The Dangerously Mixed Messages of To the Bone

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A confession: I don’t understand eating disorders. I get the desire to be thin. But I don’t get the compulsion to starve oneself, or to binge and then purge, or to do any of the many, many things that those with eating disorders do to become so very, very skinny.

So when I watched Netflix’s To the Bone, a new movie-length drama about Ellen, a young woman struggling with a life-threatening eating disorder, the woman’s sister spoke for me.

“I don’t really get it,” she says during a group therapy session. “Just … eat.”

It’s not that simple for Ellen. And anyone who suffers an eating disorder would likely say the same. “Just eat?” That’s perhaps like telling a depressed person, “Just cheer up!”

So maybe I’m not the right person to say whether To the Bone is—as it’s intended to be—a cautionary tale that could be a catalyst for positive change, or whether it might in fact glamorize the very disorders it means to critique and condemn.

Perhaps the show itself even understands the tricky tightrope it means to walk.

It should: Marti Noxon, the film’s director, based To the Bone on her own experiences with eating disorders. “People talk about control as an issue with anorexia, especially, but control is just the top layer,” she told indiewire.com. “What’s underneath that is not wanting to feel your feelings. We all use stuff not to feel our feelings.”

Lily Collins, who plays Ellen, has also struggled with eating disorders in the past—struggles she details painfully in her memoir Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me. The former model’s disorder went well beyond just losing weight: “My hair and nails became brittle,” she wrote. “My throat burnt and my esophagus ached. My period stopped for a couple of years. … I was convinced that I had [messed] myself up beyond repair.”

These two people know how damaging eating orders can be, surely. To the Bone was made, it seems, with an eye toward healing and helping others who struggle similarly.

Yet to play the role, Collins had to lose a scary, unhealthy amount of weight. And while some actors are well-known for being able to gain or lose weight depending on the role (Christian Bale, I’m looking at you), there’s something deeply disturbing about a former anorexic starving herself to play an anorexic.

Indeed, Project Heal, an eating disorder nonprofit that was consulted for To the Bone, slammed the film. “We in no way intend to endorse the idea that people with anorexia nervosa can lose weight safely,” the organization said in a statement. “There is strong research showing that getting into a state of negative energy balance and/or losing weight can make people who have struggled with anorexia nervosa much more prone to a relapse.”

And remember, this is a subculture that sometimes sees skeletal as sexy—a reality that the movie acknowledges. We learn that Ellen is not just anorexic, but an anorexic artist who became a minor celebrity for her drawings of malnourished people on Tumblr. We learn that one of her fans was so inspired by Ellen’s work that she took her own life and dedicated her suicide letter to Ellen. Certainly, for some folks with an eating disorder, Collins’ transformation for the role might not represent a cautionary story at all, but rather an aspirational metamorphosis.

But who are we kidding? In a culture that fetishizes the thin, you don’t need to be anorexic to come away with exactly the wrong message. In her IndieWire interview, Noxon said:

Lily looked like death‐warmed‐over during parts of the shoot and women would come up to her and say, “What’s your secret? You look amazing!” If she’d told them she ate a brick and it was agonizing to pass it every day, I think half would have said, “Which brick? Can I get it a Trader Joes?” That’s the sad reality of our society right now, and so much of why we hope this film starts a deeper conversation.

There’s already been a lot of critical blowback on Noxon’s film. And some of its fans love it for all the wrong reasons. Some have reportedly reacted to the film much as To the Bone’s fictional anorexics reacted to Ellen’s art. “It was a little bit of a house of mirrors,” Noxon acknowledged in BuzzFeed.

To the Bone is an incredibly difficult film to watch: It contains 25 or so f-words (and lots of other profanity, too) and one scene where we see a emaciated Collins lie naked in a fetal position in the middle of a desert (critical parts are covered). But the most difficult content for me wasn’t the language or nudity, but simply watching Ellen and her suffering peers do terrible things to their bodies as they strive for some perverse picture of beauty.

For me, it was horrifying. It served as the cautionary warning it was meant to be, I suppose.

But for those who know, firsthand, what an eating disorder looks like? Feels like? People who are at risk for developing one or relapsing back into one? They may see an entirely different movie than I did—and one that’s exponentially more dangerous.

For more information from Focus on the Family on this important subject, be sure to check out our article “The Truth About Eating Disorders” as well as our “Eating Disorders Resource List.”  We also recommend author Christie Pettit’s book Empty: A Story of Anorexia.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

bobed 11 months ago
Some movies are simply dangerous. Some movies were made by a succession of writers, directors and actors who shrugged off all semblance of responsibility. Some movies should never be released.
Susan Thomas 11 months ago
While we haven't watched it yet I've read more than enough about to know how terribly triggering this will be for my daughter who has struggled with an eating disorder for years. I'm appalled at an actress losing weight to film a movie about anorexia. It might open some eyes for some people about this type of anorexia, but there is so much more. Some people who actually are anorexic don't lose any weight despite how they eat or don't eat. There are so many facets of anorexia that this film doesn't address. There's obviously guilt and shame, but also self harm runs hand in hand with most of it. You cannot imagine what it's like to live this out dealing with it day after day for years while trying to get help that isn't readily available. It's a horrible condition and as much as I'd love the public to know and understand more I feel this film has simply glorified it. The repercussions for many real recovering anorexics today, will be regression. And that isn't worth it.
Anonymous 11 months ago
The other aspect is most ppl that deal with this sickness have been sexually abused..it's not so straight forward but it happens a lot and should be brought to light..
Anonymous 11 months ago
I have struggled with these feelings on and off and while it was sad to see these ppl and the true light it brings..it was beautiful with the reality of it and the hope that was shown..it wasn't a sad ending. It didn't leave me feeling empty. It's pretty much impossible to understand if you've never felt that way. It's not just/always about being thin. It's about control. And my favorite quote she says is she's afraid of she starts eating, she won't be able to stop..it happened to me. I got slim and then I had kids and I've gained almost 100 lbs in 5 years. My worst fear happened but I have to be there for my present and future kids so I haven't done anything major to myself bc of this. But the feelings are still there..self loathing. Loss of control etc..its spills into everything in your life. It's sad but God can bring healing if you (I) let Him. I'm working on it..
Inkfeather1 . 11 months ago
How come whenever someone makes a movie about something you guys automatically decide it must be "glorifying" it? Does the movie say that starving yourself is good? Does it say that it's what you should do to look beautiful? If the answer is no, or even just "I think I can see that message in there if I look hard enough", then lay off. If someone wants to make a movie about an anorexic they are well within their rights to do so, and it doesn't at all mean they are "glorifying" the condition.If people are going to get triggered by this, that's on them. It's no secret that this movie is about anorexia so if that's a sensitive topic they shouldn't have watched the movie. No matter what, someone is going to get their feelings hurt, and it's best that they learn how to deal with that.
charitysplace 11 months ago
The more attention is drawn to something, the more people try it out.

I understand their concern, even if I don't share it. Watching this film for an anorexic might be 'triggering' because their every thought is "I am fat." They look at those super skinny girls, at a skeletal leading lady, at someone the rest of the world shudders at, and think, "I am fat. Look at her. She's beautiful. That should be me."

On a different note: why should anyone have to gain or lose weight for a role to excess when there's computers now that can make you look malnourished if you're not? If they can make Steve Rodgers a shrimp, no actress needs to reach a size 0 to play an anorexic.
RIcoSuaveGuapo 11 months ago
Convincing CGI is very expensive. This is not a high budget movie. 

And even very high budget movies such as Captain America and Rogue One struggle to do humans convincingly. Skinny Steve, Young Leia, etc. still look very fake.
Inkfeather1 . 11 months ago
But also, the more something is swept under the rug and ignored, the more ashamed people are of having the condition. Sure, maybe some girls will try anorexia after watching the movie, but it won't be because of the movie. It will be because there was already an underlying issue, and if they hadn't seen the movie they would have picked up the behavior elsewhere. You can't stop people from being triggered, again that's on them. They need to learn how to deal with the triggers rather than have the entire world shut up about every little thing for fear of offending someone. If you would be triggered by this subject matter, then don't watch it. Simple.

I get triggered by a lot of things. So I simply try to avoid those subjects, or simply learn to deal with it. But I'm not running around whining that everyone is triggering me and so they should just shut up and not make a movie/book/tv show etc. about those topics.

I don't recall anyone forcing her to lose weight for the role. If she wants to do it, that's her call. 
bobed 11 months ago
This is the way they have been for years. Sometimes I don't agree with it. In this case, I do.
Laura Langhoff Arndt 12 months ago
Yes, the lemming-ish behavior we see in our culture is frightening. If the culture sends a bad message, we MUST be wise enough to recognize it as bad and ignore it. We are more mentally ill in that regard than any other.
charitysplace 12 months ago
I found the movie fascinating as an amateur psychology buff, but it didn't really answer the "why" -- other than these kids have skewed perceptions. They look in a mirror, and do not see their true self -- they see an ounce of fat where there is none. They are living outside reality and incapable of healthy self-examination. I thought it was uplifting at the end that she chose to live for the same reasons the show-runner did; it was a choice SHE had to make for herself, no one could do it for her.

I "get" a little bit of it. I'm a calorie counter too, and I feel guilt if I binge and eat too much. I have also struggled with depression in the past, and trust me, someone telling you to just "feel happy" or "read scripture more" or "pray more" doesn't work. All it does is tell me: you don't understand. And I hope you never will. Honestly, the time I felt most understood in my entire life was in "Inside Out," when the girl got depressed and all her memories turned blue. I thought, "FINALLY, someone gets it."

I think some art can be both triggering (feeding the problem) and preventative (I don't want that to be me), but it entirely depends on the person watching it.