What women who’ve had eating disorders thought of “To the Bone”

If you haven’t watched “To the Bone” yet, I don’t blame you.

The Netflix movie is about a 20-year-old girl named Ellen who can’t stop starving herself. Shortly after the film begins, Ellen decides to give treatment another try. You know, fifth time’s the charm.

It’s not a very fun movie to watch. But then again, “To the Bone” isn’t trying to be a “fun” movie, it’s trying to be a real movie. And the reality of having an eating disorder is that it fucking sucks.

Written and directed by Marti Noxon, “To the Bone,” is based on her own struggles with anorexia. As a teen she didn’t just starve herself to the bone, she starved herself to the point where her heart stopped beating.

As somebody who was anorexic in high school, college, and again after college, I wasn’t impressed with “To the Bone.” It was kinda Lifetime-y to me and didn’t feel like it was that much realer than any Hollywood depiction of an eating disorder I’d ever seen.

But in the effort of fairness, I asked three other women who’ve all struggled with eating disorders what they thought about the movie.

We talked about what they thought it did well, what they thought it didn’t do so well, and what they’d like to see from movies about eating disorders in the future.

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“I was nervous to watch ‘To the Bone,’ but I also knew I wasn’t going to take it super seriously because it looked like a very stereotypical film,” explained Mollie, who was anorexic for about three years before going through treatment. “But I was mainly nervous because I knew it was going to bring a lot of feelings back that I didn’t want to come back.”

Although Mollie’s pretty much recovered now, she still has body dysmorphia. After years of your mind telling you that your body doesn’t look right, it can be hard to grow out of seeing yourself that way.

“I thought the movie was very surface level,” Mollie continued. “I wish it went more in depth about each character’s life. And I wish the main character had a story that was more intriguing. I didn’t even want to know more about her because there wasn’t much depth to her to begin with.

“I know it’s not supposed to be a documentary,” she continued, “but most of the time eating disorders stem from a loss of control. People turn to food because it’s the one thing they can control, but that wasn’t exactly the case in the movie. Instead it’s kind of a generic look into a pretty girl who develops an eating disorder.”

And Mollie wishes that instead of choosing a “beautiful white actress who was skinny to begin with” that the movie had chosen an actress who had more of an average body type as the protagonist.

“A lot of the time, girls who are anorexic aren’t extremely skinny and are really struggling, but you don’t have a clue because they don’t have this insanely frail frame,” Mollie pointed out.

“I think it would be really interesting if the movie went more in depth about how Eli functioned in the real world,” Mollie concluded. “The way she looks at the world, the way she looks at others and their bodies and about the anxiety about going to a setting where she might see people or might be around food. Eating disorders can also completely ruin your social life.”

I can attest. When I was anorexic in high school, I spent 0.0 hours hanging out with my friends during the school day, unless they came to the library where I was always “doing homework.” Most of the time I literally was doing homework, but the real reason I was always in the library was that you couldn’t eat in the library, so it gave me a plausible excuse to be skipping lunch and snacks.

None of my friends ever suspected a thing, and if they did, they never said anything to me about it. Even after I started eating again.

But not everybody I talked to had as many critical things to say about “To The Bone” as Mollie did.

In fact, nobody else I talked to did.

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“I thought the movie was a very raw and real depiction of what it’s like to struggle with an eating disorder,” says Heather, who struggled with anorexia between the ages of 19 and 20. “I didn’t think the movie glorified anorexia whatsoever, and it didn’t trigger me at all. Rather, it made me realize just how lucky I am to be in recovering and living life again.”

Even though she says her anorexia never got as bad as Ellen’s, at Heather’s lowest point she weighed 90 pounds, was depressed, was constantly freezing, and stopped having her period. Although she considers herself in active recovery right now, she still struggles with disordered thoughts and restrictive behavior.

Like Mollie said, once your mind has gotten used to seeing your body in a certain way, it’s not something you can just stop doing overnight.

Heather thought one of the biggest strengths of TTB was in “depicting the gross physical consequences of starvation [like] extra body hair growth to keep your body warm, constant bruises and bed sores, loss of [your] period, miscarriages, balding, and digestive distress.”

And Heather also thinks the movie “makes the all important point that eating disorders ARE NOT about food, they’re about control and trying to numb emotions. Once people realize this, I feel that eating disorders can be better understand and people will stop wondering why anorexics can’t ‘just eat.’”

Or for that matter, why overeaters can’t stop eating and why bulimics can’t stop binging and purging. Eating disorders might manifest themselves in different ways, but the underlying reason why people have them are always the same.

But still, Heather didn’t think the film was perfect.

She wishes it “had continued to focus on Eli once she resolves to recover,” she said. “For me, recovery was 100 times harder than being actively anorexic was. When I was starving I felt euphoric and beautiful, but once I decided to recover I felt fat, ugly, and battled myself every day over forcing myself to eat.

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And Sarah, a 23-year-old who’s been symptom-free for four years now, went so far as to say TTB broke new ground for a movie about eating disorders.

“I loved that the treatment house in the movie incorporated people with all types of eating disorders, showing that there’s more than just one diagnosis,” she pointed out.

Sarah has a long history with eating disorders. 

She first developed an eating disorder when she was 8 after losing her father father, and kept binge eating until she was 17. But then prom season rolled around and she was “sick of being the fat girl and unknowingly switched my overeating to undereating.” 

For the next six months, Sarah counted calories, over-exercised, and even set alarms throughout the day to remind herself not to eat at school. But then her body got so deprived she started binging again.

And after she started college, things got so bad she had to go to rehab. She stayed for two weeks, thought she was cured, went back to college, and quickly spiraled out of control. “ It was so bad that I was failing out of college,” Sarah explained. “The laxatives [I was taking] took hours to kick in and caused me to miss class, I was exhausted all the time, I couldn’t retain any of my classwork, and I was partying far too much.”

So when her college told her she was going to fail out, Sarah went back to rehab. Luckily this time she was able to really recover from her eating disorder.

“I think that this disease is such a taboo and society does not realize that it truly is a mental disorder in its rawest form,” Sarah said, pointing out that the idea that an eating disorder is just about “fitting into a size 0” or “just a phase that girls go through in their teens” couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“EDs have no race, age, or sex,” Sarah continued. “The treatment facility, group and family therapy sessions, and the behaviors and dialogues of all the characters [in TTB] were spot on for many people I’ve encountered in treatment.  Even the points system with levels was somewhat accurate to the one I experienced.”

And Sarah says that the moment in the movie when Ellen asks, “How do you do it, how do you eat?” is so authentic.

“A treatment friend of mine said it the best way I’ve ever heard,” she said. “Telling someone with an eating disorder to ‘just eat’ is like telling an alcoholic that they have to have one beer in the morning, one again at noon, and a final one at night, with the occasional shot for a ‘snack’ around 3 p.m. without losing control. It seems almost impossible.”

But she agrees with Heather. She’d love to see a movie about eating disorders that show more than just the initial treatment.

“I’d love to see a movie show the transition of someone in treatment returning to the real world and all the daily triggers that can cause someone to slip back into their eating disorder,” Sarah said. “I don’t think the media ever shows how much these diseases can disrupt a person’s daily life, from their friendships, love lives, grades in school, being a parent, and even holding down a job.”

The more I think about it, even though “To The Bone” wasn’t a perfect movie, I was sort of wrong to judge it so harshly.

For all its faults, even if all TTB does is encourage people to talk about their own experiences or realize that not all women with eating disorders look the same, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad movie after all.


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