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 have her 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.
7/18/2017 12:01:10 pm
THIS. IS. EVERYTHING.
7/18/2017 12:10:38 pm
Gina, thank you for the insightful and thought-provoking commentary—as always! Hopefully your words help others to recognize the care which must be taken when creating movies and advertising them, especially when it comes down to who they're for and who they are not for. Keep killing it my love.
7/18/2017 12:13:09 pm
This post put into words what I couldn't. I suffered with an ED and looked "healthy" but I was suffering and no-one saw it. The movie was okay but not the movie we needed. This was beautifully written!
7/18/2017 12:37:02 pm
This this this. As a recovering anorexic who was never as disturbingly thin as Ellen (although still clearly starving), I suffered as much as she did. Even now in recovery at a healthy weight, I still struggle with disordered eating and thoughts. Anorexia and eating disorders aren't only about the frighteningly thin white girl, and I think this movie fails to address that point
7/18/2017 01:23:13 pm
My comment has *SPOILERS* soooo....don't read if you don't want them :).
7/18/2017 02:18:19 pm
As a teen growing up in this society, this essay was incredibly insightful for me. Loads of the popular movies and shows, all seem to have this same storyline- thin, white, middle/upper class girl- almost to the point that they seem to be romanticizing eating disorders and mental illnesses. It's incredibly disorienting to me, especially as someone who sometimes struggles with body image and body positivity, to see this same narrative developed over and over. I know that this story is a truth and that yes plenty of people end up at this point, but I also have friends who appear to be perfectly "healthy" who struggle with eating disorders. I just want to see a different, more inclusive, story represented. So thank you for voicing an opinion that I find hard to put into words most times.
7/18/2017 03:17:47 pm
7/18/2017 04:17:07 pm
Hi Gina! Completely love your page and appreciate all of the things you speak about so openely. I agree with a lot of this article but I just wanted to say that I saw an interview with Lily Collins where she explained that the role didn't require her to lose weight - she made the choice to do it in order to represent herself when she was going through her struggles with anorexia.
7/18/2017 04:30:56 pm
Hi Gina! Loved your commentary. I watched about 2/3 of the movie yesterday and have similar feelings. I kept thinking if they actually had someone lose all this weight for a role and how unhealthy that is and then read about the actor's struggles herself and thought how awful that was to have her lose weight for a role. The emaciated version of someone is glorified. Unfortunately, society doesn't view someone with a healthy body weight as "sick enough." You're right, it probably wouldn't have appealed to the masses or served as entertainment as you so elegantly stated. I do wish there was more feminism in this movie as well. I really hoped she would save herself. I liked the romance but wondered if it was necessary and what point in served. Beautifully written post! And now I get to check out the rest of your blog :D
7/18/2017 06:02:03 pm
WOW. Thank you for such an insightful post! When I first heard about the movie, I was terrified of it. I've been struggling a lot lately and didn't want the movie to trigger me. Your honest review is definitely helping me decide whether I want to take the time, because it does look like a decently okay movie so maybe 😉❤️
7/18/2017 07:12:53 pm
Yaaaaasssssss. It's not a physical disease so why does every narrative focus on the physical aspects or symptoms of this disease. This does so much more harm than good. It tells insurance companies that it's okay to deny patients coverage because they aren't "sick enough". It tells friends and loved ones not to worry about a loved one because they aren't "sick enough". It tells doctors not to intervene early because their patient doesn't look "sick enough". It's a mental illness. Patients are sick because of how their thoughts and symptoms limit their ability to function in society not because of how they look!!!! -end rant
7/18/2017 10:43:28 pm
Gina, I'm speechless! This is perfect, thank you for everything that you do. Your words are so powerful and I agree with everything you have said. Thank you xxx
7/19/2017 10:33:52 pm
8/6/2017 10:50:42 am
I found the movie extremely triggering in a lot of different ways. It made me want to pull out the old photos of me at my skinniest and compare notes. It was triggering because the voice was telling me it wasn't triggering enough because it was making me commit to being like that again. Beyond the triggers though, because even without this movie we are constantly dealing with triggers all around us. It seemed an almost pointless movie-- basically a depiction of a very "typical" eating disorder. There was hardly any back story, hardly any focus on the effects eating disorders have on everything, not just physically on your body. How you lose friends, family, emotions. The work it takes to heal yourself from one. A movie that is going to offer as many triggers as this one should offer just as many positive reminders of ways you can fight that voice in your head. And it just didn't provide that. That's why I didn't like it.
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