There are several images that have stayed with me after watching To the Bone – the Netflix film starring Lily Collins that explores the complicated process of recovering from an eating disorder. And I could talk about each of those visuals at length: the heart-wrenching scene where the protagonist Ellen asks her mother to feed her like a baby, or the thousands of emotions that flicker across Ellen’s face every time she steps on the scale to be weighed. But the image that has truly stuck with me, the one I can’t shake from my mind’s eye, is watching Ellen absent-mindedly circle her upper arm with her middle finger and thumb throughout the film, constantly checking to make sure her limb could fit within those tiny constraints. It’s a little detail, one that other people might forget the second the credits roll, but to me, it was like looking in a mirror.
I was diagnosed with anorexia right after I graduated from college, but objectively speaking, my eating disorder began much earlier than that. For the longest time, I didn’t even realize I was sick — to me, my ED was just something I did, part of my everyday behavior and habits. In high school, I kept my anxiety at bay by skipping lunch; I’d spend the 30-minute period in a practice room in the music wing instead, writing notes to my friends to be folded up like origami and passed in the hall later that day.
Once away at college, things took a turn for the worse, as my outer appearance began to reflect the ED voice that had been running rampant in my brain for the better part of a decade. Instead of skipping meals, I started meticulously restricting: 200 calories one day, then 400, then 600, then 800, then back down the ladder again. The patterns within the numbers soothed me; the control was the highest high one could imagine – better than getting drunk on the weekends at a stupid college party. Somewhere along the line, the pattern disappeared and the numbers started to matter less; the goal simply became to consume as little as possible.
During the height of my eating disorder, I desperately wanted to find other people who felt the way I did. I joined Livejournal communities, scrolled through Tumblr, read Wasted by Marya Hornbacher more times than I can count. But one thing I never found was a depiction of myself on screen — the best thing I could find was Brittany Murphy’s character in Girl, Interrupted, but it wasn’t even close to the representation I was desperately craving.
With that in mind, watching To the Bone was a powerful and emotional experience for a lot of reasons. It’s been several years since my own days of treatment, and I am proud to say I haven’t relapsed in just as long. In a way, the act of viewing the film was like looking backwards at my own experiences — but through a lens of reflection, as I am no longer in that dark place.
I can understand, however, that the movie might be harder to watch for someone who is still in that place of an active ED. When the trailer for the film dropped, it was met with swift backlash from viewers who were worried about the content being too triggering. On the heels of the criticism surrounding Netflix’s series 13 Reasons Why, many worried that To the Bone might not portray mental health in a positive way and could serve as a how-to guide for those viewers who are already suffering from disordered eating habits.
The portrayal of an eating disorder on film is certainly a tricky task (and perhaps that’s why there are so little examples out there). EDs are so rooted in behavior and thought patterns that it’s basically impossible to portray such an illness without exploring those details, yet it’s those specific visuals that can be seen as triggering. Incidentally, the film itself even touches on this very subject; one of the plot points reveals the fact that Ellen, a well-known Tumblr artist, has been accused of contributing to a stranger’s depressive spiral because of her triggering artwork. Of course, Ellen didn’t set out to hurt the fan of hers, just as the film isn’t setting out to hurt its viewers. But talking about painful things can sometimes have consequences, and navigating that balance is not always easy.
That said, it’s also important to note that every ED is different – something that Marti Noxon, the film’s director, has also emphasized. “To the Bone is just one of the millions of ED stories that could be told in the US at this very moment,” she explained earlier this summer. But as someone who has been there and back again, that representation in and of itself is endlessly important. It’s rare to find a narrative like the one in To the Bone that truly encompasses the emotions that can go hand in hand with an ED: the false sense of control, the fear of getting better, the companionship that can exist between those who simply “get it.”
And there’s a lot that society can get wrong about eating disorders — something that is explored in the film as well. Throughout the beginning of the movie, Ellen’s step-mother and step-sister exemplify the misconceptions that so many people still have about EDs. “Why don’t you just eat?” Ellen’s sister asks in exasperation, while her step-mom eyes her too-thin body and quips: “Do you think this is beautiful?”
It’s hard to explain to someone who has never experienced an ED that “just eating” is almost laughable when there’s a raging fear of doing exactly that. Moreover, you can “just eat” and still have an ED — the mere act of putting food in your mouth doesn’t negate the emotions that go along with the disorder. And when Ellen’s step-mom asked her that infuriating question about beauty, I was instantly reminded of a college boyfriend who asked me the same thing, who couldn’t help but wonder aloud if I thought I was attractive at my lowest weight – making it clear that he did not.
It’s safe to say I saw myself a lot in Ellen, but no moment was as jarring as the one I’ve already mentioned: her nervous habit of grabbing her upper arm with her fingers, almost without thinking. It’s something I used to do as well, along with absent-mindedly laying my fingers against my ribcage or feeling for my hipbones against the waistband of my jeans. I used to do this constantly, out of boredom or anxiety or both. I would sit in class and go from one check to the next: arm, ribcage, hip. Then back. I would do it in the dining hall as I meticulously ate the carrot sticks on my plate, as if attempting to reassure myself that those bones wouldn’t immediately disappear underneath flesh simply because I swallowed a handful of vegetables.
While I was mostly unaware of those behaviors at the time, in retrospect, I distinctly remember them. That’s why it was so strange to see someone doing the same thing in a movie — like I was watching an old video of myself in my dorm instead of a fictional character. I felt outed and understood, all at the same time.
But it wasn’t just Ellen’s disordered behaviors that I found familiar — it was her journey towards recovery as well. And this is what I’d say to anyone who worries that To the Bone might be damaging to viewers: It also shows the other side, the possibility of health, the determination to get better. Ellen’s moment of clarity, where she finally sees herself as she truly is, jogged another distinct memory of mine. I remember reaching my “ultimate goal weight” — the number I had set my sights on so many years ago, mostly believing there was no way I’d ever get there. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “I don’t feel any different. I’m exactly the same as I was when all of this started.” The realization made me angry, like I’d been tricked into some catastrophic narrative — one that could actually kill me. Like Ellen, it took me hitting rock bottom to truly understand I was actually sick, and only then was I able to conceptualize the act of getting better.
To the Bone won’t be the same thing to everyone. To some, it will just be a movie. To others, it could be something to avoid. For me, it was the first time I ever felt like my illness was truly understood. And there’s something to be said for that: the feeling of seeing yourself on screen, even if it’s painful — especially if it’s painful. It was a reminder of where I’ve been, where I am going, and where I will never be again. As a viewer who has always chased that level of representation, it’s a story that has meant everything.
If you or someone you know is at risk or experiencing an eating disorder, resources are available from the National Eating Disorders Association online, by phone at 800-931-2237, or by texting “NEDA” to 741741.