Like most of my friends in the eating disorder recovery community, I experienced a multitude of emotions while watching Netflix’s To the Bone. But unlike many of my friends and peers, the front runner of those emotions wasn’t anger about what the film got wrong nor fear for whom it may trigger.
I looked up from my laptop screen with a sense of frustration. Frustration towards the eating disorder community, the one I love and helped build. I’m frustrated with us because we messed up. We used our voices like recovery has taught us to do, but we used them wrong this time. And maybe it wasn’t entirely our fault. Maybe we couldn’t help our bias when we viewed To the Bone from the lens of an eating disorder survivor. But that bias caused us to entrust one movie with a responsibility that it neither deserves nor asked for. We clicked and we watched and we hoped that To the Bone would be the beacon of hope we were waiting for. But here’s the thing – To the Bone is not a treatment tool. It’s not supposed to make you want to recover. It’s not for you just like it’s not for who I was three years ago, desperately needing to acknowledge and fight back against anorexia.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be critical of it, but first it’s important to realize that To the Bone has a different purpose, a different legacy, and a different way of affecting change than we have been assigning it. We have to analyze those strengths and weaknesses, join in that conversation, and not do both the film and ourselves the disservice of trying to make it ours.
To the Bone is not for the “Lucas” and “Ellen”s of the world. It is not going to have a positive influence on someone who is currently stuck in the painful spiral of an eating disorder or just beginning to tackle recovery. And I think that’s the first issue with how the eating disorder community has been criticizing the film. We’re so concerned about whom To the Bone is triggering that we don’t pause to consider that maybe those triggers were meant for a different audience. Every eating disorder victim deserves a safe space to heal without being confronted by dangerous triggers. But To the Bone is not that safe space. It never claimed to be. Removing the triggering scenes of the film would take away its agency and its capacity to help those very victims. Those scenes may not benefit the men and women who are suffering, but they are crucial to the families of those individuals, to their friends, to their support systems.
Anyone who has endured an eating disorder knows that one of the most difficult paradoxes we suffer is wanting help, even going as far as to ask for help, and being rebuffed when we do so because our loved ones don’t understand the tricky nature of our addiction. They want to understand, they want to help, but they can’t wrap their heads around the hold of an eating disorder. They can’t relate to the calorie obsession or the control it yields. To the Bone may not succeed at safeguarding everyone who watches it against triggers, but it effectively introduces and explains several prominent eating disorder behaviors in a way that the general public can understand.
The eating disorder community, myself included, can forget that all the numbers and food rules in our heads are not common knowledge for others. By shining a light on these behaviors and triggers that wasn’t there before, To the Bone begins to chip away at the isolation that characterizes many eating disorders and makes them so deadly. Imagine how many eating disorders might get treated and dealt with before they become habit and obsession if parents now understand the warning signs and behaviors. Imagine how many more successful family therapy sessions inpatient treatment centers might now see. There is potential here. From the perspective of creating awareness for those outside of the eating disorder community, there is so much potential here.
It’s not that I don’t understand why so many of us are upset. I do. As a survivor of anorexia and orthorexia, this film made me very uncomfortable. I seriously urge any eating disorder victim to think long and hard before watching. And if you do chose to watch, I encourage you to give yourself permission to turn it off if anything starts to trigger you. There’s no shame in that. But also, I urge you to think about what your expectations for this movie were. Were they fair? Did you hope for it to be, to do much more than one film can? The truth is, I did. I wanted To the Bone to give me the impression that some sick teenager might see it and use it as motivation to recover. But that is neither reasonable nor realistic.
The thing is, people with eating disorders know the risks of their behavior. For the most part, they know they are sick. They know they could die. One movie isn’t going to scare an eating disorder victim straight. But maybe it will help the people around them understand their pain a little better. And after all, isn’t that all we can hope for from art? To spark dialogue, to create awareness, and to help make the world a more compassionate place?
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