MEDA Interns Weigh In: Thoughts on Netflix’s “To the Bone”

Written by MEDA Undergraduate Intern, Alexa Riobueno-Naylor with fellow Undergraduate Interns, Julia Kassman & Patty Atkinson

TO THE BONEIt’s been almost three weeks since members the MEDA community came together to watch the Netflix movie To the Bone. Since then, MEDA has been dealing with the aftermath of an office flood, providing us with ample time to reflect, ponder, and reconsider the impact of the movie. Although the intensity of the conversations surrounding the movie’s release may have died down, the movie continues to impact many people’s relationship to and understanding of eating disorders. Some people also may also be viewing the movie for the first time now, and we wanted to ensure that the conversation surrounding the film was continued.

There have been some comparisons between To the Bone to another Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, due to similarities in their problematic depictions of mental illness. We know that many people struggling with depression have been negatively impacted by 13 Reasons Why, and unfortunately, the impact of To the Bone may be similarly negative. Although movies may not be real, movies impact people’s lives in very real ways.

One of the reasons why we decided to host a viewing of To the Bone was because we wanted to ensure that people had a safe space to watch it, where they could reach out for help if they felt like the movie was especially triggering to them. When it finally came time for us to watch, many of us were anxious and held expectations on what the movie would be like based on the trailer or one of the many articles that had been published prior to the film’s release.

It was amazing to see so many faces of the MEDA community come together to support each other during the movie screening. Throughout the movie, there were various audible reactions. Scoffs, giggles, moans, sniffles, and deep breaths rippled through the crowd at various points. Although no one could hear it, there were also many eye rolls during various scenes.

When the movie finally ended, those of us sitting in the room were left with many emotions: anger, annoyance, anxiety, sadness, confusion, surprise, and for some, not many feelings at all. In fact, if I were to sum up the feeling in the room after the closing credits began, it would be underwhelmed.

The build-up to the viewing of this movie was so big, that when we actually came together to watch it, many of us were left feeling disappointed and confused. The end of the movie felt so unsatisfying, so ambiguous, and so romanticized. It almost felt as though the movie was cut short, and we were left wondering “Is that it? Is that really the end?”

After watching, we came together to debrief as a group. We were led by one of MEDA’s fantastic clinicians, who asked us how we were feeling and what we liked and did not like about the film.

I’ll begin with the good. MEDA Executive Director, Beth Mayer, noted that she was happy that the film included the message that there are a million reasons why people get eating disorders. A few MEDA community members stated that they really loved the character of Eli’s sister, Kelly, who displayed a glimmer of realness in disclosing how her sister’s eating disorder impacted her own life. Beth also noted that we have to applaud the fact that someone took the risk to make this film, and that in the end, we want people to be talking about the issues surrounding eating disorders.

However, this film struggled at times to portray these issues properly. One member of the community beautifully articulated the movie’s main fault— the fact that many of the messages in this film may not make sense to people who have not had or been closely impacted by an eating disorder, thus perpetuating many misunderstandings surrounding eating disorders.

For example, the depiction of eating disorder treatment was described by another community member as “romanticized and inappropriate.” Although the movie’s goal was to educate the public on what eating disorders are really like, the movie failed to depict the difficult reality of eating disorder treatment. Many viewers also felt uncomfortable with the inclusion of romance in the story, noting that Eli’s romantic relationship with Luke was distracting, uncomfortable, and never would have been allowed in a residential treatment facility.

The fact that there was no depiction of the re-feeding process was also especially problematic. For many, re-learning how to eat is a huge part of treatment, and it was never shown in the film. The residents in Eli’s treatment home were given autonomy over what they ate, essentially allowing them to engage in unhealthy behaviors around food without the necessary professional supervision and guidance.

This sense of autonomy made it seem like individuals in treatment for eating disorders have the ability to take control over their own disease, when in actuality, it is not that easy. Although it was communicated that the treatment depicted in this film was referred to as a radical last resort for Eli, the treatment was also referred to as having “great outcomes,” insinuating that it was not only appropriate, but effective.

The other MEDA interns and I all have different histories and backgrounds when it comes to eating disorders. In order to comprehensively assess the film and its impact, we wanted to highlight each of our individual voices. As someone who has never gone to treatment, I can’t speak to what it is like to go through recovery in a residential treatment center. To speak about that, I will hand it over to my fellow undergraduate intern, Julia:

“I spent years of my adolescence fighting to overcome many of the struggles depicted in this film. Today, I can confidently say I am fully recovered and a healthy young adult. Due to my own experiences, I attended MEDA’s viewing of the film so that I could be in a safe place surrounded by clinicians available to offer support. As I watched the film, various images of an emaciated Lily Collins were triggering, but not nearly as much as I expected them to be. However, explicit eating disorder behaviors were depicted, which may have inspired some viewers to engage in specific eating disorder behaviors, instead of educating about the disease itself.

More than anything I was angered and frustrated by the film. To the Bone gave an inaccurate portrayal of recovery, and an even more inaccurate portrayal of recovery in a residential treatment center. For many, recovery is an ongoing and tumultuous process. The film portrays Ellen as having control over her disease while her family voices their lack of understanding as to why she is choosing to do this. Having an eating disorder is not a choice, and is far more complex than simply making a decision to eat.

Modeling current eating disorder treatment practices may have been less ‘entertaining,’ but at least audiences would have gained a real understanding and awareness. The film neglects basic tenants of recovery such as weight restoration, and developing a healthy relationship with food and eating. There are multiple scenes in the film that are centered around meal time, where patients in the residential treatment center have the freedom to choose what and how they eat. Although treatment centers may vary in their techniques and practices, the inclusion of structured, monitored and nutritious meals within treatment is an essential part of the recovery process.

The film fails to give audiences an accurate insight into the loneliness, denial and shame that often come with recovery. Exposing audiences to some of these raw emotions would have been more insightful. In the end we were left with no real representation of successful recovery, only a mere suggestion of it. What message did this send to those possibly battling an eating disorder? That a healthy, stable lifestyle was unattainable? For those watching the film for entertainment or educational purposes (ha) what message were they left with? It would have been empowering for at least one character in the film to serve as a role model and to successfully recover. Recovery is attainable with hard work, determination and support. That, most of all, is something I wish audiences could have been exposed to through the viewing of this film.”

Hearing from recovered individuals such as Julia allows us to better understand how the film impacted individuals who have experienced an eating disorder, and feel unhappy that their experiences were not represented. Patty, another undergraduate intern here at MEDA, who is also recovered from an eating disorder, offers her own reactions on the film:

“Both Lily Collins and director Marti Noxon suffered from an eating disorder. I was initially horrified that Collins had to lose weight for the movie. However, I have yet to think of a better way to go about portraying the character. Losing such a dramatic amount of weight is unhealthy and dangerous both psychologically and physically for anyone. Yet, it may have been inaccurate and less impactful to portray a severe case of anorexia with a person of healthy weight. The reality is that almost anyone who played Collins’ character would have received criticism and concern.

I appreciate that the movie depicts realistic family dynamics and how difficult it can be to maintain close, strong and healthy relationships with parents and family throughout one’s battle with an eating disorder. The movie does well in its portrayal of how difficult it can be for loved ones to support someone with an eating disorder. Eating disorders are hard, complicated and confusing for everyone involved. Many people, including a majority of those who are going to watch To the Bone, don’t understand what it’s really like for those struggling and wonder why the person won’t ‘just eat’. Often times Ellen’s family does not know what to do or say to make things better, making them feel overcome with guilt, anger, sadness, and confusion.

Eating disorders, just as many other mental illnesses, are hard for people on the outside to understand. This movie does not answer all questions about eating disorders, but it does promote awareness and conversation about the illness that affects so many people today. It will hopefully keep people questioning and encourage advocacy and research. I think that it is important to note that although the movie has its flaws it provides us with the opportunity to bring attention to a still severely stigmatized mental illness.”

It’s safe to say that this film does not serve to offer any sort of new perspective on the experience of eating disorders. Because when it comes to eating disorders, white, thin, cis-gendered female bodies have always been the default, and obviously continue to be. The movie is centered around the experience of a well-off white woman, but tries to sprinkle in the stories a of a few people of color, who serve as background characters.

We must critique how these characters were represented in this film. The only Latina woman shown in the film is the heavily-accented housekeeper. When we are first introduced to Kendra, the only black person in the treatment house, she doesn’t even speak for herself. “That’s Kendra,” says house-mate Anna, who identifies herself as having “Bulimia Nervosa, but more just Nervosa now.” In the end we don’t learn anything about Kendra besides the fact that she is a binge eater, and is sassy. Could the writers have gotten just a bit more creative, instead of relying upon the stereotype of a sassy black girl with binge eating disorder?

To be fair, we didn’t learn a ton more about the other supporting characters, such as Tracy and Pearl, but they were featured more prominently in the film. I would have loved to learn more about Kendra, and of course for the movie to have featured more marginalized voices. But that would just be too good to be true.

If you are interested in hearing from more people of color about their experiences with eating disorders, check out Gloria Lucas’ Nalgona Positivity Pride or The Body is not an Apology, which both work to center marginalized bodies. Pick up a copy of Stephanie Covington Armstrong’s book, “Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat,” or watch the trailer for Solace, a short film written and directed by Tchaiko Omalwale about her own struggles with an eating disorder and self-harm. Those are just a few of the marginalized voices out there, ready to challenge the stereotypes about eating disorders perpetuated by this movie.

There’s a lot of work to be done if we hope to really start an inclusive conversation about eating disorders which does not revolve around the stories of white woman with access to expensive eating disorder treatment. Because more often than not, eating disorders do not always look like Lily Collin’s character in To the Bone. Isn’t it time for a fresh and more inclusive perspective?