health

"I've lived with anorexia for 14 years, and 'To The Bone' should never have been made."

Content warning: This post deals with eating disorders, and may be triggering for some readers.

On last week’s episode of Mamamia Out Loud, we discussed Marti Nixon’s Netflix film ‘To The Bone’, which explores the eating disorder of 20-year-old Ellen played by Lily Collins. The film has attracted significant backlash, particularly by organisations like The Butterfly Foundation, who argue that vivid representations of eating disorders are instructive, and serve as a manual for people who are already struggling.

We received an email following the discussion, from a woman who has lived with anorexia nervosa for 14 years.

This is her story.

I’ve been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa since I was 13. I’m now 27.

I actually just came out of another one month stint in hospital for refeeding last Friday. I’ve had upwards of 20 hospital inpatient stays and been involved in multiple outpatient treatment programs, including a two year intensive residential program (which looked something like the treatment program Lily Collins’ character goes to in the film).

Most of the later part of high school for me was spent at home with my mum because she couldn’t leave me to my own devices. I had to sleep in my parents bedroom and they would lock the doors so I couldn’t sneak outside in the middle of the night to go for a run. None of this is something I am at all proud of, but I guess it just gives you an idea of the type of life experience I have had in relation to this topic.

LISTEN: Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Jessie Stephens discuss To The Bone on the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below. 

The moment I heard about this film I got a really sick feeling deep in my stomach. I haven’t watched the entire film, I’ve actually been explicitly advised against it by my treatment team, but what I have seen has completely appalled me and honestly made me want to scream in frustration at my laptop screen. I strongly believe this film should never have been made. I am of the belief that a film about anorexia simply cannot be made responsibly. For someone who is genetically vulnerable to an eating disorder, or in a high risk group (teenagers, female, athletes) this film could be the trigger point that sends them down a rabbit hole of dealing with an often chronic, completely destructive and devastating illness.

In the early stages of the illness, I would seek out absolutely anything eating disorder related. I would seek it out to fuel my desire to become sicker and sicker. When I was young, I thankfully only had access to YouTube videos of American documentaries and daytime movies made in the ’90s, but I would watch them on repeat because it was a way for me to feel closer to my ED (eating disorder) voice…which is what I wanted. I wanted to be ill. I wanted people to look at me and be shocked. Anorexia for me has nothing to do with food or weight or “looking good”, but that’s not to say that making a movie that demonstrates the way the illness can dictate these parts of a sufferers life isn’t still damaging.

I just don’t believe anything good can come from a film like this. If anything, it only perpetuates the stereotype that someone suffering from an eating disorder is sickly thin, white and female, when actually the statistics show that someone is much more likely to suffer from EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified, usually a mix of symptoms that don’t quite fit into the DSM criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa) or binge eating disorder. You don’t have to be underweight in order to be terribly mentally unwell and physically compromised. Research also shows that eating disorders equally affect people from all walks of life and do not discriminate by race, sexuality or gender. I personally know of several women and men that I have been in treatment with that have died from complications from this disease. Not all of them were underweight when they died, but all of them suffered immensely and died a premature death.

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Lily Collins in To The Bone. Image via Netflix.

I feel so frustrated because this content is so undeniably damaging. It doesn't show the reality of an eating disorder. It brushes over the stereotypical parts of the illness that could be better conveyed in educational campaigns or better addressed by training GPs to identify early signs of eating disorders.

I wouldn't recommend anyone watch it and I would even go as far to say I would like it to be taken down from Netflix. I don't think it does anything to improve awareness of eating disorders and it ultimately is going to trigger people who are already unwell, just as 13 reasons why triggered copy cat suicide attempts in the weeks after it was released.

13 Reasons Why. Image via Netflix.
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Anorexia is, by nature, competitive. There is enough out there already to fuel it, why add another movie to the mix? If the money is there to make a film about eating disorders then why not make it about someone who is overweight? Why not make it about someone in a racial minority, or someone who doesn't have the means to fund expensive treatment that can easily cost upwards of $1000 out of pocket a day? I think that would do far more to expose the reality of eating disorders, but I guess that isn't as glamorous as a pretty white girl with a happy Hollywood ending of recovery to match? Better still, why not funnel that money into better treatment, better access to treatment and better education and awareness.

When I was young I used to idolise the girls in the movies I watched because if only I could get thin enough and sick enough I would get the help I desperately wanted but couldn't ask for. The truth is that for many people the type of help they need isn't actually out there. Those residential programs from the films don't actually exist here in Australia. The residential program I did when I was 18 wasn't specialised in eating disorders and no longer runs anyway due to lack of funding. You either pay for private health insurance, which is what I do despite being on a disability support pension from the government, or you wind up going in and out of public hospitals for short stays that only prop your health up to a non life threatening point where if you are lucky you'll last a few more days at home before needing to be readmitted again.

LISTEN: You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here. 

Most public hospitals don't address the psychological aspects of the illness at all, which just highlights even further the lack of funding going towards mental health in general. Another thing I sure wasn't prepared for when I was diagnosed, was the time it takes to recover. Aside from all the other things wrong with making a film about this type of subject matter, illness and recovery from a serious eating disorder can't be neatly put into a 90 minute feature. The average recovery time is seven years, one third of sufferers will recover, one third will go on to live a life of chronic suffering with the illness and one third of sufferers will die. I don't think I've ever seen a film that depicts either of the second two types of eating disorder.

I wish more people could understand that the media does have a responsibility when it comes to matters of mental health. There are better ways to address serious, chronic and life threatening illnesses such as anorexia nervosa and my heart breaks for all the people at the beginning of their journey with this illness. I know there will be people sitting at home watching this show and being triggered unknowingly into a lifetime of struggling to do something as basic as feeding oneself. I know because I was that girl at 13 and here I am fourteen years later still crying over the size of the banana a nurse is forcing me to eat at breakfast or else I'll get the calories in a thick sickly fluid down my nose instead.

If you or a loved one is suffering with an eating disorder, Mamamia urges you to contact The Butterfly Foundation

To sign a petition asking for the makers of To The Bone to have a content review by professionals, click here.

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