To the Bone prompted controversy from the moment Netflix aired the film’s trailer. The feature-length movie, which originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, has generated heated debate around its portrayal of eating disorders and whether or not the film may be harmful for viewers already struggling with, or vulnerable to, such conditions.
The film began streaming on July 14, and the following day, the site released a video of the cast as well as those who have lived with eating disorders discussing how To the Bone is intended to start a conversation.
But has the film actually sparked a conversation we need to be having?
According to eating disorder experts, people living or struggling with these conditions should avoid watching the film or take the necessary precautions. “There are eating disorder experts that believe that this [film] could cause a relapse or precipitate an eating disorder, and therefore viewers should be talking to someone after they see the film,” says Vancouver-based psychiatrist and eating disorder specialist Dr. Laird Birmingham.
That said, after seeing the film, Dr. Birmingham gave it a rave review. “It presents treatment/family/stresses for patients with anorexia very accurately—from their own perspective,” he says, adding that he sees it as a step in the right direction because “it can help parents, healthcare professionals, and friends understand life from the perspective of the patient with anorexia.”
In an effort to get to the heart of what To the Bone will mean for viewers—particularly those still struggling with the conditions portrayed in the movie—we reached out to women with experience with eating disorders. Their verdicts may surprise you.
“I decided to watch To the Bone because I believe it is our responsibility to know how we personally react to triggers and learn how to cope”
I am 21 years old, and I have been struggling with anorexia for more than six years now. I was recently discharged from the hospital, and I’m currently waiting to enter an in-patient recovery program.
When news came that Netflix would be releasing To the Bone, a movie about a teenage girl struggling with anorexia, I knew that it would stir up a lot of discussion in the eating-disorder (ED) and mental-health community. One of the most common arguments I heard was that the film would be triggering for those living with EDs. Speaking from my own experience, I know that comparing myself to others is something that fuels EDs. The ED tells us that we should be eating less than “her,” we should be exercising more than “her,” weigh less than “her,” be more sick than “her.” So, a movie about a girl struggling with anorexia, showing her disordered behaviours to attain her underweight body, will definitely be triggering for others suffering from EDs—including myself.
Even so, I decided to watch To the Bone because I believe it is our responsibility to know how we personally react to triggers and learn how to cope. To prepare myself for the movie, I discussed it with my therapist, and we concluded that if I do watch it, I would watch it with supervision and then have meal support for the rest of the day to ensure that the triggers from the movie wouldn’t harm my own recovery.
While this movie has been criticized for stereotyping anorexia by portraying an underweight Caucasian girl with a complicated family (and showing standard disordered behaviours such as calorie counting, food restriction and tense relationships caused by things like lying and obsessive and secretive exercising), I thought To the Bone was an excellent portrayal of EDs. Ellen [played by Lily Collins] had some symptoms that those who are not familiar with EDs might not be aware of, such as her overgrown body hair and her discrete body measuring specifically around her arm. In addition, at the treatment home, there were patients with different ED intensities, some were bulimic, anorexic, a mixture of both, female, male—all with different body shapes and in different stages of recovery. The movie did an amazing job in portraying just how intense and powerful the ED voice can be, showing how the in-patients in the home would still find ways to give in to disordered behaviors. It’s for those reasons that I felt it was OK that so many of Ellen’s symptoms and physical appearance are stereotypical, because the audience witnesses a variety of symptoms—and they can see that people do not have to be underweight or look a certain way to be struggling with an ED.
That said, it was very difficult watching many parts of the movie, such as Ellen’s struggle to eat food and the part where her sister asks her to try to really recover this time, because those are experiences I have had and continue to live through. The ED in me is screaming at me even now, days later, telling me that I’m still not skinny enough because I’m not as skinny as Ellen. Which brings me to another point the movie did well in portraying: We know that our behaviours and thoughts are not logical, and we wish we could choose the logical decision, but we just can’t sometimes.
Overall, I thought To the Bone was a great success in raising ED awareness, as well as highlighting the fact that every ED is different, and that you can’t always see an ED because they come in all shapes and sizes, all equally as dangerous and difficult to fight. There is so much more to be learned, and I am encouraged by the fact that more knowledge is finally being spread. —Zahra S.
“After watching the movie, I would recommend it, but with fair warning that there are scenes that show graphic weight loss and unhealthy behaviours”
The first time I heard about To the Bone was when the trailer was released. I went on a Twitter rant about how this movie would help raise awareness about the severity of eating disorders (EDs)—something I have personal experience with.
About a year ago I developed severe depression and anxiety not only relating to social situations, but also to food. I was scared to gain weight and felt like my emotions were all over the place. Eating was the only thing I could control, so I started not eating breakfast, then not eating lunch, and only eating dinner. Over time, I realized that I could regulate my diet without jeopardizing my health by becoming vegetarian, and later, vegan. But as I regained some weight, I started slipping back into old habits, and I realized that I was relapsing. As of today, I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with snacks in between. Not being officially diagnosed with an ED makes it hard for me to accept I had a problem, but I feel as if the rollercoaster I was on is now more manageable.
Even so, preparing for this movie was not easy. My first impression was excitement but with my background, I was also a little nervous. I worried about those who are struggling with an ED, who may see this as ‘thinspiration.’ After watching the movie, I would recommend it, but with fair warning that there are scenes that show graphic weight loss and unhealthy behaviours. If you could be triggered by this in anyway, please stay safe and watch at your own risk.
The movie had comedic moments to make watching it a bit easier, as EDs are not a funny thing. Without ruining the ending, the movie had great overall message that we all have a purpose and deserve to be alive. The film really showed that having an ED does not need to be the end of your life, but YOU have to choose to get better. With the film’s choice of characters, it was clear that they tried to speak not only to people with anorexia nervosa and females, but also to males and people with other EDs, like bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified)—which are not always talked about. It wasn’t perfect, but then again, is anything?
I feel that the movie will start a conversation that will benefit those with EDs and those who are close to those individuals. To the Bone was overall a great movie, and I hope in the future we get to see more and more people talking about EDs. —Dora Grace S.
“Watching To the Bone was difficult at points because it felt as though my experience was lesser than the characters depicted because I had never reached Ellen’s weight”
To the Bone succeeded in showing one experience of living with an eating disorder (ED), but it fails to address the multitude of experiences, anxieties and consequences that result from living with this condition.
One of the things I found most frustrating was that all of the women in the film who were clinically diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia were extremely thin. The only ED patient in the film who wasn’t suffered from binge-eating, which plays into the trope that anorexia equals thin and binge-eating means ‘fat.’ When I was at the height of my eating disorder in 2012 to 2013, I was not someone who looked like they spent the entirety of their days locked in the bathroom with their head in a porcelain bowl. Many people didn’t believe that I was suffering from an ED because, to be frank, the only perception they had of ED patients were those they had seen in the tabloids and in movies: wafer-thin women on the verge of receiving the tube. Watching To the Bone was difficult at points because it felt as though my experience was lesser than the characters depicted because I had never reached Ellen’s weight.
Another major issue I had was the romantic storyline. From my own experience with bulimia, the relationships with my friends and boyfriends at the time were severely strained, or lost, because of my disorder. Just this year, I had to end a romantic relationship in part because I could not handle the pressures of being with someone while my mental health was failing me. By pairing up Ellen and Luke in this film, I worry that it creates a false perception that romantic attraction or love is all it takes to save someone from their inner demons.
That said, there were powerful points of the film, and the one that stuck out most to me was when EDs were referred to as an addiction—because in my case, that is precisely what it was. I craved the high I got when I purged or over-exercised or saw that scale tip ever lower. To the Bone showed how, as someone with an ED, it can feel like you are both your biggest problem and worst solution, and recovering is not as simple as ‘just eating.’ The film dug into how complex these conditions can be and that EDs don’t always extend out of one core moment that caused a person to spiral; it’s often a combination of multiple environmental and personal factors paired with traumatic experiences that cause the cycle to begin.
I applaud Netflix for having the courage to promote mainstream conversations surrounding EDs that extend beyond the glorification of them. But we also need authenticity and acknowledgment of all types of ED experiences to make these conversations worthwhile.— Kelsey T.
“For me, for where I am in my journey, watching To the Bone is not a healthy step”
My eating disorder has been like my live-in significant other since I was 10. I refer to my eating disorder was She/Her. She romanced me with the idea of a skinny body, of the perfect body. My eyes burned from scrolling through “thinspo” on blogs, skin-and-bones actresses as inspiration that seemed achievable if I just ate less. She didn’t leave me any room for new relationships. Sitting on a date with a handsome man, I froze. I couldn’t eat. l stated how good it looked then asked if he wanted to go smoke a cigarette instead. He and I would never date, but why would I need him when I was already in a committed relationship with my eating disorder and obsession with food?
A year into my recovery, To the Bone hit Netflix. I didn’t think I was going to watch it, how could I? And let Her back into my mind? She had only just become quiet. I was tempted though, could I handle it? I watched the trailer and my stomach dropped. It wasn’t because I felt like it was wrongly portrayed, but because I had that feeling like when you see an ex and they look really good. Your hand kind of aches for the phone, to call them one last time and see if what they’re up to. Just the trailer made me miss it, the calorie counting, the meal avoiding, the obsession.
To prepare to watch the film, I went through old photos of myself at my lowest weight. For me, for where I am in my journey, watching To the Bone is not a healthy step. I know my story already, I know the twists and turns. I know the pain it caused my family and my friends to see how I didn’t love myself. To the Bone was not created for me but for others. It was a conversation starter—one that I didn’t want to be involved in.
To the Bone, while honest, thoughtful and careful, is not my eating disorder. It’s simply another trigger. While I wish I was strong enough to enjoy content on intimate parts of my life, I have to pick and choose my battles. Today, I woke up and I ate breakfast. I ate lunch. I planned dinner. I ate in front of my coworkers, I snacked on the train. I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t check calories. I started the movie, but chose not to finish To the Bone, despite knowing the content creators have the best of intentions to create a dialogue on another taboo subject. I chose to be kind to my body and mind by realizing that sometimes the strongest moments are when you say no. Today, I logged out of Netflix before finishing To the Bone—and that’s just another day in recovery. — Nellie B.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, we encourage you to reach out to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre helpline at 416-340-4156 (GTA) or 1-866-633-4220 (toll-free). Trained support workers are available Monday to Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. EST and can offer resources and referrals to eating disorders specialists across Canada.