In this piece, Clotilde Du Mesnil De Maricourt considers a number of critiques of the 2017 Netflix production ‘To The Bone’, drawing on her own experience and the dissertation she’s currently writing on eating disorder recovery narratives.
TW: eating disorders
Following mixed responses to Netflix’s new film To the Bone which came out last summer, I decided to make up my own opinion of it. A year has passed since I was admitted as a day patient in an eating disorders unit over the summer, and most of the outrage I heard regarding that film came from some of the young women I had met there.
As I was watching it, I noticed myself critically analysing every aspect that could be frowned upon – it only showed the struggles of a particular group: middle-class, white, mostly female characters. Two of them presented an exception: a young man and a Black patient. This aspect was picked up by many articles who accused it of ‘whitewashing’ an issue that affects much wider demographics (Prado, 2017), but the fact that it portrays a group that is over-represented in the media, compared to people of colour or the less affluent, (unfortunately) reflects access to treatment in the US, where healthcare is a privilege rather than a given.
Another critique, arising from many a source, was the ‘glamorising’ of anorexia which the film was said to engage in (Freeman, 2017; Holmes, 2017). Yes, Ellen (Lilly Collins), while severely underweight, still qualified as ‘beautiful’ according to Hollywood beauty standards. But to extrapolate this and say that the film glamorised anorexia itself seems a little unfair. Ellen’s ‘crazy-but-sexy’ vibe was a) not portrayed in all the other patients of her facility, b) the way she chose to present her identity, as anyone would do, particularly when their body-image is negative and appearance seems so central.
Image Credit: (freestocks.org CC0 1.0)
Also attacked was the ‘romanticising’ of the film, with Luke, a British inpatient in the programme, falling for Ellen in what seemed like the rather short amount of time they had spent together. He justifies this by telling Ellen he has known her for two years through her drawings posted on her Tumblr blog, which spoke to him directly. The story then takes on a strange turn (spoiler alert), as Ellen pushes Luke away when he kisses her, angered about feelings of love she doesn’t believe in. The fight which ensues however is resolved when, at the end of the story, Ellen has what seems like an epiphany regarding her recovery, in which Luke appears as the saviour making her choose life over illness (and at her stage, possibly death). While the feminist in me is a little sceptical about the fact that it was a boy she had known for a few weeks – as opposed to her mother, step-mother, or sister, who had long been devastated by her condition – who made her choose to go back to treatment, I do not think accusations of the disorder itself being romanticised are fair. The way I read it, the love Luke had for Ellen made her finally realise that there was something about who she was as a person that was worth saving, that there was more to her existence than her disorder. Besides, Luke was the patient in the group with the most positive attitude towards recovering, and in that sense was not drawn to Ellen because of her emaciated anorexic figure. Efforts he made throughout the film to get Ellen to eat some things she craved but didn’t allow herself further show his commitment to help her get better.
Marti Noxon, the producer of the film, which she based on her own experience of anorexia, claims that the purpose of the story was not just to depict the everyday challenges faced by victims of the illness, but rather to uncover the “underlying issues” which prompted it – a noble goal, yet one which does not seem to appear in the film (Freeman, 2017). Getting better, Noxon asserts, starts with acknowledging one’s own feelings rather than ignoring them. But if vague allusions are made about the potential difficulties Ellen may have in her personal life: the stereotypical anorexia-culprit family par excellence, the public is at pains to understand what she is really feeling inside.
Finally, one of the most widely-endorsed criticism of the film argues that exposing it in such a transparent manner (including talk of calories and anorexic ‘tricks’) may be triggering for individuals going through an eating disorder (Beat Eating Disorders, 2017). Once more, I do not disagree with this, and for this reason I would not recommend for anyone going through or recovering from an eating disorder to watch it; but it seems to me that the film is directed toward a different audience – one with sparse knowledge and understanding of why anyone would choose that path in the first place. As Ellen’s sister so aptly put it: “I don’t get it, why doesn’t she just eat?”, a question many anorectics will be familiar with. Except it’s not that simple, even once a person has decided they want to recover. Indeed, at a later point in the film, Ellen asks Luke, who seems set on restoring weight and getting back to his pre-anorexic life: “How do you do it? Eat, I mean. I see you and I get… all panicky even thinking about it, like the world’s gonna fall apart”. So it is understandable that when recovering from an eating disorder, the last thing anyone would want is to be reminded of that panic, of the obsession and fear over food, of the longing they had for an ever-thinner body. And the film does start off with a written warning of the triggers it contains, a warning that should be taken seriously by anyone likely to be upset or encouraged by it.
And that’s just the catch. It isn’t possibly feasible to censure every potential trigger, and susceptible individuals will see them everywhere, from the written amount of calories on various food items to the homogenously slim silhouettes of supermodels, exercise and diet plans boasting to get you that ‘beach body’ with the right amount of self-discipline, thinspo blogs, Instagram accounts… So yes, the film focuses on these elements, and in this sense may encourage individuals reading anorexia as a goal to strive for, to engage in the very practices the protagonists reveal. But its message is clear: eating disorders can be deadly, harmful to relationships, and life-consuming. And despite its flaws, that’s the overall lesson I retained from watching To the Bone.
Beat Eating Disorders (2017), “Beat’s statement on Netflix original film To the Bone”, https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/news-research/to-the-bone-statement
Bradshaw, Peter (2017), “To the Bone review – Netflix’s anorexia tale is uninsightful, insipid and insulting”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jul/13/to-the-bone-review-netflix-anorexia-keanu-reeves-film
Freeman, Hadley (2017), “To the Bone confirms there are (almost) no good movies about anorexia”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jul/12/to-the-bone-confirms-there-are-almost-no-good-movies-about-anorexia
Holmes, Su (2017), “To the Bone: Why Netflix’s portrayal of eating disorders has got it all wrong”, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/to-the-bone-why-netflix-s-portrayal-of-eating-disorders-has-got-it-all-wrong-a7863106.html
Prado, Emily (2017), “How ‘To the Bone’ contributes to the whitewashing of eating disorders”, Marie Claire, https://www.marieclaire.com/culture/news/a28320/to-the-bone-contributes-whitewashing-eating-disorders/
Further academic readings on eating disorders
Dawson, L. et al. (2014), ““Doing the Impossible”: The Process of Recovery From Chronic Anorexia Nervosa”, Qualitative Health Research, Vol. 24(4)
Hesse-Biber, Sharlene (1996), Am I Thin Enough Yet? The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity, Oxford University Press
Tozzi, F. et al. (2003), “Causes and Recovery in Anorexia Nervosa: The Patient’s Perspective”, Wiley Periodicals, Inc. International Journal of Eating Disorders, no.33
Clotilde Du Mesnil De Maricourt is in the final year of the BSc Sociology programme in the Department. Her research interests surround gender, feminism, health and the body. Clotilde is writing her dissertation on eating disorder recovery narratives, hoping to continue this research into a masters degree.