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Why I Wouldn't Recommend 'To the Bone' for People in Eating Disorder Recovery

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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.

When I was 13, a friend gave me a blue woven bracelet from a trip to Guatemala. She was a thin and lanky teen, and didn’t realize the bracelets that fit her would not in fact fit my slightly larger than average wrists. I kept the bracelet anyways to show I appreciated the gesture and let it gather dust on a shelf for the next year or so.

I began to develop an eating disorder that next year. My initial goal was to be thin enough to be able to hook the bracelet. After a few months I could, and I needed a new goal. I instead started measuring my wrist.

This image is not new, not original, not at all unique. In fact, the lead character of Netflix’s new film “To the Bone” does exactly this in the film, commenting on a desired arm width to be “no bigger than a silver dollar.” Ellen, nicknamed “Eli,” played by Lily Collins, is a 20-year-old struggling with anorexia nervosa. The film follows her struggle through inpatient treatment led by the charmingly outlandish physician, played by none other than Keanu Reeves.

Admittedly, when I first saw the trailer for this I was dumbfounded. Another fucking movie about a rich white girl with an eating disorder. And yes, it follows all the same tropes. And yes, elements of it matched up with my own life rather well. Just like the character, I’m from Los Angeles, have a messy family life and a constant reference guide of calorie count plays in the back of my head.

The thing is, this is not what all eating disorders look like. The film makes it seem like you have to be drastically underweight for your illness to be considered a “real problem.” Personally, when I was at my worst, I actually “looked my best” to others.

This is the kind of movie I would have loved when I was in the midst of my eating disorder. Just triggering enough to make me feel like my value will always be in my appearance — this film honestly left me in a state where I had a hard time eating any dinner that night. While I appreciate the brief trigger warning at the beginning of the film, I do not think it accurately portrays the dangers of what the film shows.

Recovery is not simple. It is not the good humored drama pictured in this film. It’s not flirting on dates by spitting out food and it’s not as easy as tough love and a desire to live. Talking about recovery, and about eating disorders in general, is not simple. You don’t want to let your reader in too much for fear of giving them tricks of their own. I know when I was at my worst I looked to books and documentaries about eating disorders for tips and tricks, not as a way to understand what was happening to me.

One of my favorite poets is Blythe Baird, a woman who openly discusses her own experience with an eating disorder in her poetry. This is taken from her poem entitled Relapse: 

“Last night, I painted my nails when I was hungry. I can’t eat until the polish is dry. I don’t want to go into more detail because what if you mistake this poem for an instruction manual? I don’t know how to talk about the rabbit hole without accidentally inviting you to follow me down it, When recovery is not all yoga mats and tea and avocados it is work. It is reminding myself that sucking on ice cubes does not count as dinner… every time you asked if I was full I heard you say fat, but I am trying so hard not to do that.”

That being said, I would not recommend this movie to anyone recovering from an eating disorder. I’m not even sure I would recommend it to someone who’s considered themselves to be “recovered.” I would advise teens to steer clear of it and its potentially triggering imagery, as I know when I first developed an eating disorder it was films like this that sparked me to continue on my “fight to be thin.” And on top of everything, the heteronormative love subplot was entirely unnecessary and simply a distraction from any sort of message that the film was trying to convey. You do not recover from an eating disorder just because you fall in love — you recover because you want to fight to stay around for the ones you love.

And in my opinion, the film still managed to perpetuate the trope of the girl who is saved by the only two men in her life she can trust — the doctor and the love interest.

While in the middle of watching the movie a friend who also struggles with disordered eating texted me and asked if I’d ever heard of it. Coincidentally, we both happened to be watching it at the same time, just one day after it’s Netflix release date. We were both eager to view it, if not to critique it than to compare our own disorders to that of the main character. It’s a toxic want, this desire to consume media you know will only hurt you in the end. There is nothing we could gain from watching this film — it’s not like we didn’t already know the story. We’ve lived the story. And now it seems we’re just taking notes for the next chapter. And it should say something that here we both were, 24 hours after its release date, completely engrossed.

We do not need another movie about a white girl who doesn’t want to eat. While I appreciate the film mentioned that it’s “not actually about the food,” I believe they did not continue to explain this in a way that advocated for the mental health of the character or the viewers. And while I admittedly fit many of the tropes in this film, I believe this perpetuates the idea that “only one type of person” could develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders are deadly illnesses that do not discriminate. It’s time we start recognizing this and showing other examples of people struggling in our modern media. Because by now, we’ve all seen or heard some terrible story about a young white girl whose illness killed her. We know that narrative. And that’s not to discredit it. This narrative is just as real as any other. But it’s time we start to show the other realities of the situation as well — the intersectionality of illness.

You can still have an eating disorder and look “healthy.” You can still be starving yourself and have thick thighs and belly rolls. A tube up your nose is not the only proof of a disorder. The disorder exists in your mind, and in your thought process when someone puts a plate of food in front of you. Not in your physicality.

One of my biggest heroes, both in her writing career and her work in the mental health field is Marya Hornbacher. I found her book “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia” when I was mid-disorder at age 15. She explains it simply:

“It is not a sudden leap from sick to well. It is a slow, strange meander from sick to mostly well. The misconception that eating disorders are a medical disease in the traditional sense is not helpful here. There is no ‘cure’. A pill will not fix it, though it may help. Ditto therapy, ditto food, ditto endless support from family and friends. You fix it yourself. It is the hardest thing that I have ever done, and I found myself stronger for doing it. Much stronger.”

A version of this post appeared on The Odyssey.

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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Screenshot via Netflix YouTube channel.

Originally published: July 17, 2017
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