I initially had no intentions of watching the new Netflix film “To the Bone”, (when has the media ever gotten anything right about eating disorders/I knew it would probably just be really frustrating etc.) but after the enormous amount of posts and criticisms/endorsements on social media following its release, I was curious and decided to do so anyways.
I hesitated to write this, because I feel like there has already been so much written in response, but I found aspects of the film so deeply disturbing that I’ve decided it worthwhile to add my voice to the mix.
As a whole, it was a horrible misrepresentation of eating disorders and the reality of treatment, (I’ve spent a lot of time in treatment and never once did I dance in the rain or fall in love) but I hadn’t really expected otherwise. A film truly depicting that reality would have been so sad and boring that no one would would ever watch it.
I also felt that it was incredibly irresponsible of the directors to have had the main actress (who formerly struggled with an eating disorder herself) lose so much weight for the role. Seeing her emaciated body didn’t trigger me personally, but I worried about other, more impressionable viewers. I remember finding the book, “The Best Little Girl in the World” by Steven Levenkron on my mother’s treadmill (oh irony) when I was 10 years old (another horribly romanticized account of anorexia) and reading it over and over, becoming quite obsessed with the character of “Kessa”, and picking up tips and ideas that had never occurred to me previously. I even made it my goal to get down to the same weight that she did, which sounds absurd given that she was just a fictional character, but I was also 10 and didn’t have the emotional maturity to see that. I was already very sick when I found the book, (hence sneaking down to the basement to run on my mom’s treadmill all night) and it didn’t “give me an eating disorder” (I don’t believe that any book or film has the ability to do that), but also didn’t help matters. I felt there were a lot of parallels between that book and the “To the Bone” film, only a film has the added component of being visual, which in my opinion just adds to the danger and potential impact it could have.
However, the most troubling aspect of film (in my opinion) was the ending. Ellen (the main character) decides to leave treatment prematurely, and this is allowed because the professionals treating her believe that she must “hit rock bottom” before she can truly get better. She leaves, “hits bottom”, runs off into the wilderness and falls asleep on a mountain side, has a dream/revelation in which she decides that she is “ready” (this dream also involves making out in a tree with another patient she’d been at the treatment center with) and after waking up she decides to return to treatment. Her mother drives her back to the center, and as they get out of the car, she asks her, “are you sure you’re ready to do this?”, to which Ellen says yes and (cue hopeful music) walks back in.
There is so much wrong with this that I’m not entirely sure where to start, but I’ll begin with the whole concept of letting someone hit rock bottom/seeing that as a necessary step before one can begin the process of recovery. I can see how someone without an understanding of eating disorders might make this conclusion, eating disorders appear very much as choice that an individual is making, and given that it would only make sense that once things get bad enough, that individual would feel almost forced to turn things around. But eating disorders aren’t choices, and “hitting rock bottom” means absolutely nothing in that sense. And the misconception that it does is such a dangerous and harmful one.
“Rock bottom” doesn’t generally end with having miraculous epiphanies in your sleep. I don’t believe there always even is a “bottom”, because there have been so many times throughout my struggle in which I’ve felt like I was there, that it couldn’t possibly get worse, and it always did. Spending an entire night out on our roof in the pouring rain because my sister had made spaghetti and I thought there were calories in the air that would get inside of me. Breaking down in the airport on my way to treatment because I didn’t feel like I could walk through the food court to get to my gate, calling my mom and sobbing, telling her to come pick me up, I couldn’t do it. Crying hysterically over 4 oz containers of apple juice in the hospital, knowing that I was dying but still feeling unable to eat or drink anything. Being given a list of recommendations for hospice care centers 2 weeks before my 21st birthday, complete with a conversation about how I might have, at best, a few weeks to say goodbye to my friends and family. The list goes on. In each of those moments I was remember thinking, this is it. This is the bottom. But there is no end or limit to the depths at which an eating disorder can drag you. That’s one of the most painful realities I’ve come to know throughout this process. Many of those moments pushed my very close to ending my own life, something I’d attempted several times when I was younger, and that’s another very real danger when presuming someone should wait to hit bottom. Sometimes that “bottom” is too painful to move through. In 2011, my best friend, who had also struggled with an eating disorder for years, was discharged from a treatment center because “they couldn’t help her until she was ready”. She spent a few months struggling, stuck in a cycle of binging and purging for 8-12 hours a day, until she ultimately made the decision to end her life. She wrote me a goodbye letter, in which she said that she just couldn’t do it anymore. That’s rock bottom. And there was no turning back for her.
You can’t wait until you feel “ready”. That isn’t really a thing. You will never feel 100% ready. And no treatment professional should encourage that. The scene in which her mom asks her before walking back in, “are you sure you’re ready?” struck me in its stark contrast to my most recent treatment stay, in which I was literally led upstairs against my will with security guards at the door. That hospitalization (despite lacking of any dance parties in the rain) saved my life, and I am so so grateful that I did receive help when I did, but I wasn’t “ready” for it. I needed someone else to make that decision for me, I was too sick to do it on my own. And while there have been other times in which I was able to bring myself in voluntarily, it was never something that I felt 100 percent on board with, there was always an immense amount of anguish and struggle over the decision, (never any hopeful music/”I’m going to be okay now, mom. I’m ready.” scenes) Hitting rock bottom doesn’t serve as a turning point in one’s readiness, rather the sicker one gets the harder it becomes to make those decisions or to connect with motivation.
Recovery is a long and agonizing process, and obviously a short film isn’t going to be able to capture that, but I took issue with the extent to which it was glossed over.
I have no doubt that the directors and creators of the film had noble intentions when setting out, but they missed the mark in such a huge and (I’ll say it again) dangerous way.