TRIGGER WARNING: I will be discussing eating disorders throughout this post.
Unless you have been living under a social media rock, you’ll be aware that Netflix released To the Bone, its controversial new movie about eating disorders – the first feature-length film on the subject – last week. To the Bone has been at the centre of an online shit-storm ever since its release, and to Google it is to see a stream of think pieces denouncing it as irresponsible and unrealistic side by side with those calling it authentic and moving.
So, which is it?
After watching it and spending much of the past week thinking about it and discussing it endlessly with my friends/anyone who will listen really, I remain unsure. Prior to watching, all I had read were negative reviews, so I went in with the expectation that I would finish it feeling disgusted and low-key bad about myself. Instead, I found I did not hate it.
And so I wondered, am I wrong? So I did what I always do when I find myself mired in problematic subject matter. I read a bunch and asked everyone who would have the conversation with me: What do you think?
The answer? It’s complicated.
The biggest problem that comes up, particularly with the representation of eating disorders on television but also mental health problems more generally, is the issue of glamorisation. It’s uncomfortable but true that as a culture we imagine certain kinds of self-destruction as romantic: drug addicts make the best music, OCD is a great personality trait in a detective and suicide is the hallmark of a great female writer. Equally, a beautiful girl starving herself to death because she just can’t see what everyone else does has its own tragic appeal. And, in as much as Lily Collins’ portrayal of Ellen in To the Bone fits that ideal, with her smart humour and artistic talent, the film is not innocent of this. But as much as Ellen’s character plays to that pre-existing ideal, Marti Noxon, the writer and director has made efforts to undermine it by displaying some of the decidedly un-glamorous side effects of starving yourself to death: the excess hair her painfully thin body grows as it struggles to keep itself warm, the bag of vomit Ellen’s roommate in her treatment facility keeps hidden under her bed and the abject horror of her loved ones when they see her emaciated body, to name a few. Whether or not those efforts are enough is a difficult question to answer.
A lot of negative reviews have picked up the dominance of thinness in the story as a reason why To the Bone is so potentially damaging. Though it’s true that thinness is central, the film also addresses the fact that eating disorders aren’t just about controlling weight, but controlling feelings. For many people, their disorder is way of channelling feelings that they can’t cope with – which is why Luke (yep. There’s a boy in this movie dealing with Anorexia – another aspect of the film I was a fan of) points out that childhood sexual abuse is such ‘a big thing among rexies.’ While I think the film could have got into this more, it did shed some light of the potential reasons behind Ellen’s disorder (her family are a total disaster, her mother also struggles with her mental health, etc). It also demonstrated this through the means of romance – which a lot of people took issue with, but was one of the parts of the film that actually worked best for me. To get in a romantic relationship is to feel all the feelings – they are unavoidable. To an expert avoider like Ellen, this was completely terrifying and her acknowledgement of that terror was a big moment for her and a step toward recovery. She needed to feel all the feelings.
However, it’s also true that the extreme bodies shown in To the Bone are not representative of what many people struggling with eating disorders actually look like, though the effects on their health are equally as devastating. The emaciated bodies that are the predominant idea we have of what an eating disorder looks like discourages many who have such a disorder from seeking help because they don’t believe they are sick enough. In this sense, the film absolutely perpetuates the single story of eating disorders. Christina Grasso wrote a fantastic piece about this over at Style Caster that I highly recommend.
So I’ve ended up right back where I started: on the fence. There were moments in this movie that felt achingly authentic, right next to others that, on reflection, I feel uncomfortable with. On the one hand, I take the information that this is a story that Marti Noxon wanted to tell about herself as someone who once struggled with an eating disorder to mean the film has nothing but good intentions. On the other, the cynical part of my brain worries that perhaps that fact is held up as a means to preclude criticism.
I would like to think that the conversation will grow and that To the Bone will be a story of what it’s like to have an eating disorder, rather than what so often happens, and it becomes the story. Either way, I feel it’s one with value, as a discussion starter and simply, a film.
Have you seen To the Bone? What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s great, terrible, or are you on the fence?
9 thoughts on “To the Bone: Authentic or Irresponsible?”
I must’ve been living under a social media rock, haha! Because I haven’t heard of it before. I googled it though, after reading your post. Eating disorders are such a difficult topic to talk about, and I do agree with you – it should be *a* story, rather than *the* story on eating disorders. I like your point about how, because it is based on an individual’s personal experiences, that it may preclude criticism. I think that’s a really big issue, because criticism of its portrayal may sometimes feel like criticism of the experience, or something along those lines.
Haha! Or maybe I just spend too much time on the internet…
That it’s a personal story does change how I thought about it. I read an article that said the film must be terrible because Marti Noxon (the writer/director) had said in an interview she found the process quite triggering, and I felt like that analysis was such an oversimplification of her feelings. In order to make the film, she had to go back to that place of being trapped in her illness, and that must have been really hard. It wasn’t triggering because the film was glamorising the experience, but because she put herself in the position where she was feeling those old feelings again.
I haven’t watched the film yet though I am curious. I don’t think this film is intending to glamorize eating disorders–I’ve watched a few interviews with the people involved and because of their personal experiences with the topic I don’t feel like they would be involved if they felt that way–but everyone is going to interpret that differently. I’m just glad it is a topic that is being talked about again because it does affect so many people and I think we still have a stigma (like the idea that it’s all about “being thin” when the cause can be so many other things).
The fact that there is a romance kinda worries me a bit. I guess it depends on how it is used but sometimes I find the romance can take away from the story. You know those stories where the romance is the catalyst is for change. I’m not saying that it can’t be but I find that it isn’t always a realistic approach to the situation. So long as it doesn’t overshadow the main message, I’m cool with it.
One of the aspects of the movie I most admired was that it made that clear – her disorder wasn’t really about thinness so much as a self destructive coping mechanism she had developed over time.
I get what you mean about romance. I think in To the Bone is was interesting to me because the guy was kind of like a foil to Ellen’s character is every way basically. I don’t think he was a catalyst for change though. He was more like an emblem of the aspects of life her disorder meant she wasn’t accessing? If that makes sense. At least, that’s how it felt to me.
It’s a conversation starter though, for sure.
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I haven’t seen it yet because Netflix isn’t available in my region (I feel like I am living in caves T_T) so I am going to have wait for…um…”private distributors” to upload this movie on their site. But WOW Lydia you posed some really good points there. It is true that we romanticize self-harm. To give you a very recent example: I was talking to my mom the other day about Chester Bennington and trying to explain to her why his death was affecting me so much and why his songs were so beautiful when she said “This is what always happens in the end. The most talented artists are the ones who were addicted.” As disturbing as that thought is–it is, to an extent, true. It’s human nature to express ourselves through creativity and imagination in order to deal with trauma. But I do believe that personal tragedies do not have to be our source of inspiration for creating masterpieces.
As for the physical portrayal of anorexic people–yes, I do believe it might make some people refrain from seeking help if they believe they are only in danger if they look like that. But it’s important to remember that this is more than a story to create awareness. This is SOMEONE’s story. Sure, you can see that as a way to preclude criticism but then, should we be applying criticism to someone’s personal experience?
Why should we be applying criticism to someone’s personal experience?
I LOVE that question. I don’t know why it is that when it comes to certain stories, whether they are to do with mental health problems, race or sexuality or even gender, we have this horrible habit of holding up one version as THE story that must be applied to everyone.
It’s so sad about Chester Bennington. I suppose, like you say, people with a lot of pain are drawn toward making art as a means of expression but it’s not a prerequisite.
I forget that not every region has Netflix! Ugh, that must suuuck. I’m sorry for assuming everyone has my Netflix privileges – haha!
Thank you for responding so thoughtfully 🙂
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Thank YOU for such a thought provoking post! You always back up your ideas and arguements with so much logic–it’s always fun reading your posts!
I agree with you. One person’s experience cannot be applied to everybody. As unique as we are, we all experience the same things differently. General knowledge but we often forget it. I guess that’s why they are teaching me this exact concept in my Organizational Behavior course–you’d be surprised how much psychology and philosophy is needed for a BBA degree 😂
It SUCKS. And the worst part is the guilty feeling that comes with resorting to illegal sources for books, tv series, games and movies. Digital copyright is a myth here T_T