To the Bone: Authentic or Irresponsible?

TRIGGER WARNING: I will be discussing eating disorders throughout this post.

to the bone
Photo: Netflix

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?