I’m no stranger to shameless Netflix binges at one in the morning, nor am I above counting down the days until Season 5 of Orange is the New Black. Netflix is just as much a part of my nightly routine as brushing my teeth, and I’m not alone. Over 100 million individual Netflix subscribers around the world have been connected by a single movie-streaming website that stemmed from a man who was charged $40 for returning his VHS copy of Apollo 13. Consequently, when Netflix released its newest original movie, To the Bone, these 100 million plus impressionable individuals were exposed to arguably the first mainstream movie about eating disorders.
To the Bone depicts 20-year old Ellen’s (Lily Collins) struggle with anorexia nervosa. Ellen, an amateur artist and a child of divorced parents, is admitted to a non-traditional group recovery home for her fifth attempt at a treatment program. A brutal illustration of the recovery process for anorexia follows for the next hour plus. The film’s writer-director, Marti Noxon, who struggled with anorexia herself, said that the film’s intention “was not to glamorize [eating disorders] but to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions.” For better or worse, her goal was fulfilled twice over.
To the Bone was released only months after Netflix’s controversial series, 13 Reasons Why, in which the protagonist slits her wrists and commits suicide in a very graphic final scene. I appreciate Netflix encouraging conversation about mental health by using film to address two of the most common mental illnesses. I also understand that conveying such a sensitive subject in a way that is both respectful and TV-material is difficult. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. That being said, as a woman who struggled with anorexia nervosa as a teenager, I was disappointed and annoyed with Noxon’s attempt, especially considering she admittedly struggled with anorexia as well.
Having ended my treatment a little under six years ago, I felt I was in a position where I could safely watch the film while simultaneously having the ability to read into it as a relatively recent former patient. As a fairly recent former patient, I was wildly disappointed. To the Bone somehow managed to both glamorize and downplay anorexia. Eating disorder clinicians and specialists weren’t granted access to the film prior to its release, limiting professional input that may have prevented that. While Noxon has a personal history with eating disorders, this does not qualify her as an expert. With such sensitive and potentially triggering material, refusing input from licensed professionals was ill-advised. The portrayal of eating disorder treatment and eating disorders themselves was incredibly inaccurate especially considering the lack of knowledge amongst the broad audience the film was directed at.
The first and primary issue was the group recovery home where the majority of To the Bone’s set. The treatment that is practiced in the group recovery home, while outwardly unorthodox, is wildly ineffective. While I remember when my parents removed my bedroom door and scheduled weekly weigh-ins as is portrayed in the film, skipping a meal was never an option, and rightfully so. Establishing a safe relationship with food is the sole “cure,” for lack of a better word, for anorexia and other eating disorders. Anorexic patients rarely want treatment because treatment is synonymous with weight gain. I was shocked when Ellen was informed that the group recovery home requires that everyone sit down for dinner but if you don’t want to eat, you don’t have to. If that were the case, most patients would never lift up a fork.
To her credit, I thought that Lily Collin’s played the part of an anorexia patient beautifully. This may have been in part because she too has had her own experience with an eating disorder. As I read professional film reviews, critics called Ellen’s behavior disturbing and “frustrating to watch”. I found this amusing as I can’t imagine a young woman starving herself to death as anything but disturbing and hard to watch. Ellen is checked out, distances herself from others, and is alarmingly self-disciplined. She conveys the lethargic, obsessive personality that defines anorexia. My concern was that, because she plays it so well, she becomes a bit of an “eating disorder role model.”
While I think the intention was to portray the behind the scenes of anorexia nervosa accurately, the detailed calorie counting and tricks regarding purging and weigh-ins worked a little bit like an eating disorder manual. While this material is readily available on the internet and through other media sources, it is typically only read by those who actively pursue it. To the Bone’s audience is significantly broader, considering it has been at the top of that small 100 million plus subscribers video-streaming website since its release. Personally, I don’t think information about how to pull trig was particularly necessary.
Admittedly, there is some good to combat the bad and the ugly. While the material wasn’t always realistic, for an audience that is typically naive to how an eating disorder is a disorder and not a lifestyle choice, it provided a powerful insight. One of the biggest stigmas surrounding eating disorders is that the victim is to blame. To the Bone emphasizes the difficulty for both the individual and their loved ones to find the right treatment and the severe consequences that occur with a lack of one. There is also a woman of color (Lindsey McDowell) and a male character (Alex Sharp) in the cast, which helps dispel the stereotype that eating disorders are typically diagnosed in young, white women. McDowell plays Kendra, a patient who has suffered from binge-eating disorder. Binge-eating disorder (BED) is a legitimate mental illness and is the most common eating disorder in the US. While I was glad there was a BED patient, I could not believe how poorly binge eating was portrayed. Kendra barely has a role, with what couldn’t have been more than ten lines. She sits at the dinner table, happily eating peanut butter with a spoon. This is not reflective of typical binge behavior, and I couldn’t help but notice that the one character who meets the criteria for BED also happened to be the one woman of color. It was a good attempt, but an abysmal execution.
I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting To the Bone is in any way cause for an individual with no history of eating disorders to suddenly develop anorexia. My concern for triggering material is directed at young adults who are currently struggling with anorexia nervosa. Emaciated body imagery that is disturbing to those who haven’t suffered from an eating disorder often sparks a positive reaction in these individuals. Eating disorders can take years to recover from and are not something to be taken lightly. I think that To the Bone is the closest we’ve gotten to an informative fictional film regarding eating disorders. I just ask that you watch it with a grain of salt.