Depicting mental, emotional, or physical illness for entertainment purposes requires a certain level of tact—more often than not, movies and TV shows that attempt to portray personal struggles wind up falling short. But as honesty becomes a bigger part of media (social and otherwise), an increasing number of outlets are broaching sensitive subject matter on screen—to mixed reviews.
Among them is Netflix. The streaming giant isn’t new to courting controversy. Its shows, like the documentary Making a Murderer and original series about teenage suicide 13 Reasons Why, draw plenty of praise and ire alike from audiences. And its new movie about eating disorders, To The Bone (available starting today), is poised to be as popular and polarizing. Why?
It stars actress Lily Collins—who’s been open about her personal experiences with restrictive dieting and bulimia—as Ellen, a 20-year-old woman in the throes of a life-threatening struggle with anorexia nervosa. In a final attempt at recovery, she checks into a group home for young people seeking professional help for similar issues. (You can see where the controversy comes into play.)
“We would never seek out to make a movie that fetishizes, encourages, or glamorizes the disorder in any way, shape, or form.”
Collins’ casting had people questioning the mindfulness of the movie’s creators once the first trailer dropped (myself included). Is this taking the art-imitating-life approach too far? Was it romanticizing a serious condition that’s on the rise among young women ages 15–19?
The actress addressed the issue directly in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “We would never seek out to make a movie that fetishizes, encourages, or glamorizes the disorder in any way, shape, or form,” she told THR. “I’m proud to be part of a film that brings this conversation to light, and I hope that when people finally see it the way it was meant to be seen—in its entirety—they can understand where our intentions came from. But if you feel like this movie may be, for you, a form of trigger, maybe it’s something that only you know you shouldn’t watch.”
One person who has already seen To the Bone is mental health pro Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, CEDS, senior clinical director of adult services at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. Her review? “I have mostly positive things to say about the film. It was very powerful, touching, and there was a lot of honesty in [it}.”
While Collins and crew have kept it real in some regards, Brennan still says, “It’s going to be triggering for those in eating disorder treatment, or in recovery, as there are triggering images. Also, due to the competitive nature of eating disorders, it’s going to be hard for people to see the lead character’s body so thin.”
And there are areas of the film she felt could use more accuracy. For example, she calls its therapy methods unconventional: “Patients at Eating Recovery Center, as well as across the board at other eating disorder treatment centers, generally won’t experience meals unsupervised, patients choosing their own meals, weight being shown. This could perhaps present some mixed messages in what eating disorder treatment actually is like. And finally, there wasn’t any discussions about barriers to care that many have to deal with, such as with insurance.”
Overall, she says, “What did work is there was diversity—different genders, sexuality, race, and even a character who was pregnant.”
Should you decide to stream—be prepared. “It’ll bring up emotions and can be triggering,” Brennan advises. The counselor suggests those dealing with an eating disorder write down any thoughts or feelings that arise while watching the film to discuss later with either a therapist or other supportive person in their life. Most importantly, she encourages them to seek professional help to ensure they find the healthy care they need to recover.
The wellness world is becoming more honest and open about eating disorders. Read about one blogger’s recovery from anorexia and orthorexia, and check out this course designed to train fitness instructors on recognizing their warning signs in a client.