The new Netflix film titled ‘To The Bone’ is the latest in that media outlets’ attempts to tackle mental health-based topics in their productions. This time the focus is Anorexia Nervosa. The film has been creating quite a stir online ever since the trailer was released a few months back, and there have been some divided opinions. Personally, I have held off from saying my piece until I had the opportunity to actually watch the film, which was released this week. So, having now watched it….where do I even begin?
If you aren’t already aware, the film follows Ellen, a 20-year-old rebellious character living with Anorexia Nervosa. The lead part, Ellen, is played by Lily Collins – an actress who has herself reported previously struggling with an Eating Disorder. This, at first thought, sounds like fantastic casting; who else can better bring some reality to the role than someone who actually knows what living with an Eating Disorder feels like? However, terrifyingly, Lily was encouraged to lose weight for the role; which is just so wrong, on so many levels.
Restricting your calorie intake, and forcing your body to become underweight is obviously dangerous for a person’s overall physical health. But, for someone with a history of an Eating Disorder, this restriction and related body changes might set off a chain reaction, and ultimately a relapse. It is not okay to put someone at that risk – Eating Disorders kill. Furthermore, Lilly did not NEED to lose weight to play this part. Eating Disorders are not epitomised by being underweight and even if the producer thought it was necessary to show such a level of emaciation for the character this could have been done in digital editing, thereby protecting Lily and taking seriously the risk which such low weight puts on the human body.
Moving on a little bit, many people are reporting that they find the film triggering. This means that they feel an element of the show (perhaps Lily’s low weight, or talk of particular disordered behaviour) leads them to thinking about, or actually, engaging in, an unhealthy behaviour. This is a little bit more of a complex issue, because I think it is almost (if not completely) impossible to create an honest film of this type without doing something that someone somewhere will find triggering. Does that mean we shouldn’t create films (and therefore dialogue) on these topics?
My answer to this question has to be ‘no’. Popular media is far more likely to be impactful on the understanding of the masses than a journal article in a niche publication. If they get it right, this can only be a great thing…..and, even if they get it wrong, at least it is creating this dialogue.
So, lets get on to the actual film. I have to say it wasn’t exactly what I expected. While the film is centred on one young woman’s experience, it is quite a step from the average. Ellen/Lily is attending residential (inpatient) treatment for her Eating Disorder in a service that is very unlike anything many people will experience. This means that while the film might be building awareness, some may think that she is entering a typical process of care – when, really, she is not. I was frustrated: I was hoping for something more typical – to offer the public a genuine insight.
There is also some noticeable sexism, ageism, and ableism within the movie – but in many respects that’s an entirely different conversation.
Beyond that, there are some really good points; the film (in my opinion) does not glamorise Eating Disorders and we do see real glimpses into the mental distress of Ellen and other characters. I think it is apparent from watching that these people are struggling, that it isn’t a choice, and that recovery is not easy. That’s some massive progress on the general media output.
Within the film I particularly like when Dr Beckham (the lead clinician, played by Keanu Reeves) states “no talk about food, it’s boring and unhelpful”. I think that, right there, is some great insight. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense to some readers (or film watchers) but Eating Disorders are a coping mechanism and not really about the food, or the weight. When working with clients, I am certainly keen to take the focus off those things.
So, it’s a mixed bag. The film does a great job in some respects, and not so much in others. My recommendation would be that you should not watch it alone if you yourself are a sufferer…and, also, remember that this is just a movie. Movies can emulate life in many ways, but they can not actually match the complex unseen (i.e. internal/inside a person’s psych) struggles of Eating Disorders and recovery.
If you need to talk to someone after watching, please do seek therapy, or contact an Eating Disorder support line.
Would love to read your thoughts in the comments.