The new Netflix film, To the Bone, which depicts a young woman’s struggle and recovery from anorexia, is about to be released. I write this without having seen the whole film, but the trailer itself has sparked such controversy that I felt compelled to address it.
As the Executive Director of EDIN, a non-profit dedicated to the prevention and awareness of eating disorders, and as a therapist who treats clients with eating disorders, I welcome the opportunity to have a discussion about the most effective ways to raise awareness for eating disorders. I believe we need to have more conversations about what helps, what can unintentionally cause harm, and how to make our conversation more inclusive of all ethnicities, ages, genders, body sizes, abilities, etc. These are all valuable questions, and I’m glad we’re having this discussion.
Many talented clinicians and experts in the field have already weighed in about this film (NEDA, The Mighty, Paige Smathers, Washington Post). Rather than writing another article from the perspective of an expert, I'd like to offer a part of my own story.
My sophomore year of high school was tough. On the outside, I probably looked like a healthy, happy teenager. I came from a “good family,” I had friends, I played sports, and I did well in school. Internally, I was struggling. I didn’t feel equipped to cope with experiences I’d had, to manage the stress I internalized nor to handle all of my complex feelings. I was also highly body-conscious, preoccupied with how I felt my body “should” look. I had absorbed messages from the media, family and friends about what bodies were acceptable, which were beautiful. Since middle school, I’d been engaging in behaviors to try to change my body.
But there was a crucial turning point when it got much, much worse.
For me, the trigger for this turning point was a film; specifically, a television movie about a teenage girl with an eating disorder. The movie did not intend to glamorize the disease. The girl in the film wants to change her body. She develops an eating disorder that makes her very sick. She eventually gets help. While I’m fairly certain this was the plot, all I remember from the film were the destructive behaviors in which she was engaging.
Immediately following this film, I began to engage in the behaviors I’d witnessed in this film. (Please note: I’m being purposely vague about these “behaviors.” They are harmful and I don't want to draw more attention to them.) I had the genetic predisposition, a highly sensitive temperament, and was already struggling with food and my body image. In essence, I was vulnerable (at high risk/predisposed to developing an eating disorder).
The behaviors I learned from the film allowed my eating disorder to consume my life. Within a few months, instead of going to camp with all my friends, I was admitted to an inpatient eating disorder treatment program.
My eating disorder stole years of my life. It took an enormous toll on me physically, emotionally and spiritually. And I’m one of the lucky ones: I got help. I found life on the other side of an eating disorder.
To those of you who are asking why this film is so controversial:
I hope my story serves as a cautionary tale. Let me be clear: the film I watched did NOT cause my eating disorder. Eating disorders are incredibly complex illnesses. The media or a film cannot trigger an eating disorder without other factors already present. But for vulnerable individuals like me, films like To The Bone can provide ideas and images that can cause harm. The detailed depiction of an eating disorder can serve as a how-to guide for disordered behaviors for those who are already predisposed to these diseases.
Can vulnerable individuals find these images and ideas elsewhere on the internet? Absolutely.
Should the media avoid portraying anything that could potentially trigger someone? Of course not. I am not advocating censorship. I believe this film was made with positive intentions.
I am advocating that we be highly aware of the potential for unintentional consequences when films like this are released.
(And if you’re in the “Toughen up, Snowflakes” camp, I’ll never convince you. I've come to embrace my sensitive nature as an asset and I strongly believe that vulnerability and compassion are more courageous than “acting tough,” but that's a whole other post..)
For ways to respond to and support vulnerable family or friends, check out these articles from The Butterfly Foundation, Eating Recovery Center, and EDIN.
To the precious, sensitive and vulnerable human beings out there:
If you’re already struggling with your body image, or with food...or you just feel overwhelmed and want to connect with someone else who “knows your pain”... I get why you want to watch this film. You may simply wish to feel less alone in your struggles. (I know I did!) An eating disorder isolates you from those around you. It promises acceptance while it destroys you from the inside out. You may feel alone, but you are NOT alone! There are many people who care about you and want to help. If you can resist, I’d urge you not to watch this film.
If you do watch it, please consider watching it with a friend or family member. (If you don't have someone nearby, this Friday, July 14th at 7:30 pm, watch and discuss this film with a positive recovery community on Twitter hosted by @kcleddy, #TTBlive) Talk about what comes up for you as you watch it. If it influences you to engage in harmful behaviors, please ask for help.
Eating disorders destroy lives. Your life matters. From one survivor to another: it’s not easy but if you ask for help, you can recover! You are worth the time and energy it takes. There is a massive recovery community just waiting to welcome you into our fold.
PS: EDIN's website has lots of information about eating disorders and how to get help.