On an unsuspecting Tuesday afternoon, I got a Twitter notification telling me that Netflix wanted to send me a private message. Being the loyal and subservient Netflix user that I am, I accepted without hesitation, only to find that they — THE Netflix — wanted to send me a pre-release version of their newest film, To The Bone. I was shocked. Then, I was honored! And almost immediately after, I was scared.
As someone who suffered with anorexia for over 3 years and has since come through recovery (still ongoing, as are most of us), I didn't particularly want to watch it. The trailer alone was triggering right off the bat (with rapid fire calories being listed off and quick shots of bones jutting out and body checking habits galore), which sent me reeling back into the deep and palpable archives of my disordered memory.
And so, I thought, the movie would be as well.
I wasn't entirely wrong — there's a lot of triggering imagery and disorder-fueled talk, gratuitous calorie mentions, an almost how-to plethora of tips and tricks for how to hide having an eating disorder, and, essentially, how to be most efficient at having one — but there's so much more to this movie than that. It's complicated, which is what makes it so much more dangerous.
And honestly? This is an unpopular opinion, given all it's recent press, but: I didn’t hate it.
I actually found it to be pretty well written and engaging, given the subject matter. I thought Collin's performance was fantastic. There were parts where I even laughed! Mainly, at jokes that only someone who’s been there can understand. Only someone who’s knowingly starved herself can laugh at someone sniffing the wrapper of an uneaten candy bar; laughed to herself at the words “I don’t feel that unhealthy” because in her heart she's forced yourself to believe that she's in control, she's okay; found herself also wrapping her fingers around the fleshy part of her arm to check, to measure, to know.
But I also have a lot of issue with it, and it boils down to these two problems: Lily Collins’ weight loss for the role, and what that says about who this film is actually for.
When we think about how movies are made, it’s clear that talent is important - your lead actor (especially for a more independent film, looking to get picked up by a giant like Netflix) should be a star. They bring in the views, they bring the press, they bring the money. You, as a filmmaker, want someone to see your work and want to put money into it. It's a business. You want someone to buy it. And Netflix did, for $8 million dollars.
Casting Collins was a strategic choice. Noxon picked an actress that would be a draw: she's got a cool, quirky, Juno-like edge to her, one who would embody the character the writer and director had in mind: 20-year old Ellen, with an attitude problem, snark and “calorie aspergers." Collins herself has spoken about her struggle with anorexia, and it was her (and also Noxon’s) personal connection to the mental illness that made her an easy, understandable choice.
But. Ellen is not the main character we need — at least, not in this way. She breaks no barriers and sparks no new conversation. She's just another white, 'beautifully tragic' girl (with a family who can afford 4 rounds of treatment) who has a restrictive eating disorder and looks like a walking skeleton. It's the same character we see in the media every single day, time and time again, reinforcing the idea that this is how anorexia looks, this is the only story worth telling. Ellen contributes nothing but the same tired face of restrictive EDs.
And let me be clear: the issue isn't that Ellen is white. It's not that she's thin, or upper class, or conventionally beautiful. Those things don't make her an unbelievable character — but they do make her clichéd.
To The Bone could have gone in any number of other directions:
But we'll never see that movie, because Netflix wouldn't pay $8M for it. It's not cool, or flashy. There's no guarantee that people will watch it. But with Collins, there is.
And there's nothing wrong with wanting to make a movie that gets a lot of viewership.
But why the weight loss? By casting someone like Collins, they'd already secured views. Her face and body are already used as ‘thinsporation’ on countless tumblr and pro-ana sites (and even photos of her during filming have now started circulating). So why, in a film that seeks to break barriers when it comes to talking about eating disorders — a film that Noxon says was meant "to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions" — why did they require her to lose weight in order to “convincingly” portray someone she already was (an anorexia sufferer)? Why reinforce the stereotype you say you want to break?
You could say, ‘there needs to be a level of shock factor.’ And it certainly is jarring. Anorexia (like any eating disorder) is not beautiful. It’s not sexy. It's not glamourous. This movie (in my opinion) doesn't portray eating disorders in that way. And yes, some people DO get to a low weight like Ellen. I know some of them personally, and their disorders are just as real and painful as someone who never became that thin. It's not a question of which visual is more or less 'sick,' or more or less worthy of help. It's the fact that when the media consistently personifies anorexia as a skeletal, white, beautiful girl, it sends the message that this is the only story worth telling — that if you don't look like this, you don’t fit the requirements for an eating disorder. You're not sick enough.
How would the role have been perceived differently, had Collins stayed her natural weight? If she had played the role exactly the same, if the movie had been exactly the same, except for Ellen's appearance?
You wouldn’t have been able to outwardly tell that she was starving herself, exercising to the point of injury and exhaustion, losing her periods ... but she would have been. You would have seen it in all the same places exemplified in the movie — the only difference would have been that she would have looked like a much greater majority of the people watching the film. She would have been what most anorexics look like: unassuming.
The reception to that character would have been one of two: either people would have celebrated a movie that chose not to show an emaciated anorexia sufferer, or there wold have been uproar that Ellen’s character wasn’t a “believable anorexic.” Either response would have created productive conversation. It would have challenged the idea of what eating disorders look like.
And that brings up my other question: if Collins was required to be skeletal in order to play Ellen, who is this movie actually for?
It's not a resource for those currently struggling as it's triggering in many parts, and not once is there any mention of NEDA (national eating disorders association) or any hotline or treatment facility information.
It’s not for educational purposes, because not only does it provide zero new information about them (it’s still the same thin, white, rich girls who are all at low weights), but it also sends the false and damaging message that treatment doesn’t work. Ellen has been to treatment four times — and as she even points out before she leaves, none of them are getting any better.
It’s not for the majority of ED sufferers who aren’t like Ellen, who don’t reach dangerously low weights, who don’t look like the stereotypical anorexic (which this movie features), or who don’t think they’re sick enough. It’s not for the millions of people struggling with binge eating disorders / non-restrictive disorders / EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), who don’t or can’t see themselves represented here. It isn't for people who haven't been diagnosed, or who don't know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of disordered habits.
So who does that leave? People who’ve never been touched by EDs, and people who want to watch this movie for entertainment value. And there’s nothing wrong with making a movie for entertainment, but at whose expense? What does this contribute? What does this add? Noxon even said in an interview with Vogue, "We didn’t film anything a woman or man who’s already conscientious about their weight wouldn’t already know." And in response to none of the minor characters being further developed? She explained, "It's not a documentary." So what's the point?
Noxon had a major opportunity to do something different here. At the bare minimum, she could have changed the entire message of the film by featuring Ellen at a stable weight. She could have fleshed out 4 different storylines (Ellen, Luke, Kendra, and Penny), and had them all center around treatment. She could have changed the ending; instead of a flash of insight in (sorry, but really?) a forced dream sequence, she could have ended it with Ellen dying on that mountain (she is, after all, one day away from a feeding tube and "dying right in front of us.").
But all Noxon did was make another movie about anorexia that I won’t recommend.
(originally given at the indianapolis leg of the cast on tour event series)
My name is Gina,
And I want to live In a world
Where it's OK
to love our bodies,
Just as they are.
Before I go any further, I want to thank Demi
For pushing so hard
for an event like this to be possible.
She has come through
And has given of herself
More than anyone I know,
And come out on the othe side
And I want to thank Mike, and Hank who couldn't be here,
And every single person at Cast
for giving their hearts and minds and souls
To helping people
not feel ... Alone.
So thank you, for everything that you do
For people like me, and Demi, and everyone here today.
I’ve always been a thin person.
I was thin when I was a little kid
I was thin when I was bullied all throughout elementary school.
Thin in high school and in college, despite hardly ever exercising and eating endless amounts of mediocre dorm and fast food.
But I was never as thin as when I thought I wasn’t.
Because for years I suffered from anorexia nervosa, orthoexia, and general anxiety.
I’d always heard stories about ‘anorexics’ and seen these photos of girls
who were so
desperately and painfully thin,
with bones jutting out
and sallow, gaunt faces.
But that wasn't me, right?
what I saw when I looked in the mirror wasn’t a skeleton -
so how could I be one of those people?
It just wasn’t possible.
But it was.
After a series of events leading to,
what my therapist would later describe as
I had my first panic attack.
It was the product of
“too much on my plate” I suppose ---
planning a wedding, buying a house,
and adopting a very sick dog
all at the same time.
After that, I didn’t eat.
I couldn’t eat.
The thought of food made me feel sick,
and I felt nauseous and tense
from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning
to the second I fell asleep at night.
I was a walking zombie for ten days straight,
barely going through the motions at work and at home.
And because of that, I lost about 15 pounds.
And that first morning
when I was able to look myself in the mirror --
when I saw how that weight had just melted off of me --
a dark part of me was happy.
How had I let myself get so big? I thought, so disgusting? so fat?
I needed to make more changes, I thought. I needed to make adjustments.
I cut my calories dangerously low - to about 5 to 600 a day.
I upped my time at the gym to more than two hours a day, almost every day.
I skipped breakfast and lunch,
and took over the role of preparing
all our dinners at home
so that I could control my portion size and keep my calorie intake as low as possible.
I got dressed and undressed in the dark
Because I felt disgusting.
I felt hideous.
I didn't want my man
To look at me, because I felt like nothing.
For years, my body didn’t belong to me. It belonged to my anorexia.
I let HER fill the mould of my own self worth.
She was with me when I tried on wedding dresses,
forcing me to choose the one I felt least fat in.
She would whisper in my ear every time I bought groceries.
She would drag my eyes downward as I watched strangers walk past, comparing their thighs, their arms, their stomachs to mine.
Until, three years of living like that --
standing in the middle of my kitchen
with the spatula in my hand,
My husband said, “let me help you make dinner” …
And the idea of not being able to control my meal sent me into panic,
and I completely shut down.
In the kitchen
feeling the waves of panic rushing over me,
my arms and legs crossed and wrapped around me
with muscles so tight
my entire body hurt the next morning.
And I remember my husband looking at me
And trying to say the right thing,
Because he knew. But he couldn’t form the right words.
And all l I could force myself to say was, “I think something’s wrong with me.”
So, that night I logged onto my computer
and googled things like
“Eating Disorder How to Tell.”
And a few days later, I made an appointment with a therapist,
And that simple act
of reaching out to another human,
humans who wanted to help,
Who KNEW how to help,
Changed my life.
She would ask me things like,
“why do you think you’re feeling this way?”
and “how are your behaviors
making the situation better or worse?”
and to be honest … I had no idea.
But what I did know -
what I figured out -
was that I valued, above anything else,
the size and shape of my body.
I valued what I looked like, over what I felt like.
And together we made good progress.
I started the Minnie Maud program of eating,
where i stopped all forms of exercise cold turkey,
and consumed upwards of 3,000 calories a day -
(Which, for those of you who haven’t suffered from an eating disorder,
might seem like a lot, but for a starving body it’s not.)
But I also realized that recovery from an eating disorder
Is so much more than just the physical.
Healing your body
is just a small part of it.
So I started a instagram account of my own.
And I only followed people
Who encouraged me;
Who were also in recovery;
Who promoted things like body positivity, self love, feminism,
knowing your worth.
And that's actually how Demi and I met.
Found my account,
Back in the beginning of it,
And liked a couple of my photos,
And then she started following me,
And I thought,
And then she messaged me
And asked for my phone number
And we've been friends since.
The point is,
I took control of the influences in my life.
And it started out slow.
Because recovery -
Learning to love yourself -
Is really hard. It is.
You’re trying to unlearn all the years of
Negativity and self-deprecation
that society has been teaching women - and men - for forever.
I actually wish that I could remember
the exact moment I learned that fat was ugly.
That only thin, slender bodies were beautiful.
I wish I could pinpoint what words were used,
or what I saw,
or what specific series of events lead me to believe that.
And the truth is, I don’t know when it happened.
It was just always there,
taking up space in the corner of my mind
like a forgotten houseplant - silently growing,
and reaching out
more and more
with every passing day,
with every body shaming comment I heard,
diet culture fueled
societal norm feeding it.
Because we DO live in a diet culture
Where women are taught that we’re not good enough.
Or skinny enough.
Or toned enough
Or sexy enough.
Look at the cover of any womens magazine,
And you’ll see things like
“Get a hot body now”
“10 ways to lose that belly fat”
Tone every inch!
Drop two sizes!
Get Beach Body Ready - that’s a big one.
Because, as women,
we’ve been taught to be dissatisfied with ourselves.
Whether it’s the way we look,
or how we’re supposed to feel,
or how we deal with our problems.
We’re not supposed to talk about them.
Eating disorders are just phases.
Addiction? Something you can just … get over.
Anxiety? Stop worrying so much.
Depression? Cheer up,
so many people have it worse than you.
But seriously? That’s such a load of shit.
Your feelings are VALID. What you think, and experience, has value.
One of the most important things I learned
in my recovery was this:
ITS OK TO TALK ABOUT IT.
Talk about it!
Reach out to someone,
Do it today, here,
And just ... Say how you're feeling.
There’s such a stigma
on mental illness,
and so many people
who are struggling
feel like they can’t talk about it!
Because they think they’ll be judged
for having these feelings,
or because they feel
like they’re the only ones.
And talking about it IS hard!
But you know what?
The more I talked about it,
the more I opened myself up
to feeling BETTER
about the things I was talking about.
For me, I started off small.
I wrote little posts on my instagram -
because it was easier than talking out loud! -
about how I was feeling,
and asking, into the internet,
“is anybody else?”
And people started to write back!
I heard, “Me too!”
and “I understand”
I met women who were also recovering
from an eating disorder,
or from addiction,
or from depression and anxiety …
or just … feeling down about themselves.
And I was amazed
At how many women --
and girls! Young girls! -
hated their bodies.
They felt ashamed of the way they looked,
because they didn’t match the ideal in their heads,
or the bodies they saw
in magazines, or on social media.
But the bodies that they
so desperately wanted to have,
and tweaked, and tanned,
and adjusted, and manipulated,
and spat out onto a computer screen,
or an advertisement,
and pawned off as “beautiful.”
The model who posed for that picture?
She doesn’t look like the end result.
Her arm and leg hair have been airbrushed off.
Her cellulite, or wrinkles,
or stretch marks, gone.
Her pimples have been airbrushed,
her waist cinched, thighs slimmed,
her neck elongated, her breasts filled in.
Girls on social media,
with “lifestyle blogs”
or “fitness blogs”
or whatever it is
that makes them feel the need
to pose in a sports bra
or sit on the beach,
and hold a cup of “flat tummy tea” -
which is a real thing, btw, and it’s ridiculous -
and they take that photo,
and they put filters on it,
and they edit themselves,
and they try to make you believe that that’s real life.
That that’s happiness.
Because I can tell you right now, it’s not.
Real life is not doing yoga all day, and pretending that everything is fine.
Sometimes, everything’s not fine.
Sometimes you’re having a really shitty day,
and you feel like you can’t go through
another hour of trying to be positive,
or trying to stay on track.
And that’s ok,
because everyone’s journey is different.
It took me a long time to realize this: your journey is for YOU.
It’s not a straight up and down,
It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down.
ANd it’s OK to put yourself
And your recovery
It doesn’t matter who likes you, or doesn’t.
It does not matter who sees your worth, or doesn’t.
Those who can’t appreciate you will never give you the things you need to grow, and the people who seek to bring you down only do so out of their own insecurities.
Appreciate the people and things that cultivate you, and let go of the things that don’t.
It took me a long time to get here.
To understand that my worth doesn’t depend
on how many calories I can burn,
or how much “self control” I have.
To know that the shape of my outer packaging
doesn’t make or break
my worth as a human being.
To know that ‘fat’ isn’t an insult,
just like ‘skinny’ isn’t a compliment.
It took me years to unlearn
all the guilt and shame
associated with my eating disorder;
to break the habit of exercising to exhaustion,
watching the numbers on the elliptical go up
in desperate hope
that they would make the numbers on the scale
to be able to come here today?
To talk to all of you?
about my feelings, and my worries,
and my past? to people I don’t know?
So I want to leave you with 10 things
That every single one of you out there needs to know,
You are incredible. You are.
Your unique combination
and kind and creative
and genuine and compassionate
and tolerant and passionate.
Every piece of you that is thriving,
and all the pieces
that have been pushed aside,
You are worthy.
Of whatever it is you think you aren’t.
or love from another person,
or respect, or success.
Whatever it is that you believe
you couldn’t possibly earn
the way you are?
I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit.
Learning these things takes time.
It doesn't happen overnight.
You can’t just snap your fingers one day
and then BOOM, omg I love myself.
As much as the rest of the world wishes,
it doesn't work that way.
Body Positivity is like learning a language.
You can’t just open your mouth and speak it.
You have to hear it around you.
You have to immerse yourself in it
and try it,
little by little,
without getting discouraged,
without faulting yourself for not knowing it immediately.
It takes practice,
and saying it to yourself
over and over,
even if you don’t know what you’re saying at the moment.
Because one day you will.
You are not a unicorn.
You are not the only person
who has ever felt this way,
and you will not be the last.
But this also means
that you are part of a greater collective of people
feeling exactly the same way as you.
Stop trying to be perfect.
Because I’ll tell you right now,
it doesn’t exist.
There is no perfect body,
there is no one definition of beauty.
The only form of perfect
that anyone can possibly achieve
is finding true acceptance
and happiness within themselves.
You cannot hate yourself into loving yourself.
Believe me, I’ve tried.
You were never happy
when you were trying to be perfect.
Think about it.
All the hours, days, weeks,
years you’ve spent at war with yourself -
were you ever happy?
When you were trying your absolute hardest
to be perfect?
Where did it get you?
You are perfect to someone.
Look at the people who love you,
see how they love you.
Realize what they love you for.
Take time every single day
to pick out something you like about yourself.
Acknowledge it. Honor it.
Let yourself feel it.
Only love leads to love.
Just by being here,
You are taking control of your life.
Maybe it’s a small step,
On a greater journey,
or a leap forward,
or you’re not sure where you stand right now.
But that’s ok.
These are the small victories that are anything but.
These are the ways we fight back with self love.
These are the ways
we say to ourselves,
“I am enough.
that's my mantra,
I want to take a couple minutes before we end,
to do something different. I want each and every one of you
To close your eyes.
Close your eyes
And think about
All the negative things you've said to yourself
Now i want you to
Come back to yourself
what you'd want to hear.
"I am beautiful."
Or maybe it's
"I am amazing.
"I love my body"
"I deserve to be happy
Or I DONT deserve this pain I'm in,
I deserve to take control of my life.
I am in control.
WHATEVER it is
I want you,
For these next two minutes
And yeah, we're going to count,
For these next two minutes
I want you to come up with your OWNmantra
And I want youto repeat it.
As many times as you need it.
You can open your eyes now.
How did that feel?
I want you to try,
Every night before bed,
To do what I do:
Stand I front of the mirror
You don't have to be naked,
But you can if you want to,
And repeat That mantra to yourself.
Just for a minute.
See how it makes you feel.
Little by little
together, we can create a world
love your body,
Just as you are.