To The Bone – the good, the bad and the awful (acting)

As is often the case I am late to the party on this one. Partly because I wanted to let the hysteria settle down, and partly because it’s given me some time to string my thoughts together and consider all sides of the debate.

“To The Bone” is a Netflix film written and directed by Marti Noxon and starring Lily Collins and Keanu Reeves. The film, which came out earlier this month, follows one woman’s (Ellen) struggle with Anorexia Nervosa. It includes her time spent in a specialised treatment centre and was partly based on Noxon’s own experiences. The plot contains narratives around family and friendship, and while focusing on a serious subject also has some lighthearted moments that poke fun at the absurdity of eating disordered mindsets.

The very first I heard about this film was through an online eating disorder support forum I have belonged to for years. The general feeling was “oh God, how awful is this one going to be? Remember the Lifetime run of bad ED movies?!” Some people said they would be triggered but would likely watch it anyway. Others said they really didn’t care.

Let’s consider the trailer which, as standard, was a compressed snap of all the most dramatic and attention grabbing moments in the film. I noticed that it was released only a couple of weeks before the full film and I am not sure how typical that is of Netflix or if the producers chose to do so for a reason. But perhaps it was because they could guess at what reaction it would prompt.

My forum group’s response was tame in comparison to what came next. I am referring to the outpouring of tweets, the blogs and the Facebook posts. Words like “sensationalist”, “irresponsible” and “damaging” were thrown about and repeated endlessly–. There was something that really bothered me about this. It seemed that the rhetoric had become exhausted after repeated backlash against any media coverage concerning eating disorders or mental health.  Quite honestly it felt like many people were more interested in their own voices and flinging scorn at the creators of the movie, rather than their purported actual concern for any young vulnerable viewers. Most of the glorification of this film will be taking place within ‘pro ana’ forums and I imagine the individuals behind these judgmental blogs and posts would be just as judgmental and disapproving of those types of forums.

I feel that some individuals (and no I don’t have names in mind, it just seemed to be everywhere) were preaching from a position that was hardly appropriate. Of course you can be ill and still have views about these kinds of things and I am an example of that myself. But, it’s important to stress that you realise that you may not be in the ideal position to advocate recovery because the warnings you put out with the goal of protection can come across as pretty patronising. I know when I was a teenager I’d certainly have been rolling my eyes if someone who was obviously suffering from an eating disorder themselves advised me to avoid watching whatever film or show because it might be bad for me see.

An obvious example of this hypocrisy where I found myself shaking my head at was a blog that spat disgust and dismay at the contents of the movie, only for the writer to then go on to detail how she herself had been near death from an eating disorder at the weight of ‘x lb’. This huge contradiction of posting her own low weight stats alongside angrily criticising the film highlighting this symptom of anorexia was clearly unrecognised.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending this movie as being of the right tone, or as accurate or as sensitive to the subject matter as it could have been. But neither do I think it showed Ellen, or Eli as she later calls herself, as someone to aspire to, at least not for anyone who isn’t already ill or on the way to becoming so anyway. People don’t become anorexic or bulimic from watching a film. Photos of bones and untouched food on white plates can be found anywhere, saved on hard drives or cut out and pasted in a scrapbook.

After the movie came out in its entirety there seemed to be a bit of a lull in the hysteria – everything had already been said, before the discussion resumed, this time with a bit more perspective and consideration for what the movie may have gotten right, and the ways in which it could be worse. And it really could be worse.

One fact that had failed to make any of the blogs I read was that the film makers purposely left weight numbers out of the movie. Yes, it showed body shots, and body checks, Eli lacing her skinny fingers stretched around the top of her arm, measuring herself, and standing sideways on the scale. These are clearly aspects which could be regarded as glamourising anorexia; but again, mainly to viewers already on their way down the rabbit hole and potentially vulnerable. On the flip there were many ways the movie portrayed eating disorders in their awfulness: chewing and spitting at a restaurant, conversations between characters about binging and purging, hiding food and bags of vomit under the bed (but come on, a paper bag? That’s just not going to work!) And perhaps most awful of all, there is a scene in the film where a mother loses her baby possibly as a result of her eating disorder. I certainly do not think that ‘glorifies’ an eating disorder; rather it is quite horrific.

In terms of providing an authentic view of the typical treatment process there were major flaws. The treatment centre that Eli stayed in seemed more like a holiday lodge than any real life treatment centre I know of. That portrayal was a bit of a kick in the teeth to anyone that has gone through inpatient treatment for an eating disorder. It’s senseless and almost bizarre that it was stressed that Eli be referred urgently because she was so gravely ill, a day from death, but at the relaxed facility she was then sent to there were no checks as to her physical safety and furthermore her ability to be able to engage in treatment prior to admission.

To be fair, I do not know what residential EDU’s are like in the USA, and maybe the contrast between EDU’s here in the UK and the one portrayed in the film is greater.  Even so, despite the effect of great sums of money changing hands, that there are some aspects of the film’s portrayal of inpatient treatment that were simply ridiculous, and a world away from how facilities are run. For example, a trip out to a restaurant when you were only admitted the day before? Never. ‘Talking’ therapy straight away? Unlikely. Group trips out from the unit without the vetting process over who was physically safe to go and who would have to stay behind? Just no. Where were the hourly physical observations, why wasn’t Ellen’s blood pressure taken, her temperature checked, any blood drawn for tests? Okay perhaps this wouldn’t make thrilling viewing but some acknowledgement to these medical checks are standard in every eating disorder treatment facility would’ve added some much-needed realism. There were no room checks, no portrayal of how you are watched while you shower and while you pee (it can be bloody hard to go sometimes when you have a nurse peering through the door gap at you. Making something of that would have been a good fit with the often comical tone of the film.)

The most laughable thing of all is the concept of patients being allowed to eat whatever they wanted to at the table. The reality is rather different: having to eat whatever you are given, without any choice at all in the early days of treatment; every crumb has to be wiped off the plate, every smear of sauce, or you faced with a replacement shake, all the while being eyeballed by staff.

I know from talking to people who have eating disorders and live outside the UK, in countries without access to free health-care that they can face hugely frustrating issues in accessing treatment, however urgently or acutely it is needed. Viewers of the film in the USA whose own experiences in getting treatment involved real struggles with limiting insurance coverage, must have been face-palming the ease of which Eli was admitted to the group house.

It feels like so many of the blogs about this stuff I have read are the same, and honestly I am bored. I am bored, and I am frustrated because in their analysis of this film they all fail to bring up the more important deficiencies in the films portrayal of eating disorders. . The real issues are not about what it did wrong, but rather a missed opportunity to get it right. Netflix has a huge reach, and To The Bone could have used this platform to spread a little further knowledge and insight into eating disorders. It could have challenged some of the messages about eating disorders given in the media so often. Not least that anorexia is a white, privileged, straight. cis, able bodied young woman’s disease. The ‘fact’ that family dynamics are the sole root cause, that eating disorders are invariably ‘about’ a sense of perfectionism and the need to be in control.

As noted above, “To The Bone” is for the most part an autobiographical account, and admittedly a person who meets the stereotype cannot help it. But the complete absence of diversity was striking; there was certainly scope to improve representation of difference in the other, fictional, characters in the film. I found every one of them to be one dimensional cardboard cut-outs without any depth to their different stories and backgrounds. The movie was a major cop-out, failing to rise to the challenge of representing something new. Adding further breadth to what is most typically known and assumed about eating disorders could have created meaningful awareness and given voices to the unheard.

But instead we had a role call of clichés. The two black women in the film were loud and large: The matron, bossy and straight-to-the-point and the only overweight patient who has BED and sits at the dining table eating out of a peanut butter tub (as if that would happen in an EDU, yeah.) This perpetuation of tropes about black women is deeply unhelpful.

Furthermore, the token male patient at the unit, Luke is quirky, a bit of a nerd (presumed gay by everyone at first, of course), and is a rescuer. He makes Eli laugh, makes her forget about her problems and even gets her to eat. He is the voice of knowledge, the wise and sobering one, and we learn nothing of great depth about him. Having even just the one male patient character could’ve opened up the story so much more by exploring a narrative about men and eating disorders, issues that in the UK have recently been given some attention with the airing of a couple of television programmes, including a special series on BBC3, and through the efforts of the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too (MGEDT).

What about including a black woman with anorexia? Or a mixed-race character? What about a patient in late middle age on the ward? While these examples may not have fitted the demographics of people that the author had true life interactions with, it seems unlikely that all characters exactly matched their real life counterparts. Adaptation screenplays are after all just that: adaptions. Extending dramatic license to improve diversity of representation would have been no great stretch.

I’ve already touched on my biggest irritation about this film which concerns gender roles and dynamics. Most of all, the character of the psychiatrist which was played by Keanu Reeves. Like Luke, but to a much greater extent, he is a rescuer. With a God-like complex, he is attractive, and appears assured and confident; he is ‘unconventional’ in his methods of treatment, but he is ‘the best’. He will rescue Eli from an eventual death and make her realise that she wants to live! Oh let us all swoon at his pretty eyes as he rushes in to cure the fragile pretty women, most of them young enough to be his daughter!

No, no, no. You don’t have to scratch the surface far to recognise that what’s being offered here is a perpetuation of the tired gender stereotyping of women as weak and the patriarchal nonsense that women are inferior to men. The story would have been so much better if Eli’s recovery had been framed in terms of her saving herself.

I was relieved that the ending was not a case of happy-ever-after, with Eli making a swift turnaround from sick to well. Such a neat conclusion is typical of films about eating disorders, as well as in the stories shared in magazines or on television shows. Instead we were provided with a more realistic picture. Eli was shown to be moving forward, but yet still on a road to recovery that would be gradual.

To be brutal, “To The Bone” is badly acted, and will be a disappointment to anyone expecting a film that will change the way people regard eating disorders. It makes for unenlightening viewing, and instead of anything new, viewers are fed a multitude of clichés that reinforce the same old ideas. To be honest, I did not expect any differently. It will be hard for anyone to ever get it right.  But does that mean they should stop trying? No. Silencing is not the answer; to shut down any depiction of eating disorders on screen would be completely limiting. Ultimately every time something like To The Bone comes along we are prompted into these reflections there is conversation, there is debate, and that has got to stand for something.



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