Closer but not quite: My reaction to Netflix's "To The Bone"
August 1, 2017
Content Warning: This post talks about eating disorders and mental illness.
There I was, braving the uncomfortable act that is making a YouTube video (one about eating disorders to make it even better) with a studio light shining in my face and my boyfriend kindly pretending like he couldn't hear me downstairs, when *click* my shutter closes and I realize I forgot to charge my camera battery. So we're going to do this the usual way, via the keyboard.
The video was intended to share my reactions to the new Netflix film, To The Bone. To The Bone follows the story of Ellen (played by Lilly Collins) through her battle with anorexia. The film, written and directed by Marti Noxon who was inspired by her own struggle with anorexia, started making headlines and filling Twitter feeds before it was even released. The trailer alone went viral thanks to what viewers called a shocking and potentially triggering portrayal of thinness.
As I said, I'm not going to talk much about everyone else's reactions to the movie but I am going to add to the conversation by sharing mine. Let me reiterate that I am not a medical professional, psychologist, or eating disorder expert etc. of any sort. My perspective is that of a (fairly typical thin, cis white) woman who has struggled with eating disorders for half of her life while also watching a number of close friends and loved ones do the same. So here we go:
Let me say this: To The Bone is part of Marti Noxon's very real journey with anorexia and I want to make it clear that I DO think it's great to see folks share and own their stories. My criticisms are not here to mock or make less of Noxon's journey and bravery in sharing it, but to point out that this conversation still has a very long way to go.
1. We're #talkingaboutit. That's a fact.We’re talking about itquite a bit and, even more, lots of people are taking interest in the way we’re talking about eating disorders and mental illness in general. Even those of us with criticisms or people in opposition of this movie are often doing so because they're vying for more intersectional care and awareness in the field of mental health — which is essential.
2. It's not a vanity affair. While the movie falls short in digging to the root of Ellen's eating disorder, the writers do a fairly good job of avoiding tropes that would support the misguided idea that eating disorders are an issue of vanity. There are multiple times during the film that we see Ellen visibly upset at the sight of her extremely thin body and the decreasing numbers on the scale. This does a little bit of good in showing that it’s not an obsession with looks. Rather, she seems quite disconnected from her body.
1. Surface-level understanding at best. This is discussed a fair amount in the online discussion of the movie but I'm going for it anyway. For a film thats goal is to break through stigma and increase the understanding of what it's like to have an eating disorder, To The Bone depicts very little beyond the protagonist's physical and habitual relationship with food and her body. As previously stated, the film never really looks at how or why Ellen developed anorexia or the deeper causes and rationale that often accompanies the physical actions.
In one scene, the viewer joins Ellen in a group therapy session during which the counselor hints at what could have been a deeper explanation of ED rationale. The counselor compares eating disorders to substance abuse and goes on to say, “what you crave is the numbing of the thing that you don’t want to feel." YASSS, keep going! criedinner me, thinking this was the turning point for the movie and maybe, just maybe, someone was going to learn something more from this film ...and then end scene. That's it. Toss 'em a platitude and there you have it.
Overall, I feel like most people watching this film will walk away with little more understanding of eating disorders beyond the less-than-groundbreaking idea that it means you have a complicated relationship with food.
2. All (but one) the thin people! This bothers me for a few reasons. My first point of contention with only using thin actors is that it perpetuates the idea that the only struggles with eating disorders worthy of attention or care are those that result in extreme weight loss. Having an eating disorder does not necessarily mean you're going to be super thin, or thin at all, but it still affects a person's mental and physical well-being. Additionally, this movie reinforces the weird-and-totally-incorrect notion that certain EDs look a certain way i.e. anorexia looks very thin. bulimia looks thin but not too thin (think: girl next door), binge eating disorder looks fat (see point three).
3. Have an ED but not thin? It must be BED! Binge Eating Disorder is talked about far less than other forms of ED. It was only just recently formally recognized in the DSM5 but studies have since found that its more common in the US than anorexia and bulimia combined*. Binge Eating Disorder, like any type of ED, does not discriminate based on age, sex, gender, race, or socioeconomic status, and is most definitely not dependent on or a causation of a person's size and body weight. Thin people can suffer with BED just as fat people can suffer from anorexia. Despite this, the only person in Ellen's treatment facility who ISN'T thin is Kendra, a young black woman with BED.
1. Only one non-white person at the treatment facility. Oh yeah, not only is Kendra the only person who isn't thin and the only one with BED, she's the only person of color recieving treatment. Again let me reiterate the point that so many others have been driving home in the wake of this film: Eating disorders do not discriminate based on size, age, sex, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. There are many studies on the way these factors might affect the eating disorder such as how someone's environment can influence the way an eating disorder manifests itself, how age and socioeconomic status play a role in likelihood of and access to treatment, but the general population isn't that deep in the conversation yet. Society still mainly associates eating disorders with thin white women so it's hard not to be disappointed with this film's lack of diversity. Oh, and not only did the film makers cast a single black ED character but the one they did also had the responsibility of being the only person with a significantly different body type and suffers from one of the least-respected and understood forms of ED? Seriously? Do Better.
2. A lack of content warnings for the trailer. To The Bone received large criticism from the online community for being potentially triggering or upsetting to folks who have suffered, or continue to suffer, from an eating disorder. While my opinion here may not be a popular one, the movie itself being graphic does not concern me so much as the trailer. Specifically speaking: I was disturbed by the way the trailer was presented to me without prior warning. It is one thing to sit down and choose to watch a movie about anorexia. Assuming that I am doing so by my own will, at that point I have likely had a conversation with myself about potential dangers and made the choice to put myself in a vulnerable state. However, when something graphic or potentially harmful is put into my queue and autoplays without my knowing, that’s not okay. I first discovered To The Bone because Netflix did just that. The trailer played after a different (and unrelated) Netflix show had ended. I was not asked to press play. I was not given a content warning. I was just fed images of an extremely thin woman, physical exercise, and diet-talk without my consent. This felt like both violation of both my space and my safety.
3. The love interest takes interest in saving. This might be what bothered me the most about this film. As the story unfolds, Ellen and the only boy in the house, Luke, begin to develop a romantic relationship. There are a number of things that are problematic about Luke's character but what struck me most was his eagerness to save Ellen, even when she appears to be uninterested in doing so herself. Luke is enamored with Ellen and seems intent on sharing his methodology and recovery success with her. At one point he becomes insistent upon getting Ellen to eat what she had shared was her favorite candy bar (so much cringing).
Normalizing the idea that your partner should or can be wholly responsible for your mental health is extremely dangerous and not only threatens to put those who enter relationships with the hopes of being "saved" at risk but also their partners. Expecting your significant other to track, monitor, and encourage your behaviors to that degree is presumptuous in the least but, in my opinion, borderline abusive and invasive to your identity.
Your significant other should want the best for you, yes. Odds are that they will play some sort of supporting role in your journey with mental illness but they should not be lead. You are the lead. Assuming that a person, especially a young person, has the emotional and physical capacity to be your keeper and guardian is both irresponsible and misguided.
Have you watched To The Bone? Why or why not? Have your own opinions or thoughts on successes and downfalls of the making of this movie? I'd love to hear!