The familiar Netflix logo fades, and on the black screen, in white, reads, ‘The film was created by and with individuals who have struggled with eating disorders, and it includes realistic depictions that may be challenging for some viewers’. The adjective ‘challenging’ puts the onus of any discomfort on that viewer who dares to be challenged.
To the Bone is a film created by a former anorexic, staring an anorexic, about anorexia. The topic is pervasive. Realism has been thrown onto the screen with the hope that if enough is shown, something will stick. However, the omnipresence of eating disorders and the accompanying suitcases of stereotypes, makes not only challenging but infuriating, and arguably irresponsible viewing.
At one point, the patients of the inpatient clinic go to an art gallery, to an installation in which artificial rain falls from the ceiling. The ‘unconventional’ Dr. Beckham tells them that this is Art. He then questions why they’re there, to which Luke answers, ’Because we’re alive’. Slowly, to a soundtrack of RnB with predictable lyrics (‘drown me in the water, drown me in the sea, watch the water wash over me’) anorexic ballet boy starts dancing against the backdrop of rain and hyper-exposed lighting. It’s all light and shadows and unbearable kitsch. The patients stand in the artificial rain, variously hugging or dancing or spinning round with outstretched arms. They start shouting ‘FUCK YOU VOICE! YEAHH!’ - a twee chorus of pseudo-defiance against the anorexic mindset. And of course, after this epiphany scene, Ellen sits down and eats the chocolate bar which she dreamt of, drew and was taunted by. The others watch whilst emitting nervous giggles. Everything is apparently fine now because she is eating.
The radical doctor’s enduring wisdom? Grow a pair. If this film makes you feel uncomfortable? Grow a pair. Behind the defence of lived experience, the filmmakers are warning: you are not allowed to be triggered because this is Art and we are depicting Reality.
Reality can be depicted in other ways. It doesn’t have to be shown in images of bruised spines and sit ups and weigh-ins. There are other ways. There is subtly. You don’t have to show an anorexic cutting the breadcrumbs off a chicken breast, with the suggestion that This Is What Anorexics Do. There are manifest ways of being ill. This film says, anorexics use laxatives. Anorexics smoke. Anorexics obsessively exercise and avoid carbs like the plague and secretly purge. It marks off the disorder checklist one stereotype after another.
It says, this girl is ill because her family is disordered. Look, here are the divorces and stepmothers to prove it. It says, this girl is anorexic because she is skinny. Look, here are the ribs and collarbones and sunken cheeks to show it. We don’t need the numbers. We don’t need the calories. We don’t need the shoulder blades or weight-loss tactics. We are shown Ellen from the outside - not from her perspective, but from that of the anorexia itself.
But how do you depict the anorexic mindset in film, rather than just an anorexic aesthetic? By filming through the eyes of the character, a Peep Show-esque first-person perspective, showing not the physicality of the illness, but its effects. If Netflix had really wanted to make a film that showed what it was like to experience this illness, Lily Collin’s role would have been limited to a voiceover.
We don’t need to see more anorexic bodies on screen; we have a media saturated with thinness, with illness and eating disorders. But those on the outside, without any personal or close experience, cannot know what it truly looks like on the inside, what the anorexic voice sounds like. This context is what we need, not more disorder-porn.
If you really want to visually depict a character with an eating disorder, show a body that is not just white, young and female; show a body that is bigger than the societal image of the illness. When I was ill, I would only compare myself to the thinnest. In a full lecture theatre, in the street, in a busy station, I would pinpoint those thinner than myself and compare my own body to them. To my disordered mind, no one else existed; only thigh gaps and thin limbs. And so, by not only casting Lily Collins, but forcing an actress who has a known history with eating disorders to severely restrict and lose an evidently dangerous amount of weight for a role, the producers of To the Bone are saying to their audience, this is what anorexia looks like, and only to this degree.
The clichés about eating disorders are sprinkled throughout. The stick-thin limbs, the starvation, the weeping family asking, ‘Why won’t you just eat?’. On the other hand, the more insidious, unhelpful reactions are presented with a sly, cool-girl wink. The jokes about being a cheap date, comparisons to holocaust survivors, the binge-eating patient envious of the bulimic. These moments try to say, Look! Anorexia can be funny too! It’s not all starvation and infertility and death. Sure, without such moments of attempted brevity the film would have been a more difficult watch. Had the protagonist not been the cool-girl, defiant daughter who is made into artist and sex object, had she instead been the bulimic who hid puke under her bed, or the six-times inpatient woman who suffered a miscarriage, the film would have been much less watchable.
Of course, there is much I recognise in To the Bone. The thought that all that stands between you and morbid obesity is a single chocolate bar. The desire to shrink away, to shrink from desire, from unwanted attention, from unsought advances. The encyclopedic knowledge of calories, the gripping at the arms, sit-ups in secret. The drinking before weigh-ins. Refusing anti-depressants because of the fear of gaining weight. Being made to feel that your illness is the embodiment of selfishness.
I recognise the resentment of oneself and of the situation and the disease. Of the incomparable exhaustion yet intense energy, the unsurpassable determination. I recognise the mothers' anger, and the sibling’s inability to understand. I recognise myself in not only Ellen, but Luke — the dancer who was forced to stop dancing after a knee injury, and so hollows themselves to reflect the cage that their body has become.
But largely, To the Bone shows caricatures. They have compiled symptoms and character traits, making the most attractive version of anorexia from this accumulation. They are presenting an ideal image of illness, in an idealised form, and from a stereotypical background. The pseudo-psychological trope of hysterical women and overbearing mothers causing daughters to develop eating disorders can hardly be played upon more when Ellen is given not one, but three mothers to contend with. It’s as if the whole of the character’s backstory has been painted as possible causes.
She’s anorexic because daddy’s absent and her stepmother is domineering. Because her mother’s gay and lives with another woman. Because mental illness runs in the family. Because she’s an artist and look at Anne Sexton — artists are more vulnerable to madness. Because of society, right? Or not because of society because that’s a stereotypical excuse and Ellen avoids stereotypes because she’s a Cool Anorexic. Because she has a Tumblr and the internet is dangerous and because her drawings drove a girl to suicide and their parents sent her the photos. [This unnecessary plot line was a step too far.]
Just because parts of this film are acutely relatable, just because there is some truth within this depiction, does not mean that it should have made it to screen. There are ways of inciting conversation, different means of depiction which are better suited for different subjects, and for this highly visually sensitive topic, the screen should have been avoided.
A poet once told me that while writing could be therapeutic, to never to use writing as therapy -other people don’t want to read it. This film feels like the director’s personal therapy. Written and directed by Marti Noxon, it is based on her personal experiences of eating disorders and treatment. To be a director, to be a writer, you need to be detached enough from your subject to have an awareness of the impact your work might have.
To the Bone feels as if presented by an anorexic reveling in the aesthetic of the illness, in the feeling of power and pity paid to waifs strong enough to withstand their own slow suicides. Noxon confessed in interviews that she sought validation and reassurance from crew members during filming that she herself didn’t need to lose weight after witnessing Collins’ weight-loss on screen. This should have been a signal that the content and perspective of the film was misjudged.
There is an entitlement that comes with depicting a personal experience. While our experiences are personal and precious [ as Caroline Bird writes, ‘No one else is having your heartbreak […] It is your prize, you’ve earned it, heaved it up from the wishing well of your throat, held its broken body, treasured it, fed it with tears’] when given a public platform, you must own the responsibility of your own influence. You cannot excuse yourself from culpability by calling it ‘Art’.
Equally, the only way to avoid triggering others is to recover yourself. This film is too close, too personal, too much caught in the mindset which is conflictingly shown from the outside. It feels like a film presented by someone still in the grips of an eating disorder, still enamored with the illness, the abuser; the addiction.
From a deeply visceral place, I hate this film. I hate the longing it inspires in me to go back to being cold, back to being ill, back to bruised and aching and numb. I sit here in my healthy, recovered body and I long for my flesh to be back, To the Bone. This is what filmmaking can do, and this is why filmmakers should heed the warnings of professionals - and heed their own warnings. The fact that the director sought reassurance from the crew that she herself didn’t need to lose weight shows how insidious the ED mindset is, and how hungry it remains to latch on to images of thinness, of illness.
The seed of disorder remains latent, needing only the faintest hint of nourishment from anorexic imagery to bloom once more. It isn't really really about being thin enough: there is no thin enough. What you crave is the numbing of all those things which you don’t want to feel. This film triggers those feelings, and renews the desire to be numb once more. Just as a chance encounter with a long-forgotten ex might inspire a renewed wave of longing and desire, this film may be all that is needed to reignite that flame, stoking the fires of self-destruction.
The ubiquity of various forms of eating disorders mean that your own problematic behaviours will inevitably affect someone around you. While you may be the only one in your close circle in treatment at that time, while you may feel like the protagonist in your own recovery tale, invariably you will not be the only one in your vicinity who has at some point suffered, who has starved or purged or ran, who has worried or weighed or binged or avoided. These people may never have been diagnosed, or they might have recovered alone, or may never have told anyone else about their disordered behaviour. But this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been affected, and it doesn’t mean that they may not be affected by you.
Some, those who have not experienced it or seen the torture of this illness up close, say that anorexia is a fad, an instance of fickle self-obsession, that it is selfish and an example of privilege to choose to starve when so many are starving without choice or chance of liberation. Anorexia is not a choice. It is a parasite, feeding off starvation, insecurity and obsessive comparison.
However, recovery is a choice. Initially, it is unlikely to be a personal or conscious one. But at some point, weeks, months, maybe years down the line, you must choose to eat. You must choose to reject the parasitic voice which says that numbness and starvation are preferable to feelings and health. You must stop comparing yourself to the thinnest in the room, on the screen, on the page. You must stop the warped instinct which says that you must fit the prescribed aesthetic of this illness.
Films like To the Bone feed the parasite, weighing down the choice of recovery until it is almost too heavy to bear. Its adherence to the prescriptive anorexic aesthetic makes genuine struggles feel fraudulent, and its caricatures of the supplementary characters suggests that people with eating disorders can be either the ‘cool-girl’ or the weirdo: there is no balance, no complexity, no nuance.
The biggest fuck you to all of this, to all of the struggle they lament about in ‘Bitch and Bawl’, to the silicone-shell version of anorexia portrayed by Hollywood, is to eat, and not care about eating. To eat in defiance of thinness, of illness and an airbrushed vision of eating disorders. To eat for your mind. To eat for your life.