Is Netflix’s New Anorexia Film Dangerous?

Netflix’s new “anorexia film” To the Bone is being marketed as one of the first mainstream movies about eating disorder patients. The movie’s star, Lily Collins, told the Irish Examiner, “There’s never been a feature film about eating disorders before.” It was this lack of representation, combined with Collins’ own struggles with the disease, that inspired her to take on the challenging role, she said. This idea that eating disorders and their victims aren’t regularly portrayed is a half-truth. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that those who struggle with, overcome, or fail to survive these disorders occupy a strange space between over-dissection and underexposure.

There is an abundance of literature and theory on anorexics; volumes of poetry and pathology dedicated to practices like binging and purging. Still, the amount of ink spilled on the topic doesn’t necessarily correlate to our greater understanding of it. Instead, attempts to portray or explicate the eating disorder patient have largely read as reflections of a societal moment, offering far more insight into the observer than the subject. Different historical moments have given birth to different narratives. In the 1800s, for example, anorexics were deemed hysterical—a catch-all diagnosis for ill-behaved or unhappy women. Later explanations re-shifted the blame onto unhealthy household dynamics, punishing standards of beauty and the patriarchy.

For as long as women have starved themselves, people have written words and created art to immortalize those starving women. Tied up in these narratives, woven in with concern, one can often find notes of romanticizing or even worship. Look no further than some of the earliest examples of eating disorders, the sufferers of anorexia mirabilis—the “miraculous lack of appetite” that was seen in the Middle Ages as a mark of particular devotion among women and girls. Some of the qualities ascribed to these saintly sufferers, like self-control, triumph over one’s body, and a special brand of spiritual wisdom or sight, remain pervasive in eating disorder rhetoric to this very day. As Slate’s Katy Waldman writes in her powerful essay, “There Once Was a Girl”, “We’ve long linked pathological thinness to profundity or poetic sensitivity.” Whether it’s an artist who sketches so-called thinspirational art (as Collins’ character Ellen does in the film) or the deep oeuvre of writers drawn to gaunt, gorgeous protagonists on the verge of self-annihilation, eating disorders and art go hand in hand—often to the detriment of actual sufferers.

That being said, it’s worth drawing a distinction between works created by outsiders and non-fiction representations. While eating disorders affect all genders, they’re almost exclusively associated with women. And the bodies of women, particularly frail, thin women, have always been made into art, often by outsiders with their own agendas. Faced with a long history of venerated saints and misdiagnosed hysterics, it follows that people who have actually experienced eating disorders would want to retake their own narratives. To the Bone writer/director Marti Noxon based the film on her own experiences with anorexia and bulimia. This sort of representation is more than just a personal imperative; eating disorders are, if not under-discussed, in dire need of more attention: anorexia nervosa currently has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. If a film could succeed in drawing more attention to a deadly and misunderstood disease, while also providing a (relatively) realistic reflection of actual survivors’ experiences, then it stands to reason that that film would be a step forward.

But the question of whether To the Bone might do more harm than good has already sparked a minor controversy. While most critics seem to understand the film’s intent is to offer a realistic entry into the eating disorder canon, some fear that the finished product betrays this lofty goal, and could actually hurt the people it is attempting to portray. As the New Statesman’s Anna Leszkiewicz wrote, “It must be possible to create works that are relatable and honest without resting on the specific imagery that motivates so many illnesses, or disregarding such high numbers of the media guidelines put in place by experts.” Leszkiewicz argues, as many other critics have, that the film glamorizes eating disorders by portraying a beautiful, white, painfully thin protagonist, a heroin chic Lily Collins draped in loose fabrics and movie star sunnies.

There’s also the accusation that To the Bone operates not just as thinspo but as a veritable how-to guide to eating disorders, despite the fact that experts have cautioned the media against portrayals that expose audiences to disordered eating habits or techniques. But while To the Bone could very well provide eating disorder patients with new tricks or aspirational ammunition, Kristina Saffran, a co-founder of Project Heal, an organization that helps eating disorder sufferers pay for treatment, has offered a counter-perspective. “Triggers are everywhere in eating disorder recovery,” Saffran told The Washington Post. “In many ways, it would have been impossible to make any sort of film that didn’t have the potential to trigger somebody who is struggling.” In the age of Tumblr thinspo and fitness Instagram, to name just a few potentially destructive corners of the endless internet, the eating disorder “tricks” featured in To the Bone are already out there. Still, it makes perfect sense to advise eating disorder sufferers or survivors to approach To the Bone with caution (and including treatment resources with every stream isn’t a bad idea either).

To the Bone’s portrayal of a stereotypically beautiful, starving protagonist is certainly problematic. As many critics have pointed out, Collins’ Ellen perpetuates the belief that all eating disorder sufferers are thin and frail, and that this near-death state of starvation is the mark of a truly ill person. This simply isn’t the case, and it threatens to erase the experiences of people who don’t look like Ellen, sufferers who are often taken less seriously because they skirt the stereotype. But the creators of To the Bone seem to understand that eating disorders affect many different types of people, regardless of gender, weight, or ethnicity. If anything, it seems that To the Bone is suffering from a tension between its ideological aims and Hollywood expectations. Like so many other films, To the Bone briefly features under-represented characters—like a male anorexic and a woman of color who binge-eats—but ultimately centers around an attractive white protagonist. Ellen is a beautiful, charismatic character, because those are the characters who get to star in big movies. There’s a delicate balancing act between casting the type of actress executives trust to carry a film, and creating a protagonist whose irrepressible beauty doesn’t glamorize the oft-romanticized illness she’s suffering from.

One way that To the Bone arguably redeems its decision to center the undeniably cool Ellen is by creating a meta-commentary around the aesthetics the film has been accused of dealing in. Ellen, an artist who is famous for the thinspo sketches she used to publish on Tumblr, deals in these aesthetics. Thinspo is her trade, both in her life and her art—she’s the badass cynic who dresses like an Olsen twin and prides herself on being cooler than her inpatient companions. She is, we come to learn, something of a celebrity among fellow sufferers. But Ellen’s real life—messy, cruel, ugly, painful and painfully mundane—is nothing like her delicate Tumblr-ready sketches. Ellen’s aesthetic is just an armor she wears to stop people from getting close to her, and not a very effective one. Despite functioning as an idol for so many other sufferers, Ellen quickly reveals herself to be both deeply sick and confused.

Ellen’s reality, including her treatment and eventual recovery, is anything but glamorous. Perhaps the real aim in casting Collins was to make a movie about an unwatchable subject matter watchable. With the help of its charismatic protagonist, To the Bone can portray something that looks a lot like reality, with all the messiness that entails, and doesn’t have to surrender to a bunch of easy stereotypes or tropes. The talented, troubled, beautiful Ellen is exactly the sort of eating disorder sufferer people like to tell stories about, and everyone—from her mother to her therapist to her potential love interest—tries to come up with either an explanation for her illness or a reason she should eat. Up until the very end, Ellen refuses to place blame or chalk her eating disorder up to a single cause, be it her fucked-up family or a host of societal ills. If there is one thing the eating disorder conversation lacks, To the Bone argues, it’s the voices of the endlessly romanticized and elegized bodies at the center of the issue.

The story of Ellen won’t be everyone’s story, but it is still effectively wielded to shed a harsh light on the way we seek to ascribe meaning to the illnesses of others, favoring easy explanations over the pain of loving someone whose disorder cannot be understood or inspired away.

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