Here’s how you know when a movie is possibly a cliche: You ask your mom if she wants to watch it with you. She asks what it’s about. You say, “It’s a movie about anorexia.” She says, “Yes! I love those!” Then she says, “Wait—that sounded terrible.” You agree, but both of you laugh, because the pleasure these stories afford is complicated: Is it morbid fascination? Comforting reassurance of one’s basic wellness in the face of another’s extreme sickness? Cautionary tale? Or—in a twisted sense—instructional and aspirational?
That’s the essence of the controversy sparked by the portrayal of anorexia in To The Bone, which premiered at Sundance in January and recently released on Netflix. Both the writer/director and the actress in the starring role—Marti Noxon and Lily Collins respectively—have openly discussed their histories with anorexia, and the story is loosely based on Noxon’s personal experience with the eating disorder. Although the Los Angeles Times suggests that it’s a “relatively underdramatized subject,” anorexia dramas and documentaries abound, and To The Bone fits comfortably into the genre. Ellen’s clandestine, obsessive sit-ups in bed recall a scene in the 1981 TV film The Best Little Girl in the World, which I watched in high school health class and which probably inspired more than a few American teenagers (like me) to dabble in disordered eating.
One of the deadliest of all mental illnesses, anorexia affects 0.9 percent of Americans. More generally, disordered eating and body image challenges impact a huge portion of the population. Nearly three quarters of women ages 25–45 report that dissatisfaction with their bodies interferes with their happiness. Close to a third of women in this age group who don’t have histories of eating disorders say they have engaged in purging behaviors to control their weight.
For the many women still gripped by body-image illnesses, films like To the Bone offer more temptation than relief. Like a virtual MC Escher drawing of art-imitating-life-imitating-art, movies about anorexia have long been embraced as thinspo—“thin inspiration” or “thinspiration”—in the language of the pro-anorexic (“pro-ana”) Internet. This isn’t anything new. Back in 1999, the actress Christina Ricci told Rolling Stone that watching For the Love of Nancy—a 1994 TV drama about anorexia starring Tracey Gold (who was recovering from the disease in real life)—inspired her own disorder. “The film is supposed to make you not be anorexic,” Ricci said. “But I was like ... ‘good drama.’ So I sort of willed myself into it.”
This same fear haunts a film like To the Bone. I didn’t have to click past the first page of search results to find Pinterest images of Lily Collins—her already-thin frame thinned down even further for the role—pinned to boards titled “Thinspo.” As Anna Leszkiewicz points out in The New Statesman, Collins’ character is dressed and made up in typical pro-ana imagery. Her image is aspirational.
To its credit, the writers of To the Bone are aware of this dynamic and anticipate it in the narrative itself. Collins’s character, Ellen, is an artist, and the story slowly reveals that her drawings of her thin body—posted to her Tumblr account—have been embraced by the “pro-ana” Internet, a girl has killed herself in response to the art, and her parents have sent Ellen the pictures. But though the futility of blame is an important theme in the narrative, Ellen’s moral and ethical responsibility as an artist remains maddeningly muddled.
The film opens in a group therapy session where a patient is discussing the incoherence of media messages about food and bodies. “It’s like they’re trying to drive us crazy,” she says of magazines, where one page displays chocolate cake and talk of rewards and the next one shows “before and after” pictures of someone who lost weight. The implication: She was sad and unloved before, now happy and beloved after. But what about the chocolate cake? The girl wants to know.
We meet Ellen in her mocking response to this girl: “Society’s to blame. The world is so unfair. I have to die,” Ellen sneers. She is reprimanded and then dismissed from the program. We, the audience, are ostensibly meant to side with Ellen and shrug off the idea that anorexia is anything other than a personal problem—and, by extension, that culture and those who make it (in this case, artists) share any complicity in this illness. It’s a convenient belief to hold for those inside the American entertainment industry.
If the writers of To the Bone get anything right, they understand that eating disorders can’t be attributed to one single cause or another, whether it’s a simple desire to be thin, to be in control, or to win the attentions of an absent father. However, in its effort to avoid reductionistic explanations, the film avoids what most of us already know: Our culture does send us wildly mixed messages about food and women’s bodies, and the female bodies most often vaunted as beautiful are thin to an extreme that, in most metabolisms and body types, implies disorder. More than anything else, what’s dangerous about To the Bone is this refusal to admit how certain segments of American culture invite and reward disorder. We often give praise and admiration to those who lose weight or maintain thinness. Conversely, we often express our disgust at those who overeat and those who are obese, as Roxane Gay documents in her achingly insightful new memoir, Hunger.
Although To the Bone reaches toward bigger questions of body, mind, and spirit, profundity eludes its grasp. Ellen’s doctor is adamant that each patient has to decide for herself if she wants to live, but she offers little guidance into what, exactly, makes life meaningful. Through a pregnant character who wants to recover for the sake of her baby, a male ballet dancer also recovering from anorexia, and Ellen’s half-sister, who loves Ellen and fears losing her, the story presents a vague but venerable religious idea—choosing to live in order to love and help others. However, this idea doesn’t ground the main story. In the end, what inspires Ellen’s determination to live is the act of gazing at a dream-sequence image of herself. I believe that is very near to the image of Narcissus himself.
The film suggests that community plays a key role in healing. Instead of the lone anorexic, we have a group home of eating disorder sufferers. But like the community meals—where everyone eats (or doesn’t eat) whatever she wants—the film’s values still remain staunchly individualistic: Each person must work out her recovery on her own terms. This individualism, which often begets a blindness to others, is painfully apparent in one tasteless scene, where a girl recounts that her mother took her to a Holocaust museum so she could see the ugliness of starvation. The comment is delivered as a joke, excused unconvincingly with the statement, “It’s okay; we’re Jewish.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this insensitive device brought to mind the Austrian Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, who explores pain, love, and community in his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning. As he suffered unspeakable torment in the camps, he thought of his wife, whose whereabouts were then unknown. Unable to do much beyond think of her and keep moving in a forced march, Frankl had a realization that shaped his life and his later practice of psychotherapy: “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
In other words, we cannot live by bread alone, and we cannot live for ourselves alone. But when we recognize that we are beloved children of God and members of Christ’s body and that—for better or worse—we belong to one another, we can begin to take responsibility for our lives and for those of others. We can also begin to understand that what we eat or don’t eat isn’t purely a personal matter.
Rachel Marie Stone teaches high school English in New York and is the author of the fully revised 40th Anniversary Edition of the More-With-Less cookbook, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food, which won the Christianity Today Book Award for Christian Living, and The Unexpected Way (Olive Branch Books), a book about the Gospels for children.