The release of To The Bone, an original feature film on Netflix about a young woman with anorexia nervosa, has generated a lot of attention. Is it triggering? Is it thinspiration? Should you even watch it?
As a mental health provider who works with people with eating disorders, I watched the movie with a critical, but not dismissive, eye. I cannot recommend the movie to anyone who is actively in treatment for an eating disorder, or who is not 110% secure in his or her recovery. Parents and family members who are very close to the treatment process might also choose to skip viewing this movie, if only to avoid the pain of seeing your own battles reflected on screen.
If you choose to watch To The Bone, please keep the following caveats in mind:
This is not a film about eating disorder treatment. If you seek treatment for an eating disorder at a residential facility, please don’t expect it to look like the cozy bungalow in the movie. Your doctor will not drop the f-bomb. You will not be unsupervised at meals or allowed to make out in the backyard. In order to bring the viewer inside the minds of people with eating disorders, writer and director Marti Noxon has her characters share their thoughts with each other. Out loud. At the dinner table. While this dialogue elevates To the Bone, please know that if people speak to each other that way while in a treatment facility, those conversations happen on the sly, or are expressed privately in a journal or a therapy session.
This is not a film about how people recover from anorexia nervosa. It highlights reasons why eating disorder recovery can be elusive. It shows why support from people who understand what you’re going through really matters. But support can take many forms, and a romance between the lead character and the only eligible young man is one of the film’s limits. I have seen intense, meaningful bonds form between eating disorder clients. Romance needn’t enter the picture for an encounter to be transformative. Often these treatment-born friendships are volatile, fragile, and fraught with strong emotions. Yet these same relationships can provide a type of support unlike any other. Often they are the first way that a person in treatment recognizes that he or she is no longer truly alone.
This is not a documentary about what it’s like to have an eating disorder. It’s a fictional depiction of one (young, white, upper-middle class, educated, intelligent, artistic, angry) woman’s struggle to choose recovery over starvation. The narrow focus, informed by Noxon’s own experience with anorexia as a young woman, is at the heart of why the film feels authentic. Sure, the film gives a nod to other genders, ethnicities, and diagnoses, but telling those stories too would result in a very different movie.
Whether or not you choose to watch To the Bone is entirely up to you. The good news is the film is stimulating more open discussion about eating disorders, which may explain part of the reason that organizations including NEDA [National Eating Disorders Association] and Project Heal have partnered with the film’s creators to promote it. But watching this film is not the only way to keep the dialog going. Read some of the 1200+ responses that readers of the New York Times Well blog generated in response to its coverage of the film or pick up a copy of Life Without Ed by Jenni Shaefer.
Did you watch the film? Did you choose not to watch it? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
Emily Becker, LMSW, is an EWN therapist who believes that it’s the strength of the relationship you create together that generates meaningful change. Emily strives to greet each session with a curious mind, an open heart, and a wish to hear your story. This Fall, Emily will be leading Reach For Recover, a support group for anyone committed to eating disorder recovery. Contact her directly at 716.400.1605 | firstname.lastname@example.org