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'To The Bone' Only Scrapes The Surface Of Life With An Eating Disorder

The film perpetuated eating disorder stereotypes, rather than broaden the discussion.

07/21/2017 12:40 EDT | Updated 07/21/2017 12:40 EDT

My perspective on this film comes from a place of great compassion and care, years of working with so many that suffer, and all the different ways this looks. In an attempt to open up the conversation about eating disorders, To the Bone, the recently released Netflix film, merely repeated the conversation.

The film is about a young, white woman affected by an acute case of anorexia. This story line, though very real and important, is always the story line that gets attention when the topic of eating disorders is on the table. In this way, the film perpetuated eating disorder stereotypes, rather than broaden the discussion.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
Cast member Lily Collins plays Ellen in Netflix's 'To the Bone.'

When most people think about eating disorders aesthetically, they think about Lily Collins' character, Ellen — emaciated, gaunt and deathlike. When most people think about what a person with an eating disorder does with food they think about Ellen's rituals — starving herself, avoiding meals, playing with the food on her plate. When most people think about why eating disorders come to be, they think about the back story that Ellen comes with — estranged father, emotionally absent mother, trauma history. Again, all very real and important, but this is often the only story that is told.

What about all the people who suffer with eating disorders that are people of colour, middle-aged, LGBTQ; those that are parents, professionals, in average-looking bodies? Or how about those who come from close-knit families and a myriad of socio-economic backgrounds? Or those that eat regularly throughout the day and who are very high-functioning in the world. What about the OTHER real-life stories of people affected by eating disorders? When are they going to have a voice?

The film romanticizes the world and work of treatment and gives the illusion that recovery is pretty loose and breezy. It is anything but.

I was disappointed by the lack of trigger/content warning at the beginning of this film. This movie can be very triggering for those that currently suffer and those that have suffered historically. Watching Ellen imprisoned by the rituals and regimens of her eating disorder can be quite disturbing to view. I think both the filmmaker and Canadian Netflix failed the audience by not providing the contact information for the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) so that those affected by the movie would be directed to reach out and could seek the support they may need.

There are some other places I'll mention where the movie lost its way, insofar as accuracy is concerned.

The residential treatment centre, for one, which portrayed a laid-back, easy going, "do what you want," "eat whatever (little) you want," atmosphere isn't exactly the way that people move through recovery. Recovery is hard. REALLY hard! Gruelling, in fact. Its painful and scary, can be highly competitive, deeply uncomfortable and it's often not without constant professional supervision. The film romanticizes the world and work of treatment and gives the illusion that recovery is pretty loose and breezy. It is anything but.

KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images

The work of the therapist was questionable, namely when he decided that the family was a "shitshow" and therefore family therapy was no longer necessary. The dysfunction that exists among loved ones, should it affect the person suffering (which it clearly did for Ellen), should be explored. If that work is pushed away, the emotional affects of these relationships remain unresolved, leading the person suffering, dependent on their eating disorder symptoms, to cope.

Though this has nothing to do with the actual movie, I still feel it is important to address this point. Lily Collins shared that she has a history of an eating disorder and that she lost weight "safely" for the role. Is there really a safe way to lose weight to the point of utter skin and bones? I don't believe so. If the world thinks that this can be done safely, then not only does this undermine all of those who suffer severely with eating disorders who don't look like Lily Collins, it also indicates that this is achievable. This is a scary message.

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Where did the movie make sense?

The scene with the lead character and her mother in the tent. Squeamish, I know. But put those "oh-that's-just-so-weird" feelings aside and the film actually touches on something important. It addresses the deep-rooted emotional pain that remained unresolved for these characters and the critical step that communication takes in recovery. What we learned was when mother and daughter came together and started talking honestly, that this led Ellen (in that moment) to feel worthy of feeding her body (or being fed by her mom). For those that suffer with eating disorders, there is a direct relationship between being emotionally safe and physically safe.

The other important piece was the storyline of the pregnant woman — an often silenced, yet very common and critically important part of the eating-disorder spectrum. But this character, like the character of the woman of colour affected by binge-eating disorder, both of whom were peripheral, should have been central to the film. More people would have identified with them. It is these stories we haven't heard when we talk about eating disorders; these are the stories that broaden the conversation. These are the stories we must tell.

-Kyla Fox, Eating Disorder Specialist

Founder of the Kyla Fox Centre located in Toronto, Ontario

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