Thoughts After Watching To The Bone

Maybe it's just in my professional bubble of therapists and dietitians who work with eating disorders, but over the past few weeks there's been a lot of chatter and controversy surrounding Netflix's new movie "To The Bone."  It's a movie based on the real-life experience of it's writer and director when she was batting anorexia in her 20s.

Many ED experts I admire spoke out with concern after the trailer was released, but I really wanted to watch it with an open mind because I knew it would come up in client sessions. Plus, I weirdly enjoy angsty movies about teenagers/young adults with messed up families. I'll let you decide what that says about me. 

My conclusion is....I have some thoughts.

There were some things I liked about the movie, and other things that were deeply concerning. So, rather than write a cohesive blog post where I'm all, "YES! This was a fantastic movie that everyone should watch to better understand eating disorders," or "NO! This movie was the absolute worst!", I'm just gonna do a bullet list of my thoughts. Because nothing is black and white - an important message in recovery ;) 

First, I want to saw that I don't think this movie is appropriate for anyone actively batting an eating disorder or with a history of an ED that isn't solidly into recovery. I also don't know if this would be appropriate for adolescents, especially if they have a family history of eating disorders and are more likely to have the genetic component. If you are a parent and your child wants to watch "To The Bone," I'd really encourage you to have an open and honest conversation with them about it. And if you are an eating disorder therapist reading this, please create some kind of guide for parents to talk to their kids about this film, because I really have no insight on that one! 

  • What I appreciated most about the film was how the family dynamic was portrayed. Even though the family was super dysfunctional, it was clear how dearly they loved the main character (Ellen) and would do anything to help. I also thought the movie did a great job showing how even though family dysfunction can contribute to an ED, it's not the sole cause (y'all hear me family members - it's not your fault). Ellen's sister was a great model of how to support a family member struggling with an ED - she was compassionate, yet honest, and left the door open for recovery without pushing her. I actually think this movie might be helpful for parents (or even a spouse) of someone with an eating disorder who doesn't understand what their child is struggling with, or why they can't "just eat."
  • One of the biggest barriers to people getting the treatment they need is that most people think of an emaciated, young, privileged white female when they think of an eating disorder. This movie centers around an emaciated, young, privileged white female. Which is OK, because that was the writer's story, and it's one worth being told. But they really missed an easy opportunity at the residential treatment house to show that eating disorders don't look one way. I do give them props for trying. There was a male character (yay!). There was also a black/lesbian/large-bodied character with binge eating disorder, which would get a yay, except her character was so one note it came off feeling a little token and reinforced stereotypes rather than breaking them. She ate peanut butter for dinner and had the occasional quippy one liner. There was no insight into her pain. And believe me, binge eating disorder is painful - and medically dangerous, regardless of whether it triggers weight gain. Also, although not all the other patients with anorexia were emaciated, they were all thin. In reality, anorexia can occur in a wide range of shapes. If you're reading this and worried about yourself or someone you love, please know that you/they do not have to look emaciated to get help. 
  • I think what disturbed me most was that the main actress, Lilly Collins, was asked to lose weight for the role. That might make sense for someone playing an anorexic character, but a.) she is already thin, b.) we've already established you don't have to be emaciated (or even thin) to have anorexia and c.) SHE HAS A HISTORY OF AN EATING DISORDER!! Y'all, this was soooo irresponsible. Weight loss, even involuntary, can re-trigger the neurobiology of an ED in someone who is recovered. In the press coverage, Collins explained that the weight loss was done "in a healthy way" and then went on in some outlets to describe what she ate. That was basically giving people struggling with an eating disorder a big "how to" manual, and then stamping the healthy label on it! 
  • There was a quasi-love story that was SO unnecessary, and in my opinion, glamorized not only eating disorders, but the sick identity that keeps so many women trapped in their ED. Have you ever noticed in movies with a female lead that's supposed to be depressed or dealing with some other mental illness, they throw in a male who falls in love (eerr, borderline creepily obsessed) with her. He recognizes that she's smart and unique and complex. Then she's somehow "fixed" through their connection. Oh, hi Twilight! Y'all, can we just stop with the broken woman as sexually attractive trope? It puts out this message that there's something cool and mysterious about mental illness. There's not.  
  • There's a scene where Keanu Reeves (the therapist) tells the family that normally they won't let someone hit rock bottom, but Ellen has to before getting better. And then let's her run off to have a total breakdown and almost die. Ummm, wut? First off, what makes her special compared to everyone else who isn't allowed to hit rock bottom? And how do we even know what rock bottom is? I worry that someone with an ED will see this and think "well, I haven't hit rock bottom yet so I can't get better." Rock bottom is where you decide it will be. 
  • I really liked their take home message - that the only way to get better is to decide to get better. It doesn't matter what outside the box treatments you try, how cutting edge your treatment facility is, how much your family loves you, if you don't want to get better, you won't. 

I know a lot of people who are struggling with eating disorders will watch this movie, despite the warning Netflix itself put out. The nature of the disease is to eat up all the movies, books, social media, etc about EDs, and unfortunately often use them for comparison. If anyone who is struggling watched the movie and is reading this, please know that To The Bone was someone else's story - it doesn't have to be yours. If you're in pain, you deserve help. 

Alright, enough of my ranting and raving. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've seen the movie! Leave a comment below with what you thought. 

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