To the Bone: Trigger or Triumph?

Called ‘uninsightful, insipid and insulting’ by The Guardian, yet certified as a must-watch amongst the Netflix generation, the on-demand video platform’s latest feature flick, To the Bone, launched today.

Being firm fans of Netflix, and longtime lovers of Lily Collins’ eyebrows, we were ready to press play as soon as it landed and having watched it, wanted to share our thoughts on the whole hoo-ha, from the film itself, to the trigger warnings and critical reviews. Spoilers ahead. 

We have to begin by saying that neither of us have ever experienced being in the grips of an eating disorder. One of us has certainly lived with disordered eating, and experienced a borderline obsession with calorie counting and weight loss as a teenager, but in no way to the extent of it being a diagnosed or recognised condition.

With this in mind, we can’t claim to fully understand the mindset of someone living with these conditions, nor can we categorise something as safe to watch for those who are vulnerable to triggers, but what we can say is that the film was directed by and acted in by individuals who have previously lived with anorexia and bulimia. Which raises the questions, would they really seek to create content that could inspire further suffering?

Lily Collins, who portrays the film’s lead, recently spoke with the media stating, “This was something that I needed to talk about and bring to the attention of more people and go through for myself. When I read it, it struck me as such an important subject matter to bring to the attention of people. It is still considered quite taboo to talk about, and yet it’s becoming more and more prevalent within today’s society, and not just with women. If not now, when?”

To The Bone has certainly sparked the conversation on this often taboo topic, bringing eating disorders to the forefront of the mental health agenda once again. However, much of the uproar from mental health charities at the release of this film has been based upon the concern that To the Bone could be see as inspirational, a trigger, or even used as a ‘how to guide’ by those who are vulnerable to the likes of anorexia or bulimia. Some articles have even gone as far as to claim that the film’s central character, Ellen, is glamourised and portrayed as an aspirational individual.

Watching the film it is arguable that Lily Collins’ Ellen may be seen as, in some ways, a desirable individual. Adored by the male protagonist, creatively talented and achingly cool with sarcastic flair, she can certainly come across as someone an impressionable teenager could idolise. However, there are many traits of Ellen’s personality and character which are far from desirable.

Clearly unhappy and troubled, with paper-thin skin, chapped lips, protruding bones, furry arms and a badly bruised back from excessive exercise, not only is Ellen trapped in a cycle of hurt, she’s also a cause of distress to those around her, including the people she loves. Her creative artwork even inspires a fellow sufferer to the extent that they leave their suicide note addressed to her, which is a clear point of distress for Ellen throughout the story. A message from the filmmakers that they don’t wish to inspire harmful behaviours? Her doctor, played by Keanu Reeves, even goes as far as to tell her, ‘the way you’re going, one day you won’t wake up’. Does this really sound like a character we would aspire to?

Ellen’s friends and family work perfectly in To the Bone to drive the true message home and highlight the desperation and utter disaster that an eating disorder can bring to not only the sufferer, but those around them. Ellen’s stepmother, played by the brilliant Carrie Preston, is a ray of light throughout. At first seemingly disliked by Ellen, and constantly missing the mark (hello burger cake), her love and care for her stepdaughter is palpable and her words at times, tragic. When leaving Ellen at her latest treatment home, she shares the parting words, “Be good. Not too good, not perfect.” Accompanied by a smile, followed by a sorrowful glance once Ellen was out of sight, it served as a subtle yet strong reminder of the ripples an eating disorder leave in its wake.

Further evidence that To the Bone isn’t all glitz, glamour and thinspiration? A particularly heart-wrenching scene in which one of Ellen’s fellow patients, Megan, miscarries a much-wanted baby, leading to another younger and more naive co-patient asking if you can ‘push a baby out by throwing up too hard’. The bloody and harrowing scene does not hold back, and drives a clear message of the complications that are induced by living with such a condition.

In short, yes, there may be elements of the film that could have a negatively influential impact on those who are susceptible to certain imagery, however there are equal elements that could have a positive influence in encouraging them to seek help.

As Ellen’s doctor states at one point in the film, “face some hard facts and you could have an incredible life.” What a point he makes. The film concludes with Ellen’s decision to commit to recovery, and choose life.

So if To the Bones really does hold such influence over the ED community, could we not argue that this film could drive positive change?

“Every single person at this table deserves to live.”
– Luke, To the Bone

Written by Katherine Chambers.


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