Back in July the media, as well as the mental health community, were abuzz with discussion of a new film that debuted on Netflix. “To The Bone,” tells the story of a young woman in her 20’s battling anorexia. The film has been criticized for its graphic nature and triggering content. It is not a movie I personally support, but for now, I am not going to be writing about it. (However, I highly suggest reading Gina from Nourish and Eat’s blog post on the film.)
At the same time as the whirlwind surrounding To The Bone was happening, another smaller film “Feed” written by and starring Pretty Little Liars actor Troian Bellisario was also debuting. It also tells the story of a young woman battling anorexia, but it does it in a way that was thoughtful, responsible and moving. It is a movie that truly captures life with this illness without glamorizing it. It deserves so much more media attention because it tells a story of mental illness in a way that is honest and ultimately uplifting.
In the film, Bellisario’s character Olivia loses her twin brother in a tragic accident and soon after she begins to experience a voice that disguises itself as her brother. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that it is truly her eating disorder, not her twin, as the voice begins to bully her into self-destruction and self-hatred. It shows her spiral into the darkness of anorexia and the horrible things that come along with it.
As someone in recovery, I am wary of films that have the potential to trigger me. I definitely think that it is important, to be honest with yourself and where you are at in recovery before watching any media surrounding eating disorders. I personally did not find the movie triggering, although it definitely would have been in the early stages of my eating disorder recovery. It does display scenes of her engaging in some behaviors, and her character’s body does become emaciated. However, I found that these scenes were not overly graphic and that they did a good job of serving their purpose rather than just being dramatic or shocking. Still, be careful before viewing and reach out for support if the movie triggers you.
I truly felt that the focus on the film was not about how frail her body became or how many calories she restricted. It accurately showed that an eating disorder is a result of emotional pain and distress that feels unbearable. It indicates that restricting, overexercising, etc. are coping mechanisms for overwhelming emotions. It was clear that her character’s behaviors were not driven by a simple desire to lose weight or be thin. In fact, she never once said that she was aiming to lose weight or even stepped onto a scale. The focus was shifted away from her physical body and towards the driving factors behind her illness, her grief and the trauma of losing her twin brother.
Something that really struck me about her eating disorder voice was how the film accurately showed that it was both her best friend and her worst enemy. At times it would say things that seemed protective and caring, while in the same sentence it would tear her down and tell her that she was ugly and worthless. You see her eating disorder promise to her that it is the only “person” that loves or cares for her. This showed the reality that eating disorders occur because they serve a purpose in the sufferer’s life. The reason why they are so hard to give up is not due to vanity or, deep down, even obsession with weight.
Eating disorders are hard to give up because they help to numb pain and can feel like they are giving you a purpose, albeit an unhealthy and disordered one, of losing weight that becomes self-destructive and deadly. In my own life, being anorexic never felt fun or happy, but it gave me a sense of security. It was the way I was able to “survive” for a long time when I felt broken, empty, and hope. I was doing the best I could with the tools that I had at the time. The thing is that the false sense of security can only go so far and do so much for the sufferer. Eventually, anorexia stops working for you, and you have to find a new way to survive. Thankfully, the alternative is so much better, although it takes work and it is far from easy.
Additionally, I thought the way that her ED developed slowly at first before progressing was beneficial because there can be a misconception that individuals with restrictive eating disorders simply decide to not eat one day and never look back. In reality, they sneak up on you, and you usually do not know what is happening until you are deep in the depths of the illness. Trust me, I never woke up, got out of bed, and said to myself “today I plan on becoming anorexic.”
The ending of the film was spectacular in how honest and real it was. There was no fairytale ending where the character gets healthy and has a perfect, ED free life. It showed that recovery is not a one-time choice. It is something that you have to recommit to over and over again as the disease attempts to worm its way back into your life. Yet, it showed that there is so much hope. It demonstrated that it is possible to say “No, not today” to the voice and pick up your fork and eat, even if it is not easy. Recovery is not a straight line, but a scatter plot of up and downs, that ultimately trends upwards towards freedom from this struggle.
So, thank you to Troian for creating a film that tells a human story with both accuracy and awareness for other’s safety. Thank you for working to break down shame and secrecy about an illness with millions of strugglers. Thank you for giving a voice to survivors of an ugly illness; an illness that is not beautiful, but ugly and awful and life threatening. Thank you for a movie that ultimately gives the message – recovery is possible.