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A Realist's Guide for Watching ‘To the Bone’

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Telling stories is human nature. It’s how we make sense of our own reality. But what if your story involves an eating disorder (ED)?

As someone who has fought the valiant, brutal battle against food and body image, I have often looked to others who have faced the same demons to better understand my own narrative. I was excited, and hesitant, for Netflix to release “To the Bone,” a film that follows the journey of Ellen, played by Lily Collins, who is living with anorexia nervosa. The trailer for the movie was met with a lot of mixed emotion from the eating disorder community about whether the film would be helpful or harmful.

But curiosity gets the best of us, and because Netflix is so accessible, it’s almost certain that many people in different stages of eating disorder recovery will be watching, regardless of how “ready” they are, and regardless of the potential harm. And I know when you’re in the throes of an eating disorder, hearing cliches and simply being reminded to practice “self-care” isn’t always going to cut it when you feel triggered, especially if you don’t even realize you’re being triggered in the moment.

So as someone in recovery, I wanted to write the guide for watching “To the Bone” I would need — for pieces of myself at every stage of my journey.

So, here is the realist’s guide for watching “To the Bone” for anyone in any stage of their eating disorder:

1. Reflect on where you are in your own journey.

I get it, this sounds silly. In the earlier stages of my recovery, reflection was not something that came naturally. My ED voice was my voice. And my ED voice thrived off of finding ways to grow. It can be quite convincing, I know.

Even now, as someone who works in the eating disorder sphere, the decision not to watch the movie when I feel like most of my friends are going to may leave me with a serious case of FOMO. But, you have to do what is best for you with where you are at. Really take the time to think about if this movie would be helpful or harmful, regardless of what others are doing. The movie will still be available to watch a week from now, a month from now or a year from now if you decide to change your mind. As hard as it may be, use your voice to make the call.

2. Compassion, not comparison.

I tell myself this all the time: when I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed, driving my car down the street, grocery shopping or endlessly watching the latest TV show I’m into. It’s been challenging to look at another body and not make a comparison to my own size and shape. The temptation to compare my own ED story to those of others in a negative and unproductive way constantly looms over my head. But I fight back, because I deserve self-compassion.

I’ve often found the most brilliant thing about many people who struggle with ED is their innate ability to be introspective and aware of what is going on within themselves and the world around them. We are curious by nature and are often deep thinkers. We will probably be drawn to watch “To The Bone” for this reason, even if we may not be ready for the mental or emotional consequences of our actions.

But just remember, before you hit play, turn off the comparison switch and turn on the compassionate switch. Remind yourself that you are worthy and deserving of love, and that you and your story matters, because I know that is what I will be telling myself if and when I choose to watch it.

3. Reach out.

If you have any hesitation, but have decided that you still want to embark on the two-hour long journey that is “To the Bone,” reach out!  Watch the movie with a friend or family member who is a good, solid support. It’s been more helpful for me to face my fears when I’m holding someone’s hand verses going it alone. That way, I have someone to bounce my own thoughts off of rather than getting swamped by possible ED triggers that may come up along the way. Sure, talking through a movie can be annoying, but it’s for a good cause.

And if you decide to watch the movie alone, reach out before, during or after to people you trust if you start to feel overwhelmed, or feel the comparison switch turning on. And I’m not talking about the people who might enable your behavior, but to the ones who will listen and give you honest feedback. I know how difficult it can be to be open about the thoughts and feelings my ED brings up, especially because most of them are what I would consider embarrassing and shameful, which in turn, usually makes me want to dig myself deeper in to the trenches of my ED. But I’m telling you this now, you’re not alone. And if you don’t feel like you have a solid support system, I’ve listed some awesome resources below:

4. Have some honest check-ins with yourself along the way.

Do you ever watch a movie or read a book and when it ends, you’re just left sitting on your couch, with way more feelings than you know what to do with? I urge you, and me, to prepare for that. Have some honest mini check-ins while you watch “To the Bone.” Are you feeling diminished and invalidated? Or maybe you’re actually validated by this experience. Did you come across scenes that made you want to throw yourself deeper into your ED? Are you happy or feeling uplifted? Does this family dynamic make you mad or does it feel relatable? Are you feeling lonely?

It can be hard to pinpoint what exactly you’re feeling or even what to do with that. But whatever is going on between your ears, remember that it’s OK to turn the movie off at any point in time. It’s OK to really enjoy and relate to the movie, while realizing others may not feel the same way. It’s OK to have a heart-to-heart session with your journal the day after. But what’s not OK is letting this movie make you think less of yourself and more of your ED — because the world needs more of you! Remember that this movie was created to draw awareness to eating disorders, so advocate to tell more stories, even yours

5. Remember, this movie doesn’t invalidate your journey.

I am not Ellen. You are not Ellen. Only Ellen is Ellen. And even though she is loosely based off of one person’s experience, this story is one amongst many.

The thing about eating disorders is that each one is so personal. We are all fighting demons in different forms that shift and change as time passes, each with different triggers, symptoms and coping mechanisms — but we often forget that. 

We can take two hours to see what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but at the end of the day, we are the ones coming home to ourselves. So, like I mentioned earlier, show yourself some compassion. Just like you would want to validate the stories, emotions and feelings of friends or family members, make sure you do the same for yourself.

Also remember: although this is a big movie, it’s not the only representation of eating disorders out there. If you’re looking for more narratives about eating disorders, here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives” by Aimee Liu
  2. This Impossible Light” by Lily Myers
  3. Holding Up The Universe” by Jennifer Niven
  4. Dietland” by Sarai Walker
  5. Shrill” by Lindy West
  6. Hunger” by Roxane Gay

Telling stories is human nature. We cling to others’ stories of ED to help understand our own. With that being said, I hope you take “To the Bone” with a grain of salt, remember that your story is just as powerful and know that although we are each fighting our own personal demon, we must all rise out of this illness together.

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.

Screenshot via Netflix.

Originally published: July 14, 2017
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