. This is a common practice at many treatment centers. But a rewards system is not a permanent fix.
5) Rehashing family trauma that happened years ago will not heal an Eating Disorder patient in the present.
I understand that the bottle-feeding scene between Ellen and her mother (Lilli Taylor) is based on director Marni Noxon’s experience. But just to be clear: If you think that tying up loose ends with family will magically cure an Eating Disorder, you’re mistaken. Yes, it may bring some sense of relief and peace. And of course, it’s always good to have supportive family members on your side. Aside from her stepsister (Liana Liberato), Ellen is sadly very alone in her struggles. But healing old familial wounds is not a prerequisite for recovery.
6) Eating disorders affect every economic bracket — and treatment centers are expensive.
Ellen comes from a wealthy family that has the means to send her to multiple treatment centers. Many people don’t have that luxury. Good treatment facilities require health insurance. And even then, it’s not so simple. Especially with such a small, exclusive treatment community like Threshold. Dr. Beckham tells Ellen early on that he’ll only treat her if she wants to get well. If only that were really the only requirement! It should be mentioned that you can get well without the help of a treatment center. Eating Disorder Treatment Centers are not a one-size fits all. Excuse the pun, but many people benefit from sessions with nutritionists, therapists, and support groups. (And hey, those anonymous support groups are free of charge).
7) People with Eating Disorders are emotionally complex, intelligent people.
All of the patients at Threshold besides Ellen and Luke (Alex Sharp) have all the personality of a pile of rocks. They serve merely as talking heads to share the occasional shallow or mean-spirited tangent about food or weight. None of the characters are truly given a voice. They’re reduced to stereotypes. In one particularly tragic scene, one of the girls callously says, “It was her own fault. She was purging." Jesus Christ, where is the empathy? Luke is perhaps the most hopeful character, but underneath all of his quirks and charm, he’s obviously compensating for a lot of pain, which we never get a glimpse of. We almost get there — but then he and Ellen start hooking up. (I’m not even going to waste words per minute on how ridiculously obtuse this plotline is).
8) Last but not least, if you’re seconds away from getting a feeding tube, it’s a really bad idea to overexert yourself physically by wandering around in the desert, by yourself in the boiling hot sun, without a cell phone, water, food, or sunscreen.
I think this one’s a little self-explanatory?
Published July 19, 2017
Images via Netflix
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Jan Rosenberg is a NYC-based playwright, fiction writer, and screenwriter. She is a two-time semi-finalist for the Eugene O'Neill conference, and recently presented her play How To Destroy An American Girl Doll in Valdez, Alaska. She is currently writing a play about eating disorders called Never Have I Ever, which will receive two premiere productions in 2018. She writes for multiple entertainment websites, including Book Riot and Show Business Weekly. When she isn't writing plays and TV pilots, she can be found working in book publishing. Follow her on Twitter at @kickthejan for updates on her writing, or to talk about Eating Disorder recovery. Follow her on Instagram @FannySaysRelax.