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Why I'm Worried 'To the Bone' Will Silence Other Eating Disorder Narratives

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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.

In the eating disorder community and broader public, the upcoming release of “To the Bone” has been laden with controversy. Project Heal has partnered with the movie, but other people in the community have been skeptical. I’ve seen people with eating disorders have reactions ranging from interested to outright angry or disgusted by the graphic imagery depicted in the trailer.

I believe the movie seeks to remove secrecy and increase positive conversations about a topic that is little understood in the media, which is a lofty goal. But I also believe an inadvertent consequence of the movie is that it touches on the topic of misrepresentation of eating disorders in the media.

While the movie claims to be honest, unique and authentic to the experience of someone struggling with an eating disorder, in my opinion, the plot is not actually unique.

The plot for “To the Bone” is similar to the plots of most other eating disorder movies: A white, cisgender, upper-class, long-haired, intelligent, already-thin girl who needs control develops anorexia. She has issues with her family. She enters treatment. At the end, she recovers fully or dies (“To the Bone” seems to have a happy ending, if the trailer is any indication. But other eating disorder movies are less positive about the illness trajectory).

“To the Bone” makes a statement with the demographic choices of the heroine, and this has broad implications. Many who watch this movie might have a limited understanding of eating disorders, so the choice to feature a thin, white, young female will shape the way others view what an eating disorder “looks like.” The reality is eating disorders affect those in any ethnic group, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, age and geographic location. Moreover, the rates of eating disorders are rising in other key demographic areas: males (especially gay males), younger children and middle-aged women.

Director Marti Noxon defended this story choice, and while I agree Noxon is correct in that millions of ED stories could be told, this is the one being told in the film.

The problem with a white, emaciated woman of privilege being the heroine of this movie has many ramifications:

1. It does not represent the reality of eating disorders, nor does it accurately portray the significant crossover between disorders across a lifetime (e.g. shift from bulimia to anorexia to binge eating back to anorexia). 

Lily Collin’s emaciated frame and overdone sunken eye makeup is misleading. Many people with eating disorders are not underweight. I believe it doesn’t represent the physical “norm” of someone with an eating disorder. There is not one eating disorder “look.”

2. These demographic choices of the main character highlight existing weight stigma — even within the eating disorder recovery community.

Sadly, Lily Collins’ emaciated frame will draw in viewers. I wonder what would happen if Lily Collins had gained weight for the role and depicted the issues of bingeing and purging, for instance. It is sad that I’m not surprised that the dominant narrative of this movie plays into societal fascination with anorexia and the cultural thinness ideal. I have been disgusted by interviews discussing Collins’ weight lossThis press is missing the point of what message the movie is trying to convey, and in so doing, it does us a disservice.

3. The problem with this one story fitting the predominant cultural narrative is that it makes us more likely to miss someone who doesn’t fit the physical “type” of Lily Collins, but is displaying eating disorder behaviors.

Watching this movie without the background of other information, people may be more likely to overlook an older female who is always in the gym or a young male who sneaks off to his car and comes back hours later smelling of food and vomit. Moreover, those who don’t fit the mold “To the Bone” sets forth might feel even more shame. These are things I’ve heard or said dozens of times:

“Someone like me shouldn’t have an eating disorder.”

“I don’t look like I have an eating disorder.”

“My insurance company denied me treatment because my symptoms weren’t severe enough. I think if I lose weight, they’d pay for it.”

“What if my church/friend group/school/ethnic community found out I have an eating disorder? I’ll disappoint everyone.”

4. There is no “normal” eating disorder story.

People are dimensional, complex beings. Those of any religion, race, cultural group, age and sexual orientation can develop an eating disorder. There is nothing wrong with telling the stories of people who are in positions of privilege, as those stories are valid as well. My concern is that “To the Bone” is the story of a woman with privilege seeking treatment, and I fear this narrative will stifle and silence other narratives.

“To the Bone” does more than start a conversation or educate the broader public about eating disorders. Given the film’s reworking similar plot lines of other eating disorder movies and utilizing demographic stereotypes, I believe it highlights another issue entirely:

Eating disorders have a misrepresentation problem.

The trailer does show some diverse characters in the main character’s treatment center, but those characters are not center stage. My fear is that this film, in addition to whatever triggering language and images are used, will exacerbate stereotypes that eating disorder advocacy groups are trying to minimize.

Eating disorders do not discriminate on weight, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or any other social identity. All stories are valid. All struggles matter, regardless of whether they fit into the cultural norm for anorexia that this movie perpetuates.

I have a message for all eating disorder survivors and those struggling:

Your story is beautiful.

Yes, you.

Your story is yours. It is real, and it is valid.

Just because “To the Bone” features an emaciated, white young actress doesn’t mean your pain is less valid.

Eating disorders are eating disorders.

They don’t discriminate.

The problem is not you.

The problem is that your story is not represented.

And we need you to be represented.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Screenshot via Netflix YouTube channel.

Originally published: July 5, 2017
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