Netflix’s To The Bone: is there a right way to have the conversation?

On the 14th of July 2017, Netflix’s anticipated To The Bone was officially released. The film – starring Lily Collins and Keanu Reeves, amongst others – is a story about a 20-year-old woman (Collins) who is sent to an unconventional centre for youths in an attempt to overcome her battle with anorexia. The film has been met with incredibly mixed reactions. Some cite relief that To The Bone engages with a severely underrepresented problem in society. However, others believe that the film glamorises the mental illness and, in doing so, does more harm that good.

 

The film’s writer, Marti Noxon, based the story off of her own experiences with anorexia and bulimia. In a tweet addressing the mass criticism the trailer had cultivated, she clarified that she worked with Project Heal in order to ensure the movie would be as honest and educational as possible. Additionally, she disclaimed that, “it’s important to remember that each person’s battle with ED is unique and To The Bone is just one of the millions of ED stories that could be told”.

 

Starting a conversation?  

Some reviews have praised To The Bone for breaking the mould, by not glamorising or romanticising anorexia. Vox has described the movie has “sensitive but unsparingly real”.

From depicting the cornerstone obsession that is evident in all cases of anorexia, the patterns of self-destructive behaviour, the physical consequences of deprivation, the psychological standpoint of someone suffering from the illness to the well-intentioned (but completely misguided) support of family members and friends – To The Bone is praised for illuminating all the distressing details of living with eating disorders.

Additionally, the movie has the potential to give insight and information to non-suffers and the loved ones of people who are currently anorexic. Dr Bamford, the clinical director of The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image, states that eating disorders are severely underrepresented in the media. Consequently, many people have little understanding of the struggle involved. Responsible portrayal may provoke nuanced conversations about them, as well as helping people who are currently suffering to get the help they need.

 

Doing more harm that good? 

However, some have spoken about how skewed the portrayal is. For The Spinoff, Lucy Kelly, who has struggle with eating disorders, branded the movie as “remarkably tone-deaf and insight-free depiction of anorexia nervosa”. Does Noxon’s point of the nuanced nature of this illness stand true or is the movie missing the point?

While many have praised the movie for showing the “ugly” of the illness, being brutally candid about the behaviourisms of those suffering from mental illness comes with disturbing risks. One risk is that it may give suffers self-sabotaging inspiration. A prime example of is, is how 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s notorious series about suicide, has already prompted copycat behaviour.

In an article by The Daily Mail, clinical psychologist Dr Bryony Bamford said that, “Anorexia nervosa… can be a highly competitive illness and the portrayal of particular behaviour around food could play a part in shaping and exacerbating illness”.

Additionally, depicting harrow pictures of her skeletal frame, her protruding angular hipbones, her sharp cheekbones and the barbed trail of her spine can also be triggers for emancipatory behaviours. Reflecting on her recovery period, blogger Isabelle Mulkerrins says looking at media “led me to compare myself to others, I felt like I wasn’t skinny enough or sick enough to be in hospital and that really had a negative impact on me.”

The casting choice has also generated critique. In order to play the part of Ellen, Lily Collins lost 20 pounds (±9kgs). This is a problem, as Collins has suffered from anorexia before. While this may help her empathise with her character, psychologist Deanne Jade says anorexics never truly recover and that this weight loss puts Collins at risk of relapsing. This was something that even Collins feared when she took the part. While she felt the role was a catharsis for her healing, there was always risk that Collins’ progress – and her life – would be a sacrificial lamb in the making of a well-intentioned movie.

Another critique is that To The Bone is told from a common viewpoint; that of a young, attractive, wealthy, manic-pixie white girl. Anorexia – like any other illness – does not discriminate. However, its impact on adults (i.e. cases in which the illness manifested much later than adolescence), men, people of colour and people in low-income brackets is practically invisible in representation. When are we going to change the underlying narrative that anorexia is an illness for rich white girls who aspire to look like models?

Representing eating disorders on mainstream platforms is risky; your audience is far too diverse for a sole message to be received. On one hand, the catalogue of myths that surround eating disorders need to be corrected. General society needs accessible, accurate information to understand them more accurately. On the other, many effected people who need to feel heard, without being patronised or encouraged. How do we balance the needs the different kinds of viewers? Closely heed content warnings? Produce a diversity of visibility of authentic experiences?

One thing is for certain: Marti Noxon undertook a monumental challenge that no-one has come to a satisfactory solution for.

 

[Featured Image Credit: Netflix.com]

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