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 that the bracelets wouldn't fit me, since my wrists were larger than hers. But I still kept the bracelet, to show my appreciation for the gesture.
And then I let it sit and gather dust on a shelf for the next year or so.
I began to develop an eating disorder the following year. My initial goal was to be thin enough to wear the bracelet. After a few months I could, and I needed a new goal. This time, I set out to measure my wrist by wrapping my fingers around them, and seeing if all four could reach all the way around.
I still do this from time to time, though I now consider myself to be in recovery.
Not as a goal anymore, but to check to make sure I’m not tricking myself into covering up any sort of relapse. This is not at all a unique habit. In fact, the protagonist of Netflix’s new film "To The Bone" does exactly this in the film, commenting on the desired arm width "no bigger than a silver dollar."
Eli/Ellen, played by Lily Collins, is a 20-year-old suffering from anorexia nervosa. The film follows her struggle through inpatient treatment lead by the charmingly outlandish physician, played by none other than Keanu Reeves.
Admittedly, I was dumbfounded when I first saw the trailer.
Another f*cking movie about a rich white girl with an eating disorder.
Yes, it follows all the same tropes. And yes, elements of it matched up with my own life pretty well. Just like the protagonist, I’m from Los Angeles, I have a messy family life, and I have a constant reference guide of calorie count playing in the back of my head.
The problem is that 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. My muscles were lean and toned from late nights exercising off calories, and my skin lit up from afternoon jogs around my neighborhood. I wasn't eating, but I wasn't losing any weight either.
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 this film is about to portray.
Recovery is not simple or easy.
It is not the good-humored drama portrayed 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 eating disorders in general, is not simple or easy. You don't want to tell someone 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, 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 considered themselves to be "recovered." I would advise that teens steer clear of it and its potentially triggering imagery. I know when I first developed an eating disorder, it was films like this one that convinced me to continue 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 to top it all off, the film still managed to perpetuate the trope of this manic pixie dream girl who is saved by the only two men in her life that 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 that 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," 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, that does not justify this perpetuated image as the "only type of person" that could develop an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are deadly illnesses that do not discriminate.
Gay, straight, poly, young, old, black, white, Native, Chicano, Chinese, trans, male, non binary… - the illness doesn’t give a shit. And it’s time we start recognizing that and showing these types of examples 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 all know that particular narrative. And that's not to discredit it, for this particular 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.
A friend by the name of Molly posted a video shortly after the film was released. Hearing others speak out against this film's portrayal of eating disorders has only strengthened my belief that it could be a problematic and dangerous film for many of its viewers. As she explains it in the video:
"Sometimes you get rose tinted glasses looking back. I could’ve done it this way. Obviously I didn’t have to be that stupid. I could still lose the weight. This diet is different. I would be happier, right? And this is what it can be like when you don’t fit the depiction given… The questions come to mind: If my spine had been more noticeable, if I was underweight or even a normal weight, if I did more sit-ups, if my arms were smaller… This movie leaves me sitting there going If I was living the same battle internally and her body made hers be taken more seriously, maybe I would've gotten help sooner [if I looked more like that]."
Because 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, 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. When I found her book Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia I was mid-disorder at 15-years old.
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."
To end an article that discusses such triggering content, here’s the number for the NEDA (Eating Disorder) Helpline (800-931-2237) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).