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Here's the problem with To The Bone, the new Netflix film about eating disorders

It’s not even out yet and people are already complaining.

PastedImage-19012 Source: Youtube

BEFORE YOU READ on, if you are concerned that you or a friend could be suffering with an eating disorder, you can get in touch with Bodywhys confidentially on their LoCall line (1890-200-444) at these times.

Eating disorders can affect anyone. There are up to 200,000 people in Ireland affected by various eating disorders, so understandably, some people may find the content below uncomfortable or upsetting.

If you are particularly sensitive to discussions about eating disorders or issues like suicide, you may not want to proceed.

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When Netflix released their series 13 Reasons Why, the response from critics was generally that “if there was a list of ways not to portray suicide, this would tick every box.” So why should we expect them to handle eating disorders sensitively in their new film To the Bone?

Of course it’s really important for the media to discuss important issues like mental health and eating disorders.

It’s beyond important. It’s essential. It’s necessary to improve everybody’s understanding of these conditions and begin healthy discussions about them. However, we should probably be wary of how this will be handled in To the Bone

The film hasn’t even been released yet and it is already upsetting some people. Some of the ads that Netflix has paid for are auto-playing without warning and without listing relevant resources after the trailer.

That’s not a great start. Anybody with an eating disorder can be scrolling and minding their own business and suddenly they’re presented with audio and/or visuals of a young woman counting calories and being told that she has “calorie Aspergers”, (which is how the trailer opens).

PastedImage-78596 Keanu Reeves plays Dr. Beckham in the movie Source: Youtube

The movie is about a young woman who reluctantly enters a treatment program with an “unconventional” doctor.

Her name is Ellen and she is played by Lily Collins. While in the program, she makes friends with other people who are also struggling with their health due to an eating disorder. One of these friends is Luke (played by Alex Sharp).

Luke’s a quirky English guy and while it’s good that they’re highlighting the fact that men and boys also suffer with eating disorders, it also appears that their relationship turns into an unnecessary romance that might be problematic in the scheme of the entire film.

PastedImage-7701 Quirky Luke Source: Youtube

From the trailer it becomes immediately clear that like every quirky boy in this type of movie where a stubborn girl comes to terms with her health issues, (It’s Kind of a Funny Story and The Fault in our Stars), he offers some well timed pseudo-deep quotes to make the movie more inspirational.

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For instance, in the trailer Keanu Reeves brings his patients out into pouring rain and shouts “Somebody tell me why we’re here!” and quirky Luke replies “…Because we’re alive.” In reality, the probability of that dialogue occurring is pretty unlikely.

The idea that a quirky English boy can cajole Ellen into recovering is also slightly odd and could veer a little bit too closely to romanticizing the whole issue, which is really the last thing that this film should be doing.

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The trailer alone already goes against America’s Responsible Media Coverage of Eating Disorder guidelines.

These guidelines exist to assist filmmakers and media who can very often inadvertently glamorize, romanticise or promote imagery that inspires copycat behaviours in susceptible audiences.

Their guidelines say that it is harmful to dramatise dangerous thinness in that it can ‘provoke a “race to the bottom” among other sufferers, i.e., “She is thinner than I am and she’s still alive. I should lose more weight.”‘

PastedImage-55248 Source: Youtube

Despite this, the trailer shows images of Lily Collins where she is very thin and emphasises features like her protruding spine in one scene. That’s fairly graphic for anyone who is sensitive to that kind of thing. Bear in mind that this is also only the trailer. There’s a possibility that the film will have more imagery than just this.

It’s directed by Marti Noxon, who has suffered with an eating disorder herself.

Noxon (who wrote and produced Buffy the Vampire Slayer), spoke frankly with Refinery29 about the film and her experience. In her early life she struggled with an eating disorder which “morphed into an issue with alcohol” until she eventually got sober at age 24.

Two and a half decades later, her issues with control and substance abuse re-emerged and she became addicted to alcohol again. Once again she managed to recover, and shortly afterwards she began to work on this film.

Paley Center Honors Women in Television Marti Noxon Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

However, even on set of To the Bone she had to urge the female producers around her to assure her that she didn’t need to lose weight while she watched actresses like Lily Collins who were dieting under supervision.

Noxon partnered with Project HEAL (an American support group that support people in their recovery from eating disorders) for the film. Project HEAL told The Mighty that it’s very challenging to make a truthful film about eating disorders that can capture both their severity and complexity (both for the patient and their family). They said that:

To the Bone tows this line beautifully. While the movie has the possibility to be triggering to some, I strongly believe that it will make a huge difference of raising public awareness of this silenced disorder.

Without doubting Project HEAL’s expertise on this subject, it’s really worth emphasizing the fact that this film will be triggering to some individuals.

It definitely seems like To the Bone is balancing on a very fine line between raising public awareness and inspiring this behavior or exacerbating the existing conditions of individuals trying to overcome eating disorders.

This becomes a bit questionable considering the fact that it’s recent presentation in advertisements by Netflix was totally unaccompanied by any warnings about the content. People have already been vocal about their unhappiness with this.

fbf187f459a6e2bd6f274d58dd303395 Source: Sprout/Twitter

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It’s important to be aware of what this movie will contain before you watch it.

Anyone who is affected by an eating disorder will have to make an assessment on their recovery and progress before sitting down to watch this film, because critics who have seen the film at Sundance have underlined the fact that although it raises awareness, it is not a very pleasant film to watch.

Virtually any film that would try to deal with this extremely sensitive topic will contain content that will be upsetting to some people. People have expressed recognizing a lot of their friends or their selves in the character of Ellen in this movie.

PastedImage-5082 Source: Youtube

It’s really possible that this film could result in people finding a character that they relate to which will lead them to seek help for their condition, and that would be the ideal outcome of this film. Hopefully it is not at the cost of people whose recovery is at a stage where it can be set back greatly by exposure to this kind of material.

This is definitely something that needs to be researched before you watch To the Bone, and hopefully soon after it’s release on the 14th of July, there will be people with experience of recovering from eating disorders who can advise potential viewers about the degree to which this film might affect a vulnerable person.


Once again, if you would like to speak confidentially about your concern that you or a friend could be struggling with an eating disorder, the contact number for the eating disorder helpline run by Bodywhys is 1890-200-444. 

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About the author:

Kelly Earley

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