On To the Bone, and Other Cinematic Representations of Eating Disorders

This post doesn't have a nice food photo to accompany it, and is therefore slightly off-brand, but it needed to be written.

I’ve been asked about my thoughts about To the Bone more times than I can count. I’m finding it hard to find much about eating disorders online these days that DOESN’T focus on the movie, which makes it rather challenging to find content for the social postings I am in charge of for a few accounts. And I have a secret:

I find popular media around eating disorders to be really boring.

There’s nothing interesting to me about watching treatment play out on screen. I’d rather not watch a movie about an eating disorder, because I’ve already experienced one, I’ve talked to people in much more in-depth and meaningful ways about their eating disorders, and I don’t particularly care to see another movie about a thin white young able bodied heterosexual woman with an eating disorder. Fewer of my bones might have shown when I was struggling, but that woman was me, and I have no particular interest in watching a cinematic version of that struggle.

This has nothing to do with being triggered; I watched both films and carried on with my life as normal, feeling no pull toward the behaviours that were once so compelling to me. Triggers are much more complex than seeing something and trying to emulate their bodily appearance or behaviours. This isn’t to say that these films won’t be triggering to some—I’m sure they will. But that’s only one small part of the issue, in my view.

When I watched To the Bone, I had my critical academic hat on (do I ever take it off?). I was lucky to be able to watch and discuss the film with my friends Emma and Glen; together, we cringed at a number of things in the film. Interestingly, though, I was actually more concerned with the homophobia, ableism, and paternalism present in the film. Some of what was disturbing about it, to me, actually had to do with some of what was accurate about it.

Let me explain. The character I disliked the most in the film was Dr. Keanu. I know, I know, he has some other name in the film, but I like to call him Dr. Keanu. I couldn’t suspend disbelief and still saw him dodging bullets, Matrix-style. In several scenes in the film, Dr. Keanu treats the film’s protagonist, Ellen, as if she were a child, without any agency and awareness.

Of course, we could talk for hours about agency and eating disorders, but I think we probably agree on the following key point: you can’t scare someone with an eating disorder into getting better. And yet, the idea that you can do so was, in my view, an accurate estimation of how many practitioners seem to approach eating disorders. Over at Science of Eating Disorders, I wrote about the problems with promoting psychoeducation alone without additional psychological support for people with eating disorders. I remember, acutely, the experience of being on a wait list for my eating disorder program and accessing the only support available to me at the time, which I referred to as “the group in which they tell me I’m going to die but don’t do anything about it.” It was one of the worst times of my life—and it didn’t help me get better. I couldn’t be “scared straight,” and I find the idea that all people with eating disorders lack awareness about what they are doing to their bodies to be infantalizing and untrue.

In general, men in the film were represented as the saviours—from Dr. Keanu, who works at a children’s hospital and is treating adults with eating disorders, who comes into Ellen’s room at night, and who decides to re-name her, to Luke, who could have been an opportunity to deeply explore the experiences of men with eating disorders and yet ends up taking on the role of Ellen’s mentor and guide, as well as her heterosexual love interest who tells her that she “needs to be touched by someone who cares for her.” Jokes are made about conversion therapy, and Ellen’s lesbian mother is presented in a stereotypical way.

Ableism also features, including through repeated mentions of having “calorie Aspergers” (not a thing, and not a funny joke). Exploring racialization in the film, we might also consider how the only people of colour in the film are either in service roles and/or in larger bodies. Further, the one client in a larger body, who is also Black, is depicted as suffering from binge eating disorder.

Body size, is, of course, a whole other kettle of fish. There has been a lot made online in advocate communities about the irresponsible nature of asking Lilly Collins to lose weight for a role that need not have been depicted in the way it was, as people can suffer from restrictive eating disorders at any weight. This decision did not surprise me, and as others have pointed out, it reveals the extent to which weight bias still rules the day. Many continue to assume that those with anorexia are in very small bodies and those in larger bodies suffer from binge eating disorder, and there is a lack of recognition of how it’s not really possible to lose that much weight “healthily.” Again, these debates are important but nothing new: the crystallization of weight bias not only in society in general but in the eating disorders community in particular has taken place in multiple fora of late. All I wish to add is that it’s important for all people to examine their weight biases, including those who have never experienced eating disorders.

One could argue that most movies contain this kind of ridiculousness. Admittedly, I was analyzing this movie rather than really watching it. I know, I can’t have nice things. I’m a critical academic and grad student—it’s literally my job to critically analyze things. I keep thinking about what my friend and colleague Emma said, as we watched: who is this film for, and how might it land for those who do not have the critical analysis agenda? It’s a good question, and one I’m continuing to ponder. It seems to me that those who do not do what I do a) think the film is insightful and revealing and b) assume I’d love it too. And that concerns me.