I first heard about the To The Bone movie, a Netflix original, when I saw a shocking still from it on Instagram. Ellen stands on an upright scale, ribs protruding. She stares intently at the scale’s toggles in front of her. The picture immediately struck me as all-too-familiar.
That’s because I’ve been a girl, sick and hungry, looking to the scale in front of me for validation of my worth as a person. But I also haven’t been Ellen, since I’ve never been so visibly ill or medically underweight.
Even before the film was released July 14 it got immediate blowback from the eating disorder recovery community, a diverse group of therapists, nutritionists, doctors, parents, and those in recovery: people who have or had eating disorders of all types and are taking the steps necessary to change their experiences.
We can’t know that this movie is going to be harmful to every girl who sees it. But the evidence so far isn’t looking good. Hadley Freeman, a journalist who writes about her own hospitalizations for her eating disorder in her review of the film, wrote, “There is a line between rendering a complex subject filmable and sexing-up a serious illness, and To the Bone crosses it from the first scene.”
Bailie, 19, pinpointed a serious issue, “It was pretty problematic to have the main character lose weight for the show,” she said, referring to Collins, an anorexia survivor herself, losing weight for the role. “It can start to feed into the idea that someone has to be ‘sick enough’ to go to treatment and that type of sick has only one look. In my mind it could actually stop girls with EDs from getting help because they feel like they have to look a certain way for their ED to be taken or treated seriously.”
I immediately knew that I didn’t want to see the movie, because I don’t want to compromise where I am in my recovery. I heard horror stories about the trailer on Instagram. It sent my friend Ash into a relapse when she was already in a really vulnerable place in her recovery. She’s 13 and lives in Eastern Europe. “Why I found it most triggering was the fact there was no people of normal weight that were suffering from anorexia… They didn’t show anyone like me in the movie. I relapsed for at least a week until I was forced to eat by my family.”
I’m disturbed that instead of raising awareness, the film might prevent those who are not underweight from seeking help. I reached out to a group of young women I know between the ages of 19 and 24, who identify as in recovery or recovered from eating disorders, for their reactions. That was the dominant concern among the group.
“The problem lies in the erasure of those who aren’t underweight or are overweight, obese and so on,” said Lauren, 23. “I can’t help but feel this movie is only going to reinstate the same narrow-minded ideas of ED we already have as a culture.”
This brings us to what my friend Julia and I call the “instruction manual phenomenon” in media about eating disorders. Many books intended to focus on recovery, such as Marya Hornbacher’s memoir Wasted or YA novel Perfect by Natasha Friend, can instead serve as a set of how-tos for young people at risk.
For example, as Melissa Fabello says in her brilliant essay, Why We Need More ‘Hunger’ And Less ‘To The Bone,’ the trailer features a scene of Ellen’s sister quizzing her on the calorie counts of all the foods in front of her. Counting, measuring, and comparing numbers (weight, calories consumed, calories burned, clothing sizes, etc.) is a central obsession of some eating disorders. It’s a gateway behavior to an obsession to anyone vulnerable, and it could become so much more. (Personally, there were definitely more calorie counts than derivatives in my calculus notebook.)
If your daughter is interested in watching this movie or comes to you saying she has, it’s important to ask her how she feels about it and then listen. Don’t try to direct this conversation. You want her to understand that you don’t think there’s any “right” answer. It might be a short conversation. Most valuable could be repeated conversations about ED realities and struggles, using the film as an opening, that play out slowly over an extended time period.
No matter what, it’s definitely important to share the observation that the film tells only one story. Media and published stories about eating disorders overwhelming focus on thin, white, straight, cisgender, middle- to upper-class young women recovering from anorexia, when this in fact has no basis in reality. While media glamorizes these stories, survivors struggle not to glamorize our personal eating disorder in our own minds — even when we know so, so much better.
I know many people in recovery who watched the trailer and/or film. ED advocates, as well as those further along in their recovery processes, roundly those early in recovery not to watch the film. Maddy, 21, who has been in recovery for over a year, may have put it best: “I just don’t think I’m in the target demographic to watch it. LIke the film is made for people that don’t know what it’s like to have an eating disorder, not people in recovery… I lived it. I’m not trying to relive it.”
Alexa Salvato is a writer, educator, and recent college grad passionate about recovery in all its forms. She’s also officially been writing for New Moon Girls for a decade! You can reach her and see more of her work at alexasalvato.wordpress.com.