Written by MEDA Undergraduate Intern, Alexa Riobueno-Naylor
This summer, the eating disorder community has had the opportunity to engage in both educational and challenging public conversations about eating disorders. The release of the film To the Bone at the beginning of the summer caused many to speak out about the positive and negatives aspects of the film. Some pointed out how triggering the film was, criticizing it as an unnecessary misrepresentation of eating disorders, while others lauded the film for its honesty. In the end, it seemed as though the film raised more questions than it answered.
As discussions of To the Bone abated, another film based on the experience of a young woman with anorexia was released. In early July, Troian Bellesario released a film that she wrote and starred in called Feed – a film informed by her own experiences with anorexia and mental illness. Troian Bellesario has been a long-time advocate for mental health awareness and has participated in eating disorder advocacy through the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Her willingness to speak openly and honestly about her own struggles with mental illness inspires many. She has successfully used her platform as a well-known actress to bring attention to issues of mental illness. The eating disorder community has been lucky to have such an outspoken celebrity representative such as Bellesario.
In an article written for NEDA about the film, Bellesario writes that, “I wanted to write a film that opens up the conversation about eating disorders and tells the people who are listening to that horrible voice in their head that it’s not the way their life has to be.” Bellesario created a film that complicates our understanding of eating disorders. She accomplished this by focusing less on eating disorder behaviors, and more on the trauma and anguish that lies behind the illness.
It is unfortunate that there seems to have not been as much attention put on Bellesario’s film as was put on To the Bone. Maybe it is because we are all still recovering from To the Bone, or maybe it is because the film wasn’t released on an accessible streaming site such as Netflix. However, it may have to do with the fact that Feed was not as much of a visually provocative story. The film doesn’t include multiple close-ups of Bellesario’s body, although there are some instances in which the camera highlights her body in order to emphasize how sick she is. The film doesn’t show Bellesario fixating on the scale, or focusing on numbers. Instead, the film is centered around the psychological and emotional pain that Bellesario’s character (Olivia) endures. It focuses on the complexity of her grief, and the horror that she experiences as a result of her mental illness. In other words, it isn’t the romanticized, body-focused eating disorder narrative that we are all used to.
There are other positive aspects of the film, including the fact that the plot did not revolve around depicting Olivia’s eating disorder behaviors. However, it must be noted that the film does include some depictions of Bellesario’s character hiding food and over-exercising. In an article she wrote for NEDA, Bellesario speaks to this point:
“And for the people who think that eating disorders are just about being skinny, or a choice? For people who don’t think they are a serious problem? I wanted to put those people inside one experience of an eating disorder and have it scare the hell out of them. I wanted to convey how uncomfortable it was, not only for me, but for my family and friends, too. I wanted them to understand that eating disorders aren’t about vanity—they’re rooted in pain and a sense of hopelessness and, as you see in the film, often tied to trauma.”
As Bellesario mentions, the film provides space for other characters, such as Olivia’s parents, to experience complex emotional pain, highlighting the many ways in which individuals cope with grief and trauma. Olivia has a complicated relationship with her parents, in that they are supportive, but also sometimes triggering. Olivia’s dad often encourages her to exercise, and focuses on food rather than his daughter’s emotional turmoil. Her mother tries her best to take care of her daughter, eventually realizing that her daughter needs professional help. All the while, the parents’ relationship becomes strained, as they are forced to deal with multiple tragedies throughout the film.
Olivia’s parents are never blamed for their daughter’s eating disorder, and the film explores how they are struggling to find ways to effectively support their daughter as she enters residential treatment. The experience that Olivia has in residential treatment is highlighted in the film, which is important. Bellesario depicts how overwhelming residential treatment can feel to someone in the throes of an eating disorder, while simultaneously stressing the importance of residential treatment in achieving recovery. Her journey towards recovery only starts when she begins establishing a trusting and honest relationship with her therapist. In one of the final scenes of the film, the importance of their relationship is emphasized as the therapist provides Olivia with support as she challenges herself to have a meal outside of the treatment center walls.
I have mixed feelings about the end of the film, which closes with Olivia struggling to distance herself from the eating disorder voice inside her head, which communicates to her through hallucinations of her dead brother. To some degree, the ending is successful in depicting the difficulties of recovery, and the struggles that come along with relapse. Bellesario’s character inches towards recovery, while she is simultaneously struggling to keep moving in the right direction. This depiction is effective in that it makes it clear that recovery doesn’t happen overnight, or happen when a person all-of-a-sudden chooses that they want to be rid of their eating disorder.
In article Bellesario wrote for Lenny Letter, she discloses her struggles as someone living with mental illness:
“There is a part of my brain that defies logic… that part of my brain is my disease, and there was a time when it had absolute authority over me. It almost killed me, and you can see that even though I have lived in recovery for ten years now, it still finds loads of fun, insidious ways to thwart me to this day. It was a difficult journey finding my way back to health. Through hard introspection, intense medical and mental care, a supportive family, friends, and a patient and loving partner, I survived, which is rare.”
I applaud Bellesario’s ability to speak candidly about the work that goes into maintaining recovery. I applaud her dedication to mental health advocacy, and eating disorder awareness. I applaud her for making a film that challenges many of the stereotypes that are perpetuated in other eating disorder films. However, I still think we can do better when it comes to representing eating disorders.
Much like the majority of other films that depict a protagonist struggling with an eating disorder, Bellesario’s character is not diverse. She is depicted as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, economically privileged, Christian, small-bodied, feminine, beautiful valedictorian with anorexia. This is what we are used to when it comes to representations of eating disorders, dating back to movies released about eating disorders in the early ‘80s. This film represents many people’s eating disorder story, including Bellesario’s. Therefore, the film includes aspects such as Bellesario’s weight loss to visually indicate that she has an eating disorder. Bellesario did not need to lose weight for the role, and the fact that she did emphasizes how individuals who may not “look like” they have an eating disorder continue to be ignored. The film also fails to represent many people, such as men, people living in larger bodies, people of color and folks who are LGBTQ, poor, disabled, or marginalized in other significant ways. These groups continue to not be represented in films and media about eating disorders, and we must continue to speak out about this issue until we begin to see the representation that these communities deserve.
With that said, I think Feed represents a move in the right direction. This film educates the public about how difficult it can be to have your brain taken over by an eating disorder. It also makes it clear that recovery from an eating disorder is possible, which is so important. If you want to watch a movie about eating disorders, out of all the movies that have yet been created, I’d recommend Feed. However, this recommendation does not come without trigger warnings for parts of the film that depict death, suicide, eating disorder behaviors, substance use, and shots of Bellesario’s emaciated body. The film doesn’t offer us a diverse perspective on the experience of an eating disorder, but it does venture away from many of the stereotypes we have become accustomed to seeing in other eating disorder films.
(1) A Dark Ride—On Writing What I Know. By Troian Bellesario, in the National Eating Disorders Association Blog July 2017.
(2) Troian Bellisarion Gets Real About Her Struggle with Mental Health. By Troian Bellisario, in Lenny Letter July 18th, 2017.