A Bone to Pick

Sub-Editor Michele Theil critiques Netflix' portrayal of eating disorders in their new film To The Bone and explains the issue with it.

Netflix’ new film To The Bone stars Lily Collins as Ellen, nicknamed as Eli, a girl struggling with anorexia nervosa and portrays her journey towards recovery as she is admitted to a new in-patient facility for sufferers of eating disorders.

When the trailer was released earlier this year, there were many who thought of the movie as groundbreaking, with some hailing Netflix, and writer & director Marti Noxon, for portraying an often stigmatised and usually difficult topic. There was also praise for the production team leading the project, many of whom suffered from or had experience dealing with eating disorders (including Noxon), using their own stories to shape the narrative. However, it also sparked controversy due to critics’ views that it may, in fact, be glamorising the illness and that, by using a romantic entanglement within the story, it hinders the portrayal of eating disorders, and the struggle through recovery, greatly.

There was also praise for the production team leading the project, many of whom suffered from or had experience dealing with eating disorders (including Noxon), using their own stories to shape the narrative

The images released from To The Bone show Lily Collins, an anorexia survivor herself, looking extremely pale and dangerously thin. It is reported that Collins was made to lose weight drastically in order to play the role of Ellen. While the look was enhanced by makeup, it is nonetheless worrying that Collins had to risk relapse as an anorexic survivor in order to portray this.

In addition, the look, while a raw and accurate depiction of anorexia, sadly has served as inspiration for those that aspire to be thin. Noxon stated that during filming, Collins was often approached by women who asked her for her “secret” as she was so skinny. Screenshots of Collins from the film have already circulated on the social media site Tumblr, among the “thinspo” and “pro-ana” blogs that operate a community dedicated to guiding people through anorexia and ‘helping’ them to become thinner. This issue is actually addressed onscreen, where there are references to Ellen’s anorexia-based artwork being posted onto Tumblr and even influencing a girl who later killed herself. Unfortunately, though, neither Noxon or Collins have mentioned this particular plot point in detail, nor have they explored how the film could become the inspiration that they criticised.

The prominent romantic storyline, involving Ellen and Luke (Alex Sharp), another “rexie” staying at the treatment facility, minimises their illnesses and exacerbates a commonly used Hollywood trope that argues that ‘love can save you’. It was a theme seen in Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why with characters Clay Jensen and Hannah Baker, dismissing her suicidal thoughts and depression as merely after effects of Clay’s inability to love her. It is both a ridiculous and detrimental notion to portray throughout the films.

A particularly poignant scene is one where Luke walks in with crutches while Ellen is trying to leave the treatment facility, telling her that he is unable to return to his role as a ballet dancer. He pleads with her to stay – “I need you, Eli.” – as his recovery, and subsequent life, apparently depends on her, diminishing his own accomplishments in overcoming such a difficult disorder, as many anorexia survivors can attest to.

Spoilers here, but, the end of the film showcases a dream she has after she has passed out from exhaustion, due to her continued decline in weight, and has a healthier-looking version of her kissing Luke. Luke then encourages her to have courage and live, prompting her to wake up and seek out recovery once again, thereby leaving the film with a happy ending. Here, the focus on the resolution of the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they’ theme that ran throughout To The Bone doesn’t sit right with me. It urges the audience to root for and rejoice at her desire to seek help not solely because Ellen should fight to live and move past her disorder in order to have a fulfilling life, but also because her recovery grants the happy ending and coupledom that romantic storylines seek.

In response to these views concerning To The Bone glamourised eating disorders, Noxon said that she wanted the film to “serve as a conversation starter”. And both Noxon and Collins had the best intentions in attempting to start a conversation about a debilitating illness they have both experienced. But the conversation that has started has not been a healthy one, due to the tragic reality of people being influenced and inspired by this kind of portrayal and intentions don’t help when the result of the film causes this kind of reaction in a significant percentage of its audience.

Of course, there are those that feel that the film showcased a “sympathetic response” to eating disorders and portrayed a difficult issue in an enjoyable and lighthearted way. But I feel that, despite how “sympathetic” they tried to be or how “enjoyable” the story was supposed to seem, they could have and should have done better.

To The Bone was a bold attempt at telling a critical story and was incredibly well-meant. But, it unfortunately fell short in critical areas where slight changes could have made all the difference and captured the topic of eating disorders in an even better, and less problematic, light.

If you need help with your experiences with eating disorders and mental health issues, contact the following:

Beat at 0808 801 0711

Mind at 0300 123 3393

Samaritans at 116 123

National Centre for Eating Disorders at 0845 838 2040