Netflix, anorexia, and the risk of ‘thinspo’

Tipping the scales: Lily Collins stars in a new Netflix film, To The Bone. © Netflix

Today, Netflix will start streaming To The Bone: a harrowing, funny and ultimately uplifting tale about one young woman’s recovery from anorexia. But does it risk glamorising the illness?

“How do you do it?” asks 20-year-old Ellen — played by Lily Collins — in the trailer for the new Netflix movie To The Bone. “Eat, I mean?”

Her face is gaunt, her clothes are baggy, and she is talking to a fellow anorexia patient at a group home for people with eating disorders. (His response: “I’m not gonna lie, I’m really hungry.”)

The film, released by Netflix today, was written and directed by Marti Noxon — a former anorexia sufferer who drew on her own experiences for the story. Collins, too, overcame the illness when she was teenager. She lost weight again for the role, “under the supervision of a nutritionist”, in order to “pay tribute to the girl that I was when I was younger.”

So far, most reviewers have praised Noxon’s writing and Collins’ performance. Variety suggested that the film’s “honest” and “painful” portrayal of anorexia “just might save a few lives”.

But several psychologists and eating disorder charities are far more wary. The CEO of Australia’s Butterfly Foundation argued that “images of people who are seriously ill with an eating disorder are powerful triggers,” and the film could “inspire copycat behaviour.” Others have argued that it gives a very stereotypical view of an anorexia patient: a young, middle-class white girl who is clearly underweight.

The reality is that eating disorders can affect anyone. Of the 1.6 million sufferers in the UK, 11% are male. Many are a “normal” weight, and they come from all backgrounds.

To The Bone, however, “reinforces stereotypes about what an eating disorder is and looks like,” one survivor told Teen Vogue. It “doesn’t add anything to the conversation.”

This is the second mental health row to engulf a Netflix production this year. In March, the TV show 13 Reasons Why was criticised for its portrayal of a teenager’s suicide. In both cases, viewers worried that the company was putting young people at risk by glamorising a serious issue.

A thin line

That is not what is happening here, say fans of To The Bone. Its writer and lead actress are both drawing on their personal experiences. This gives an honest account of the illness, including all of the anguish and pain that comes with it. By offering hope that anorexia can be overcome, it may even help struggling viewers.

It is not so simple, reply critics. The intentions may be admirable, but the reality is that a person suffering from an eating disorder can still use the film as inspiration. For example, it reveals the tricks Ellen uses to hide her weight loss, and includes numerous calorie counts. Worst of all, images of Collins in the role are already appearing on “thinspo” and “pro-ana” blogs. The filmmakers should have done more to avoid this.

You Decide

  1. Does To The Bone glamorise eating disorders?
  2. If the film had not been made by people with personal experience of anorexia, would your feelings about it change?

Activities

  1. As a class, take it in turns to share myths that you have heard about eating disorders. Research each one to find out if it is true.
  2. Write the opening scene to a movie which is based on your personal experiences.

Some People Say...

“Eating disorders are not about losing weight.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Anorexia is a complicated mental illness. Although it manifests in behaviours surrounding food, it is still a mental health issue — it can be as much about finding control as wanting to lose weight. It cannot be caused by a single film or image. If you are worried about yourself or a friend, try reading some of the advice from the UK charity Beat (found under Become an Expert).
What do we not know?
The exact causes of anorexia. Experts believe it is a combination of genetic, psychological and environmental factors. Everyone is different, so it is impossible to know how someone with an eating disorder will react to Netflix’s To The Bone. Some people who have recovered from anorexia have written in support of the film, while others say it could be dangerous.

Word Watch

Anorexia
Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness which causes people to dramatically lose weight through excessive dieting and exercising. They often have a distorted image of their own body shape.
Eating disorders
Anorexia is just one of several eating disorders. Others include bulimia, binge eating and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). They are all serious mental illnesses, but recovery is possible.
Butterfly Foundation
An Australian charity which offers support and advice to people with eating disorders.
1.6 million
According to the UK charity Beat. The same research suggested that 14–25-year-olds are most affected.
Thinspo
A shortened version “thinspiration”. The term is used online for “inspiration” to encourage people to lose more weight, often to dangerous levels.
Pro-ana
A shortened version of “pro-anorexia”, used to describe online communities which promote eating disorders and the behaviours associated with them.

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