Watching To the Bone as a Recovered Anorexic
When I first saw the trailer for To the Bone, I was extremely disappointed. As much as I would want to see the taboo surrounding mental illnesses be lessened by mental illnesses being portrayed accurately in the media, I feared that an inaccurate or glamorized representation of a mental illness would do more harm than good. I decided not to watch the film, worried that it would bring back too many painful memories of my time with anorexia and potentially trigger a desire to revert to my disordered eating behaviors and thoughts.
Two years have passed since To the Bone was released, and I now feel secure enough in my recovery to watch and review this movie. The general plot line is that Ellen, a young woman with anorexia and a dysfunctional family, has been shuffled around between treatment options and finally ends up a group home with other individuals with eating disorders. She seems to not want to recover, as she continues to restrict her intake and sneak in exercise during her time in this recovery home. She befriends a boy named Luke, who falls in love with her, despite her rejecting him romantically. After another patient’s eating disorder causes her to miscarry her baby, Ellen runs away from the recovery home. She arrives at her mother’s home, even though her mother had previously sent her away to her other relatives when she was anorexic. Her mother expresses remorse for how she treated Ellen and offers to feed Ellen with a bottle, like a baby, to which Ellen reluctantly agrees. Later Ellen goes for a walk and faints due to her anorexia. She hallucinates that she is healthy and with Luke, who shows her her dead anorexic body. Luke gives her a piece of coal that symbolizes courage (from a story they read at their recovery home), and she swallows it. Ellen wakes up and decides to return back to the recovery home, seeming to be finally committed to recovery.
All in all, I was surprised by the accuracy of certain behaviors and quotes in the film, but disappointed with the general plot sequence. I appreciated the way Ellen described her cognitions (“I can’t stop. And I don’t even know why. I just can’t.” and “I’ve got it under control. Nothing bad is gonna happen.”) and the way the therapists explained anorexia (“Looking for one reason is a losing battle. It’s never that simple.”). I related to the behaviors exhibited by Ellen and other eating disorder patients. When I was anorexic, I also compulsively did sit-ups and other exercises whenever I could, I would obsessively measure how thin my arms or legs were, and I would even put food in my mouth, chew it, and then spit it out, to get some of the taste without the calories.
However, the plot itself was not realistic. While recovery looks different for everybody, I didn’t particularly enjoy how Ellen was shown to have a dream about eating coal that symbolized courage and then wake up with an entirely different mindset. Nobody will ever recover from anorexia unless they want to, and while some patients might have a revelation or nightmare that makes them want to recover, I felt like this movie made it seem like recovery is just a switch that Ellen’s hallucination flipped.
Some of the language this movie used was accurate, some was not. I did not appreciate how individuals who have an eating disorder and also self harm are described as “over-achievers” and how self-harm is labeled a “trend”. One patient with binge eating disorder remarks “I wish I could barf” to another patient with bulimia, which may seem crude, but I’ve also seen that desire in people with anorexia, including myself. I used to think it’d be so much easier if I could just eat what I wanted and then purge it, but I was unable to make myself purge, so I severely restricted my intake to continue losing weight. I liked the rawness of the dialogue between anorexia patients, especially when Ellen asks Luke “How do you do it, eat? Aren’t you scared you won’t be able to stop?” and he replies “I’m pretty fucking hungry, like two years worth of hungry”. When I began to recover from anorexia, I also thought that if I started eating again, I would lose all control and be unable to stop and therefore gain a massive amount of weight. Additionally, once I did start to feel okay about eating more, I realized how genuinely hungry I was, having starved myself continuously for months on end.
There is a clip in the trailer where Ellen and her half-sister are eating dinner and Ellen accurately describes how many calories are in each part of their meal. The half-sister marvels at Ellen, claiming “It’s like you have calorie Asperger’s. You’re a pro”. Aside from any offense that individuals with Asperger syndrome may take from this, I found this to be a damaging portrayal of the anorexic tendency to count calories. I spent years of my life obsessing over ingredients and macronutrients and thinking that the calories I might swallow from toothpaste might cause me to gain weight. My extreme knowledge of calories and nutritional information was not a party trick or something others were astonished by, it took over my life and made me miserable.
One of the most accurate lines in the whole movie came from the therapist in one of the group sessions, when she said:
“When the exercise and the rituals kick in, and the cyclic thoughts about weight take over, everything else goes away. And starving yourself can make you feel euphoric, like a drug addict or an alcoholic. It’s not about ‘thin enough’, right? There’s no ‘thin enough’. It doesn’t exist. What you crave is the numbing of the thing you don’t want to feel.”
You can not maintain anorexia. You will never be “skinny enough”. Many people with anorexia, myself included, believed “once I lose X amount of weight, then I’ll stop being anorexic”, but no amount of weight loss will ever satisfy someone with anorexia. The more weight you lose, the stronger the eating disorder voice in your head becomes, and the more disordered your behavior becomes. This therapist accurately describes how anorexia is not about the food and it’s not about your weight, it’s about suppressing other negative emotions. I spent every waking moment counting calories, planning my work outs, and thinking about how I could reduce my intake even more, so I didn’t have the time or energy to deal with other things. Starving myself allowed me to not have to focus on anything else, and it became a very addicting coping skill.
I greatly appreciated the focus the movie put on how an individual’s anorexia can cause tremendous stress in their family. Since I was a teenager when I dealt with anorexia, it both worried and angered my parents. I strongly related to Ellen saying “I’m sorry that I’m not a person anymore, I’m a problem”, Ellen’s parents labeling her as “defiant”, and her mother feeling completely helpless as to what to do to save her daughter. I found the scene where her mother feeds her with a bottle to be odd and not realistic, but, overall, I thought the way anorexia in one individual can impact their loved ones was portrayed well.
Lily Collins, the actress who played Ellen, has been vocal about her previous struggles with anorexia and bulimia. She expressed that there was not a specific weight she was trying to reach for this movie, but she actively worked to lose weight to play Ellen. I did not support this since it reinforces the common stereotype that everyone with anorexia is an extremely thin white teenage girl. Especially since Ellen wears the skinny jeans, oversized flannel shirts, and messy hairstyle that are frequently portrayed in Tumblr art of people with anorexia, the depiction of Ellen can cause people to be less likely to believe that people who do not resemble her could have an eating disorder.
In conclusion, movies about mental illnesses, particularly eating disorders, have a long way to go before they show an accurate, not glamorized, example of how these illnesses actually impact individuals. It’s powerful that this movie contained the harsh reality of Ellen’s family feeling quite hopeless, of another eating disorder miscarrying her baby, and references to another patient committing suicide, because these are all things that happen to people with eating disorders. Anorexia is not a trend or a fad diet or a choice people make. It’s an illness that can ruin your life, if not end your life. I’m glad the movie started out with a brief warning about the content being challenging for some viewers, but I wish it had also included resources for how people who might be struggling can seek help. While it’s dangerous for there to be no coverage of mental illnesses in popular media and therefore stigmatize them further, it’s also dangerous for the coverage of mental illnesses in popular media to be unrealistic, damaging, and potentially triggering, without offering any support. I hope that movies and TV shows in the future do a better job of portraying eating disorders, since they impact so many people, especially adolescents who consume a tremendous amount of media. The taboo surrounding eating disorders and other mental illnesses must be eradicated by the general public learning about them and discussing them, and hopefully Hollywood can contribute to destigmatizing mental illnesses.
is a graduating senior at Stanford University, double majoring in psychology and human biology, with a concentration in the neuropsychology of mental illnesses. She developed anorexia when she was 13 years old and has been dedicated to studying mental illnesses and helping those with them ever since. She is passionate about how gender-related issues impact mental health, particularly how a strict definition of masculinity can harm men and how stereotype threat and other social treatment can harm women. Alison hopes to use her personal experience with recovering from anorexia, depression, and self-harm to to pursue research and advocacy work in order to study the causes of mental illnesses in adolescent women, reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, and continue the conversation on institutionalized sexism.