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Ed Southgate reviews To The Bone– the controversial Netflix film starring Lily Collins as Ellen, a sufferer of anorexia. 

*TW: Eating Disorders*

To The Bone follows the story of Ellen, a 20 year old recovering from anorexia. We see her troubled family relationships, we glimpse at her obsessive relationship with food and exercise, and it sheds light on some of the emotional issues surrounding anorexia. There have been numerous negative criticisms of the film, but, in my experience at least as a sufferer, it did well to shed light onto some of the many complexities of the illness.

Those two words – “shed light” – are important. The director, herself a survivor of anorexia, said that she aimed to “shed light” on anorexia. We cannot expect a two-hour film to show every complexity of the illness as it can adapt significantly over many years. For me, for example, becoming ill was filled with secrecy and crucially euphoria, whereas only in early stages of recovery did the illness become increasingly aggressive.

We cannot expect a two-hour film to show every complexity of the illness

For this reason, the timeline of Ellen’s story came across as particularly effective. She is shown to have been in recovery for a while, having been an in-patient a multitude of times. Despite many criticisms that the film is very triggering this period is, whilst still being informative, the least antagonistic part of the film. It does not show the euphoria which the sufferer feels, nor does it depict weight loss or intake reduction as anything but a negative loss.

To The Bone has been criticised for simplifying the illness, not showing it in its truest form. Admittedly, the dinner table scenes did not show the true torment of eating. They could’ve shown the very dramatic moments of a sufferer, for instance, breaking down on the floor of the kitchen over the prospect of eating a cracker. They could show the horrors in different stages of recovery, such as uncontrollably binging and subsequently feeling horrible. They could show the horrors of purging. But that would have been more triggering and unnecessary.

They admittedly referred to purging, but subtly. Not only did this small interaction about purging stay true to its secretive nature, but it kept consistency with the film’s trend of showing all the nuances of the illness.

The film successfully shed light on many subtle symptoms, both psychological and physical. Her obsession with food, shown most clearly to viewers through her drawings; drinking water before being weighed; constantly insisting “I’ve got it under control”; seeming positive in front of others; and wearing baggy clothes. These are all subtle symptoms of her psychological issues.

And, from this, they showed some physical symptoms; the soft hairs on her arms (lanugo) as her body tries to keep her warm; dark circles under her eyes; and, of course, being thin. But whilst her skinniness has attracted criticism, displaying such a variety of subtle symptoms too certainly does not, as has been suggested, merely purport the harmful stereotype that simply to be thin is to be anorexic.

Many other small moments added to the film being a true reflection, at least in my case. After being told that she might die, she sarcastically responded: “thanks for that, I’m scared straight”. This does not glamorize the illness or make it light-hearted, but accurately resembles the dismissive attitude of sufferers and the refusal to believe its life-threatening nature.

This attitude was realistically repeated throughout, such as when Ellen collapses in the bus station, got up and insisted she was “fine”. Similarly, when Dr Beckham takes the group on a day-trip, he encourages Ellen to say “fuck you voice” whenever she feels it trying to overpower her.

Furthermore, the disastrous family therapy session also rang true. Far from suggesting anorexia is solely, or at all, rooted in family issues (each sufferer suffers for wildly different reason so an attempt to show any of the possible causes would inevitably be controversial anyway), it showed the damage on the family dynamic that anorexia has. This leads to subsequent guilt and isolation in the sufferer. My first family therapy session was disastrous enough that I walked out before ten minutes and we did not have another session. Another aspect of the film which resonated with my own experience.

Admittedly, it perhaps did not go far enough in showing the emotional isolation of such an illness. Dinner table scenes did not really show any of the real torment over the prospect of eating, whilst the restaurant scene was a little too light-hearted with the characters pretending they had cancer being unnecessarily distasteful.

Dinner table scenes did not really show any of the real torment over the prospect of eating

Having said that, the scene, although executed poorly, did fit in with the wider theme of the support that Ellen got from peers and other sufferers. Again, having someone I knew who was also suffering very much helped me in my own recovery. And on the topic of the housemates, I did like that they showed that it is an illness which men can suffer from too.

I can see why people think To The Bone simplified the illness. But it did “shed light” on just some of its’ subtleties in a way which I do not personally think painted it in a glamorised light. And for that I commend the film.


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