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Why I’m Fed Up With Generic Eating Disorder Movies Like ‘To The Bone’

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Every time I hear an announcement for a new movie dealing with eating disorders, I feel a mix of excitement and fear. Excitement, because I think we as a society need to have more frequent and serious conversations about eating disorders and how they’re affecting more and more people regardless of their sex, age or race. Fear, because more often than not, those movies seem to only deal with very extreme cases of anorexia with patients that are often white teenage girls.

When I heard the news that actress Lily Collins was going to star in the movie “To The Bone,” depicting anorexia, I was over the moon. Lily is a woman I deeply admire for being outspoken and honest about her own battles with eating disorders — battles she bravely decided to write about in her memoir “Unfiltered” — and I wholeheartedly support her and her career. Plus, the movie was written by Marti Noxon, and although I wasn’t familiar with her work at the time, I knew she had struggled with eating disorders as well, so I was sure she was just the right person for the job.

From the start, I wasn’t a fan of the title of the movie. “To The Bone” suggests extreme thinness and malnourishment, two things that do not necessarily reflect eating disorders in general. However, I didn’t think much of it. I’ve taken a course on screenwriting and I know just how important having a shocking title for your project is, so I decided not to make a fuss of it. But when I watched the trailer for the Netflix movie, I was devastated. “To The Bone” was everything I always fear an eating disorder movie can potentially be. It begins with the protagonist Ellen, played by Lily Collins, and her sister Kelly, played by Liana Liberato, giggling in the kitchen. Ellen is counting calories out loud in front of a very surprised and entertained Kelly, who eventually comments that Ellen has “calorie Aspergers.”

It doesn’t take an especially sensible person to realize just how ableist, stigmatizing and offensive the expression “calorie Aspergers” is, especially bearing in mind that autism can potentially be co-morbid with eating disorders, particularly anorexia.

Ableist jokes aside, the whole scene is extremely triggering and upsetting to watch as a person currently recovering from eating disorders. Having anorexia is not fun. Counting calories is not fun, or a game for that matter. It is a nightmare, every single minute of it.

My concerns surrounding “To The Bone” don’t end there. Throughout the trailer, we see Lily, already a very thin woman, wearing make up and clothes that make her look skeletal — pale skin and super dark circles under her eyes. There are even shots of her backbones, used as proof of her anorexia. The problem is, not all anorexia patients look like that. This implies that you have to have visible bones or you have to faint, which happens to Ellen in the trailer, in order to be sick or get treatment.

As a mental health advocate, I work with tweens, teens and young adults. I try to explain to them that there is not a point where you are “sick enough.” I try to explain to them that most people with eating disorders don’t feel like they’re actually sick because they don’t “look” the way the media tells us an eating disorder sufferer should look. I tell them of my case: how when I was diagnosed, the criteria for anorexia required you to have a certain BMI which I didn’t have. I felt so disgustingly big and like I was wasting everybody’s time because I clearly couldn’t be sick if weighing more would make me not meet the criteria of anorexia anymore.

I tell them of how I never felt like I deserved my diagnosis. How, even when I met the BMI criteria and could barely get out of bed, I felt like a “bad” anorexic because I hadn’t been hospitalized. I tell them how during recovery, I felt like I’d never been ill at all because I had put on weight and rediscovered my love for food, which eventually lead to me relapsing into bulimia.

Most of the time, people don’t describe their own experiences to my face, but then I get home to find my inbox and my social media accounts flooded with messages from some of those young people expressing their concerns over not being “sick enough” because they aren’t “thin enough.”

Just a couple of days ago, I stayed up until two in the morning replying to a girl who had written to me who feared people would laugh at her or not take her seriously because she met most, but not all, of the criteria for anorexia. It broke my heart. And knowing most people who are dealing with eating disorders feel the same way as she does makes me so sad and angry.

That is why I won’t support “To The Bone.” That is why I’m fed up of generic eating disorder movies, and why I fight as hard as I can to change people’s perceptions of eating disorders.

Throughout the trailer, the message we receive is that you’re only worthy of treatment as long as you’re skin and bones and your body shutting down. We’re told that all it takes to recover is a likable support group and an inspirational therapist. We’re told that anorexia is a game and a form of protest, as Ellen’s demeanor seems to imply to me.

The issue with “To The Bone” isn’t simply that it doesn’t reflect most cases of eating disorders accurately, it’s that it misinforms the audience, who are potentially people with eating disorders themselves or family members of eating disorder sufferers, about what having an eating disorder actually is. It nurtures the idea that only thin, white teenage girls get anorexia, that all “true” anorexics are hospitalized and that anorexia, or any other eating disorder, is always evident from outward appearances.

We need to talk more about this. We need to teach parents and teachers to look out for behavioral patterns of eating disorders rather than for the skinniest young adults. We need to beat the stigma that once you hit your 20s you’re too old to have an eating disorder. That it’s shameful to be a man and someone who struggles with an eating disorder. That people of color don’t get eating disorders. We need to be more inclusive and more honest about what’s really going on. We can no longer risk the health of people struggling with eating disorders just for the shock value of having a thin female lead in an eating disorder movie.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Lead Image via Netflix trailer

Originally published: August 28, 2017
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