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What 'To the Bone' Got Right (From Someone in Eating Disorder Recovery)

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Editor’s note: This piece contains spoilers about “To the Bone,” and could be potentially triggering for those who live with eating disorders. You can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

I’ve been excited about seeing “To the Bone” since the news broke that there would be a true-to-life movie about a woman with an eating disorder. I’m in eating disorder recovery myself, and there aren’t really any recent films about eating disorders, just a few documentaries. I knew Lily Collins would be playing Ellen, a young woman with anorexia, and while I was excited, I was still a bit concerned. The media is known for only representing the “white/young/anorexic” story, and I wondered why they chose to portray this already engrained narrative.

However, after reading that it was based on director Marti Noxon’s story, it made sense. She was young, white and had anorexia, and while that is the narrative people already know, I understood why she wanted to make a film loosely based on her own experience.

However, I don’t know if the average Netflix viewer will read up on the movie as much as I did. Maybe they’ll just think it’s about another girl starving herself and scroll past. But in my opinion, it did end up being more than that. In fact, in many ways, I was pleasantly surprised.

Here’s what the movie got right:

1. It shows “recovery” often takes more than one try.

The movie does a wonderful job showing complex parts of the eating disorder and treatment process an average person has likely never seen before, like how sometimes treatment can take multiple attempts — something that is common to many people with eating disorders. Many people think a person with an eating disorder goes to treatment and comes out “fixed.” However, the reality is, many people are not ready when they first seek treatment, and it often takes multiple tries and years of work to get the momentum going.

Typically, when we see eating disorders represented in 30-minute sitcoms, the story arc goes like this: a girl looks in the mirror and suddenly dislikes what she sees, and she starts using unhealthy behaviors to lose weight. But then, by the end of the episode, the issue is seemingly resolved, and she has come to some nicely wrapped revelation about her self-worth and body image and it is never mentioned again.

Even when the person has gotten on the recovery road, there are so many things that come up. Years after my last time using behaviors, I still have disordered thoughts about food and urges to use behaviors. The difference is now I don’t act on them. How I would have loved if my eating disorder was something I could have fixed in a week with the help of a couple pep-talks.

2. It highlights eating disorder behaviors besides restriction.

The other issue that “To the Bone” gets right is that it highlights other behaviors common to eating disorders besides restricting, which is the most common behavior people know. But there are so many people with eating disorders who don’t restrict at all. There are many other common eating disorder behaviors — such as cutting food into small pieces, grouping foods, eating very slowly or very quickly — that should be taken just as seriously as restricting. However, “To the Bone” highlights behaviors common to bulimia and binge eating disorder, along with lesser “textbook” behaviors.

3. It highlights the real issues that surround an eating disorder, such as complex family dynamics.

The movie makes huge leaps and bounds just by showing the familial stress that can trigger Ellen’s eating disorder. They even show multiple family discussions and arguments around the disorder. It becomes clear quickly that her mom doesn’t want Ellen to live with her, so she sends her off to her non-present father and step-mom.

Her sister also delivers an extremely emotional and realistic speech in a family therapy session, where she cries and tells her how the eating disorder affects her, too. These feelings of desperation and helplessness in the support system are true to many people’s recovery stories. It tells parents and families, “It’s OK. See? This family didn’t know what to do either. You are doing your best and rocking it.” And I love that.

I was also pleased to see there was no focus on anyone in the the house encouraging unrealistic beauty standards, as many narratives do to simplify the reasoning behind an eating disorder. This will go long ways in smashing the misconceptions people have of eating disorders.

4. It highlights the role the internet can play in eating disorders.

Another element I personally connected to, and something I thought accurately represented having an eating disorder in the 21st century, is when Ellen creates triggering artwork depicting her eating disorder and posts it on Tumblr. The internet can provide such wonderful communities for healing, like The Mighty, but often is a place where those in the throws of their eating disorder can find the wrong kind of connection. Ellen’s artwork has clearly made her well-known and liked in that community, and you can see how this has an affect on her identity.

5. It emphasizes that no one can “save you” but yourself. 

I was nervous when I saw that there was a potential romantic interest (Alex) in the trailer, but it ended up being my favorite plot line in the movie. It could have been another “girl falls in love with boy, boy ‘saves’ her, girl wants to get better for him” story, but that’s entirely not the case. There is an element of romance and maybe that’s what most people will see, but I saw so much more in their relationship. More than a love interest, Alex represents hope in the house. Something that Ellen seemingly didn’t have before. Though he is in the same setting the others are in, he’s motivated to recover and encourages the others, too.

6. The movies shows hope does exist in those early stages of recovery.

When I went to treatment, I thought it would just be a bunch of sad people sitting around all day waiting to leave. Oh, how I was stunned when there were people really, truly recovering there. When I got there, I was shocked and immediately intrigued. How did they get there? How did they do it? I was there because I recognized the huge space my eating disorder was taking up in my life, but I had no clue what I was actually going to do about it. I just knew it had to stop. I was fascinated, and a small part of me started to want the freedom from food other’s were beginning to have. Right in front of my eyes, I was seeing it was possible. Seeing someone “do it” can be a powerful force in recovery.

My favorite scene was when Ellen says to Alex, “How do you do it? How do you eat?” It’s the first spark of curiosity, and even hope, that Ellen has about recovery — and it’s beautiful. Everybody wants freedom from their eating disorder, but there is so much fear that goes along with letting go. I saw this as her acknowledging the part of her that knows this can’t be her life. I hope everyone has a moment like that, and a person to share it with.

All that being said, it was by no means a perfect movie. So to people wondering, is this going to be triggering and unhelpful? My answer: it depends. As seen in the trailer, there were mentions of weights, calorie counts, bones and behaviors. However, these elements weren’t nearly as prevalent in the actual film as the trailer led me to believe they would be.

However, when I was new to recovery, I would have been triggered by any mention of weight or calories — and a door would have been quickly opened for eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. As I’ve gotten further in my recovery and fully integrated back into the “real” world, where weight and calorie counts are often mentioned, I have learned to reframe or talk back to the thoughts that tell me these should be important pieces in my life again. This has taken a lot of work, and I would be lying if I didn’t cringe a bit when they mentioned numbers. If you are new to recovery, or even just feeling on shaky ground with recovery in general, I suggest maybe staying back from this movie until you’re feeling more steady. It’s just not worth the risk. If you feel at all hesitant about watching the movie, I would advise discussing the manner with your treatment team and making sure you’re getting support.

And for Netflix viewers, I hope you understand that eating disorders are not one person, one thing, one reason, one race or one age, but a global issue. There are many people out there like Ellen, and many people not at all like Ellen, that also have life-threatening disorders. I hope this is the first of many films highlighting one of the many experiences a person could have with an eating disorder. Who knows, maybe you’ll make the next one about your experience.

To end, we all have that voice, the one that tells us to engage in our eating disorder, to harm ourselves, that we’re bad at our job, that we’re a bad parent, that we’re a bad student, or that this is a bad life. And to that I say:

“You know what to do.”

“Fuck off, voice!”

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

Originally published: July 14, 2017
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