By Sophie Dunlevy
CN: Eating disorders, sexual assault,
suicide, emotional abuse
It seems that, nowadays, the narrative that we must be grateful for whatever representation we are given within the media is very much enforced. Stories about minority groups are so scarce that we find ourselves devouring whatever media we can find that relates to us as people. Due to this, there is often the argument of whether we should be critical when stories are told in harmful or inaccurate ways, or whether we should just simply be happy that our stories are being told. I am of the opinion that we should always be critical of media that could harm others in its representation of any story, and particularly for mental health issues.
Released Netflix in July, To The Bone tells the story of Eli, a 20-year-old woman who is struggling with anorexia, and who is sent to a group home for young people with eating disorders after being kicked out of a recovery program. The film attempts to show the horror of anorexia in a more light-hearted manner to provide educational content that is accessible for all and easier to digest. Despite this being their intention, I still have come to the conclusion that, for me personally, and for many of my peers, this film does more harm than good.
My first issue is the graphic imagery used within the film to depict Eli’s struggle with anorexia. I am aware that it seems to be common sense that in order to tell Eli’s story, there will be imagery that displays the effect of anorexia on the body. But is it acceptable to show this to such an extent that they show her extremely malnourished body from multiple different angles for extended periods of time throughout the show? We don’t need to be making so-called ‘thinspo’ content more readily available than it already is on the internet. I have already seen two people on Twitter post screen captures from the film, with captions that glamourise the way Eli looks. Isn’t that already enough evidence of the damage that such graphic content is causing?
“I have already seen two people on Twitter post screen captures from the film, with captions that glamourise the way Eli looks.”
And sure, you could argue that the film is very obviously going to include visual depictions of anorexia – and the film does has a trigger warning at the very beginning – but we have to think about the fact that its audience is very obviously going to include many people with eating disorders. People want to be able to relate to characters and their struggles, and so it isn’t that far-fetched to state that the film will mostly attract those who themselves have had eating disorders. Therefore, you are automatically put in a position of responsibility. The story must be told in a sensitive way as to not trigger those who are vulnerable. There are clever ways to depict images in film making that do not make it dangerous to certain groups.
There are also several specific references to calorie intake and behaviours practised in order to lose weight by those with eating disorders. Within the first five minutes, Eli recites off the calories in around five different items of food. Her sister refers to this as ‘Calorie Asperger’s’ (the first in a long line of tasteless jokes that we will come to later). It puzzles me as to why it was seen as a good idea to inform the viewers of the different foods’ calorie content, when controlled eating could have been shown in various different, even non-verbal ways i.e. leaving food on a plate, or her behaviour of chewing and spitting (which is shown later on in the film). Once again, this is another occasion where potentially dangerous information is made readily available to the viewer. Eli even references how many calories are in a feeding tube later in the film, which causes another patient to become upset. Why have we not realised that the audience could have a similar reaction to that of the patient? That this information could upset and make things more difficult for us, too? We mustn’t treat the characters as if they are so far away from human that we forget viewers may also feel the same pain.
One of the most outdated ideas about eating disorders is that sufferers must be underweight. This has been demonstrated, time and time again, to be completely untrue. According to B-EAT’s eating disorder statistics, around 50% of those with eating disorders fall into the EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) category – this includes binge eating disorder. When we focus entirely on weight, we end up leaving out a lot of individuals. This show continues to add to the stereotype that you must be thin to have an eating disorder, and does not go into much exploration of any other eating disorders apart from anorexia, briefly touching on bulimia and binge eating disorder. But even ‘normal weight’ eating disorder patients can become medically unstable in the way that Eli does, and these people deserve their stories telling, too.
Moreover the ‘Calorie Aspergers’ comment is only the first of the multiple offensive jokes made during the film. Other remarks include a joke made by Luke about sexual assault, Eli’s comment on self-harm and repetitive use of the ‘R’ slur throughout the film. I do not wish to quote these instances to avoid hurting or triggering anyone reading, and I really think that these topics should not have been joked about and should have been approached with more sensibility. If topics are not a part of the story and are going to be included just to be simply joked about, there is no need to mention them at all. We should leave it to those with personal experience to tell those stories.
Speaking of the character Luke, this brings me to one of the biggest issues I have with the film. I view his character as quite manipulative and emotionally abusive – I cannot count the number of times that he tries to push Eli to do different things. And yes, you can argue that those things are for the good of her health, but often the way he executes his strategies embarrasses her and causes even more struggle. He also seems to think that Eli owes it to him to be there for him, simply because he followed her blog for two years before actually meeting her. This seems slightly creepy, considering Eli herself had only known him for a matter of weeks. The abusive side of his character becomes apparent during a scene in which he confesses his love for Eli, and learns that she doesn’t feel the same way about him. He is angry with her for not reciprocating, but in reality no one can demand for someone to have romantic feelings for them.
“Lily Collins was required to lose weight for the film. Why would you ever demand someone who has previously struggled with an eating disorder to lose weight?”
Furthermore, when Eli discharges herself from hospital, Luke is once again angry and tells her that because he can no longer dance, she is all he has left, and so she should be there for him. Eli shouldn’t have such pressure put on her shoulders of being the sole condition of someone’s happiness. She has no requirement to stay simply for him, and trying to convince her otherwise with borderline threats is, to me, emotional abuse. Then, to have Eli fall for him at the end, and decide to recover for him and him only, romanticises both illness and unhealthy relationships to a young, impressionable, already vulnerable audience.
By far the worst fact I uncovered in the build up to the release of To The Bone is that Lily Collins (who plays Eli) was required to lose weight for the film. Yes, this was done in a controlled way with multiple professionals, but why would you ever demand someone who has previously struggled with an eating disorder (Lily Collins admitted to this in the press multiple times before the movie’s release) to lose weight? It could easily trigger controlling behaviours to re-emerge, and at minimum could cause struggle (and at most, relapse). Is this the kind of example we want to be setting to the younger generation of actors? I was against this when I learned of Carrie Fisher being asked to lose weight for The Force Awakens, and I am against it now. Lily Collins was already fairly slim before, and yet that wasn’t enough.
This film is damaging to those who have stayed in psychiatric wards, and to those who are struggling with eating disorders. Whilst it may contain the input of those who have struggled with eating disorders themselves, that doesn’t make them immune. Of course, if someone who struggles with an eating disorder found this film helpful, and disagrees with me, that is fine. I simply wish to state the issues that myself and multiple others have found. I do feel, though, that for those who do not have eating disorders, this is not their place to have a say. People have said it may save a few lives, but I am of the opinion that whether or not this is true, it also has the potential to damage many individuals. It certainly has damaged me, and led me back into a way of thinking that is dangerous for my health. It is fortunate that I am at the stage of recovery where I was able to rationalise myself to stop anything from getting out of hand. Others may not be so lucky.
“These shows can easily trigger viewers, and create a brand known by some as ‘tragedy porn’”
So why do people keep trying to tackle a mental health issue in the media, and then end up representing it inaccurately? We’ve seen this time and time again, for example the romanticisation of depression in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, to another Netflix original, 13 Reasons Why, graphically portraying sexual assault and suicide. These shows can easily trigger viewers, and create a brand known by some as ‘tragedy porn’. There has even been one instance of someone leaving suicide tapes, much like Hannah in 13 Reasons Why. We shouldn’t influence young people to follow in the footsteps of these characters; it could cause serious injury and even death.
But these shows keep trying to portray something that they don’t really understand. They don’t do enough research into mental illness with input from those who have actually suffered first-hand, and so end up producing non-realistic accounts with many errors. Furthermore, many of these programmes or films go against media guidelines on how to appropriately portray these issues without causing harm to viewers. In the future, these need to be taken into account in order to create media that helps more than hinders. We need more representation on a wider scale, made by and with those that actually understand mental health problems, rather than sensationalised half-hearted attempts by those with no knowledge. We should not have to settle for bad representation. In fact, for it even to count as representation at all, I believe it must be accurate and true to life, and made to help the viewer with their own personal struggles.