ATTENTION ACHTUNG ATTENZIONE ATENÇÃO ATENCIÓN ATTENTIE ΠΡΟΣΟΧΗ HEADS UP WAARSCHUWING RHYBUDD
- I mention details of the movie so if you hate any spoilers, perhaps read this article after viewing the movie.
- That said, I actually wouldn’t recommend viewing this movie if you are currently vulnerable to eating disorder behaviours and/or tend to be influenced by images of anorexic sufferers. At times, the movie is a visual representation of a Tumblr rabbit-hole, only without the hashtags and mottos. Even Netflix gives a warning.
The other night I watched Netflix’s ‘To the Bone’ and I very much wanted to write about it. But I am not going to write a normal movie review where I evaluate the soundtrack, scrutinise the acting quality, analyse the plot consistency, and question why all movies these days have their titles at the end as if it’s fashionable or something… instead, I shall provide a rambling dissertation of my thoughts and questions, and produce brilliant suggestions on how I can so totally make the movie better – principally in the context of its representation of eating disorders.
The film is, in essence, more about “life” (heh) with an eating disorder than the journey that comes with eating disorder recovery, which is fine: there are plenty of grim and depressing movies out there, and this is light-hearted in comparison. I liked the candid talk of eating disorder behaviours, as they show how the patients have normalised them in their minds. I was happy to see the moments of ugliness, danger, fear, defensive outbursts, and inner turmoil, because that is what eating disorder suffering demands, and any beauty or romanticism of it would have been insulting and just plain wrong. I wanted more scenes like the one where Pearl was curled up on Luke’s lap, sobbing uncontrollably. It was good to see the unsettling contrast between Ellen’s dulled features and her step-sister Kelly’s healthy glow when they were sitting next to each other on chairs – these days it is too easy to forget what a healthy and average weight looks like, and too easy to praise weight-loss and skinniness without realising it too often goes too far. The movie did well in showing some parts of the gritty reality that comes with an eating disorder.
For me, the bruises on Ellen’s spine from doing sit-ups brought back old memories, as did her compulsive exercising behaviours. At the same time, watching it I felt safe and comfortable, because I was in a body that had been freed from anorexia some years ago, and the movie reminded me that I no longer felt what Ellen was feeling: the endless cold, the painful hunger, the shadow of Death, the urge to burn non-existent calories. I hope I do not sound like a cruel sadist, drawing comfort from another person’s pain, but for me the movie prompted me to realise how far I have come. The sheer healthiness of Ellen’s alternate body in her vision is a powerful comparison to her sick self.
But of course, the viewing experience will be varied for many, and it highly depends on personal experience. Those who have not suffered might not understand the significance of some scenes, such as when the patients all swear loudly at the voice in their heads. Either way, ‘To the Bone’ cannot cover every single aspect of anorexia nervosa, let alone eating disorders as a whole – it’s just a film.
Nevertheless, a few extra scenes could have emphasised the ugly nature of eating disorders even further: Luke should have had a meltdown after realising his dancing career was over, to show how beneath his jolly façade is another vulnerable person who despite having gotten so far, at times still deeply struggles. There should have been much more self-hatred and crying. There should have been more emphasis on how much an eating disorder can interrupt life – such as its negative impact on school, work, friendships, and relationships. The teeth, hair and skin of the people with severe bulimia nervosa should not look nearly as good as they do on screen. Hell, they look better than mine. Instead of the girl’s polite paper “barf-bag” under the bed, we should have seen her huddled on a bathroom floor, in the aftermath of her disorder, with a runny nose, red eyes, and smeared make-up. There should have been fear as well as anger surrounding food – a panic attack would have been more powerful than everybody simply storming off. I wish that the girl with binge eating disorder spoke more and voiced her struggles too. A statement such as “I wish I had what you have instead. No one at home takes me seriously. I get called a greedy pig, you get all the compliments,” would have voiced an all too common sentiment for those with binge eating disorder.* When Ellen was able to fit her fingers around her upper arm, I wanted her to cry and look terrified, because I wanted her to realise that even when she ‘finally achieved’ one of her personal (disordered) benchmarks, nothing changed and she was still trapped with her eating disorder. It solved nothing.
Anyway, I swear, I’m not a psychopath nor am I the Joker. It may sound extreme, but I just think the more the ugly truths of an eating disorder are shown, the better. They need to counteract the glamorization and normalisation of chronic dieting, the rampant romanticization of weight loss and over-exercise, and the excessive trivialisation of eating disorders as teenage phases. There are many movies that do not shy away from the horrors of rape, war, violence, abuse, and drugs. This should not be any different. Of course the more intense the movie is, the more likely it is to trigger a vulnerable individual, but there is a plethora of triggering material out there anyway within easy reach. At least this triggering stuff could be educational, and especially help in enlightening those ignorant about the seriousness of eating disorders. Besides, choosing to watch this movie as a vulnerable person and not expecting to get triggered is like slathering yourself with honey, lying in the Australian bush and not expecting a horde of ants to come and bite you. I admit though – had I watched this movie several years ago, it would have definitely screwed me over for a few days.
There were a few unrealistic features of the movie that annoyed me (ignoring the scene when the unmarried and childless John Wick/Neo randomly talks to his younger female patient when she is by herself in the bedroom, and the fact that the principle rule is to sit at the table during meal times but no one seems to follow it, nor is it enforced.) Firstly, all of the patients seemed to have disrupted and selfish families, but that does not have to play any role in falling victim to an eating disorder. Plenty of people can tick all of society’s Must-Have boxes and still get sick through no fault of their own. Additionally, while I can’t vouch for everyone, despite the occasional competitiveness and bitchiness, the people who I have interacted with and heard about would never wish an eating disorder on anyone else, and would have never encouraged behaviours in another person. I forget her name, but the girl who aggressively offers Ellen laxatives in exchange for not ratting her out must have been very ill – in more ways than one – to encourage a new and dangerous behaviour to someone else. Finally, apart from Luke and Karen, there is no evidence of the patients making any attempts to recover or curb their behaviours. Instead, behaviours run rampant in the cosy and large house.
Lack of ugliness and flaws aside, ‘To the Bone’ has redeeming characteristics, the biggest of which are its ending and the character Luke. They show that recovery is possible – no matter how far gone or lost one may feel, every positive choice can help. The body and mind are strong, stronger than an eating disorder. There is a rich and bright life after an eating disorder. With these sentiments, the movie rings very true.
P.S. How can Luke kiss Ellen and not wince from her cigarette breath? I also don’t understand what Ellen randomly changing her name to Eli means.
* Unfortunate source: various forum posts of BED sufferers on a “Pro-Ana” website, read several years ago by a sick me