Content warning: This post deals with eating disorders, and may be triggering for some readers.
Much has been written in recent weeks about the ‘problematic,’ ‘dangerous,’ and ‘unrealistic’ portrayal of eating disorders in Netflix’s To The Bone.
The film, starring 28-year-old Lily Collins, who has been open about her own struggles with anorexia and bulimia, tells the story of 20-year-old Ellen, a college drop out whose family dynamics and past trauma appear to stand in the way of her complex road to recovery.
Ellen is extremely thin, and has been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. She has what her sister calls ‘calorie Aspergers’ where she can calculate the caloric value of food just by looking at it. Her bones protrude, her clothes are baggy. Her face is gaunt.
As someone with a background in eating disorders research, who has previously worked in a residential treatment centre for eating disorders, I was immediately unsettled by this premise.
The only eating disorder pop culture seems at all interested in representing is a very limited brand of anorexia nervosa - despite the fact that bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other specified eating or feeding disorder (OSFED) are far more common.
A person who suffers from an eating disorder is also very likely to shift between diagnoses. The story of a woman who starves herself - with none of the 'unappealing' symptoms like binging or purging or laxative use - is so rare that it's incredibly hard to see To The Bone as the earnest portrayal that it claims to be.
While there were several moments throughout the film that I found irresponsible and misleading, it was its ending, or more specifically, its lack of ending, that was its greatest downfall.
*** Spoiler alert ***
After a series of challenging events in residential care, Ellen runs away to be with her mother. That night, she experiences a 'spiritual awakening' of sorts - and we're led to believe that for the first time, she truly, genuinely wants to get better. She's hit 'rock bottom' as her therapist calls it, and as she steps out of the car to return to residential care, there's hope.
Then the film ends.
In one sense, the choice to end the film here is meaningful. A key tenet of clinical psychology, and treatment for mental disorders, is that a person must want to change in order to truly recover. Signposting this moment for Ellen makes for a touching conclusion - one that leaves an audience optimistic.
But it also avoids the most uncomfortable truth about eating disorders, and in a sense, the film's one opportunity to be truly realistic.
Listen: The case for body neutrality rather than body positivity. Post continues...
It's no accident that To The Bone ends without Ellen (and Lily Collins, for that matter) having to put on any weight. Without her having to actually eat.
The narrative ends with thinness. If this is a story about recovery, the film ends at the beginning
I've watched women try to recover from an eating disorder, and the hard part isn't deciding to change. The hard part is making that decision over and over and over again.
Even when your weight increases. Even when your clothes don't fit. Even when to the outside world, it doesn't look like you're sick anymore. Even when you see other women praised for their slender frames, and can't avoid photos of thin women in bikinis all over your Instagram feed.
The reason To The Bone ends with a thin Lily Collins is the same reason the film wasn't made about a person struggling with binge eating disorder, or bulimia, who is normal weight, or overweight, or obese.
And it's the same reason so many women suffer from issues with body image and eating.
Because, as a culture, we place an appalling level of value on thinness. Being thin is associated with morality, discipline, success, and social capital. It's idolised and envied. Even when a person is dying. Even when we're trying to tell a story of recovery.
We can't shake our obsession and worship of thinness.
And the effects are devastating.
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.