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'To The Bone does not elevate disordered eating behaviours as something to aspire to'

There is no doubt that the new Netlix film will continue to generate debate, writes Barry Murphy.

Barry Murphy Communications officer, Bodywhys

NETFLIX HAS JUST released a film, rated 15s, called To The Bone which centres on a 20-year-old woman with an eating disorder.

Two people involved in the project Lily Collins, who plays the lead character, Ellen, and the film’s director, Marti Noxon, have spoken publicly about their personal experiences of eating disorders.

Trailer and community reaction

There has been considerable commentary and debate on the film’s trailer. On first look, the structure of the trailer suggests a relatively straightforward storyline. That is, the character goes from being ill to a point of crisis, to seeking treatment, to a place of hope and recovery. A, plus B, plus C equals D and the eating disorder is resolved, right?

In reality, a person’s experience of an eating disorder is not usually this linear. Some people were optimistic following the trailer whilst others expressed concerns about the jaunty tone, use of stark imagery, the inclusion of potentially triggering scenes and frustration at the possible perpetuation of a stereotype.

Responding on Twitter, Netflix stated: “We are definitely going to be thoughtful about what scenes we show in future promotion of the film.”

Glamorisation?

The question of glamorisation quickly emerged in the mainstream media. This is, after all, is a Hollywood production and it is not possible to dismiss these trappings upon considering the full film. It is incredibly challenging to capture the complexity and seriousness of eating disorders – which pose risks in terms of mortality and suicide – in an entertainment medium, in less than 2 hours.

If you know someone who has experienced an eating disorder you will be aware of the significant stigma and self-blame attached to the issue. The stigma is such that people may delay seeking professional help out of a fear of not being taken seriously due to their age, gender or level of symptoms.

Eating disorders are widely misunderstood in the public imagination. Once you are aware of these issues then reaction to the film’s marketing becomes quite understandable.

Is this film harmful for people with eating disorders?

People with eating disorders are realistic and acknowledge they cannot live in a world without encountering some potential triggers. In fact, recognising potential triggers, and learning to deal with them is a part of recovery.

It is clear the character of Ellen is in crisis and unwell, with experience of multiple hospital admissions. At certain times, specific eating disorder behaviours are shown along with emotionally frank and personal conversations.

Whilst the film does not shy away from depicting the day-to-day experience of eating disorders, it does not elevate disordered eating behaviours as something to aspire to. It also highlights a number of key messages such as:

  • That eating disorders are serious psychological illnesses
  • That they are not about food, dieting or vanity
  • That they pose a significant risk to a person’s emotional and physical health
  • That they are not caused by one factor
  • That they distort a person’s sense of self
  • That they are not a lifestyle choice
  • That families play an important role in recovery.

In the film, the character’s family life is complicated something which is not representative of all situations. Without spoiling the ending, there is a shift in the lead character who initially resists treatment and is in denial. These traits form part of an eating disorder, an illness which often results in profound feelings of shame and guilt.

Ellen also uses deflection – something that her sister, Kelly, finds saddening due to getting “non-answers”. This is a key difficulty at the heart of eating disorders; one part of a person wants to get better, the other feels conflicted. Cognitive distortions are often a feature of anorexia nervosa.

Should I watch this film?

If you currently have or had prior experience of an eating disorder, the question understandably arises as to whether you should watch To The Bone. The character interactions and dynamics, scenes of distress and conflict may bring up difficult feelings for you.

If the trailer was overwhelming for you, or you are currently having a difficult time with your eating disorder, it may be best to avoid viewing the film.

If you intend to watch it, try to put a plan in place. Communicate with someone in your support network, a professional, family member or friend so that you can discuss its impact on you.

For family, including parents and siblings, the film highlights the importance of open communication and encouraging people with eating disorders in their recovery. Viewing the film together may be a useful way to discuss any issues that may arise when watching the film. If your son or daughter lives away from home, check in with them to say you know the film is online and that you are there to provide support. Ask if they would like to watch it with you.

Is Bodywhys endorsing this film?

There is no doubt that the film will continue to generate debate; people with eating disorders do not speak with a single voice. This film is a fictional account of one person’s story.

Bodywhys reviewed the film in advance of its release. Our perspective is based on multiple viewings and careful consideration of the film’s themes and content.

Barry Murphy is the communications officer for Bodywhys. If the issues raised in the film affect you, Bodywhys offers support services: Bodywhys helpline: 1890 200 444.
Bodywhys email support: alex@bodywhys.ie.

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About the author:

Barry Murphy  / Communications officer, Bodywhys

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