TO THE BONE: WHY WE NEED ART TO ADDRESS ANOREXIA DESPITE THE OBVIOUS RISKS
On the Netflix release date of To the Bone, a raw depiction of anorexia portrayed by Lily Collins, I read an article online in Glamour Magazine that I initially agreed with titled, “What an Anorexia Survivor Thinks of Netflix’s To the Bone.”
Being that I too have a history of anorexia, the author of the article, Kate Leaver, and I shared certain concerns. She acknowledged something that is a disturbing fact and may not be widely known to the public. Many people who have eating disorders seek out resources to assist them with maintaining their illness or becoming “better at it.” Some of those resources do include narratives. Those personal accounts and films such as To the Bone, can provide such tips. So can books, web sites and magazines readily available to people battling eating disorders who are determined to not get better.
When I was still a college student and living an anorexic lifestyle, I was unaware of this. Then, as someone who wanted to learn more about her illness, I attended a Tracey Gold reading in a Brooklyn Barnes and Noble of her memoir, Room to Grow: An Appetite for Life. The book was about her road to recovery. She read from the beginning chapter where she clearly stated how her goal was not to offer young women a manual on how to be sick. She wanted to help them. One thing she stressed was how being a size 0 means nothing in terms of being a happy, healthy person.
Afterwards, I told her I understood that sentiment and she looked at me, my tiny jeans falling off of my concave stomach, and then wrote in my copy of the book, “Baby Steps.” It was her motto during her recovery. Remembering all of this, I was quick to agree with Kate Leaver that covering anorexia in film is a huge risk because of those triggers it might have for people who once were, or are currently are, in her and my past boat. I also didn’t think it helped to cast someone as stunning and magnetic as Lily Collins who exudes all qualities of being cool effortlessly as the protagonist Ellen because she could possibly be viewed as the poster child for anorexia since she had lived through the experience of an eating disorder offscreen. I posted the Glamour article on Facebook, calling it “spot on.”
Then I actually parked myself on my couch and watched the film. Instead of glorifying the idea of anorexia, or offending me by its realness, it made me realize how the past year and a half of therapy has assisted in healing some of my recurring issues related to the illness. I’m aware that I am only one person and that will not be the universal experience but unlike Kate Leaver and many others, I was grateful to To the Bone’s writer, Marti Noxon and Lily Collins’s accurate delivery of the anorexic mindset. Ellen is sad, angry and just so, so tired. She can’t get past her illness enough to enjoy food, in some scenes pushing it around on her plate instead of eating; in another spitting it into her napkin after a quick taste. Rather than go into depth about subjects that trouble her, she makes pained statements regarding the girl who responded to her Tumblr artwork with suicide and fails to address other lurking issues such as her consistently absent father. She does excessive sit-ups when opportunity knocks and, especially each time something upsets her. She bails on her recovery at the group home and the people there who try to get too close to her. I didn’t view her as “a heroine” something Kate Leaver posed as a legitimate possibility for sufferers and I don’t think anyone who is really ready for or invested in their own recovery from anorexia would. Here is why.
Anorexia is for many of us, including Ellen, a defensive disease, a mask that permits lack of growth and advancing in life, often which is the biggest fear of the individual. There is that statement people toss around, “At least I have my health,” because without it we cannot function. It is quite evident that none of the young women and the one young man portrayed in To the Bone, are functioning well in society and that their being in the group home is completely justified. Admittedly, I did not seek out real and consistent treatment until I was 35 years old and encourage anyone who needs to do so to stick with it, even on the bad days. Because one day, maybe they too can watch To the Bone and instead of thinking, “She’s just like me,” they might say, “She’s like I was.” Or if they are still suffering, it could prompt them to consider the notion, “I don’t want to be that way anymore.”
The first time I heard about To the Bone, I was jealous that Marti Noxon was able to create art out of her eating disorder experience and questioned where I would be career-wise if I had done so too. In 2015 a literary agent signed me for a contract to write a book after seeing an article online that I had written for the Rumpus, briefly touching on my eating disorder roots and the beginning of my own recovery.
Having an agent had been my dream since college when I began to pursue writing as a career and especially after earning an MFA in Fiction from The New School. I was slated to write a story collection on anorexia which was most certainly not my first choice. After all, I’d created a life for myself since that day fifteen years ago when I met Tracey Gold that had nothing to do with my illness. My initial thought was that I would write the book and then move on to other subjects.
I wrote the first fifty pages and felt something so heavy that I had to put the project away with the intention of returning to it. The protagonist I created was very different from me but in reality she wasn’t. She was still sick and in some ways, so was I which was why I succeeded at creating such a realistic story, something I didn’t even comprehend fully until I brought it into a writing workshop at Catapult with Sarah Gerard whose class I‘d chosen in part because of her novel Binary Star that had an anorexic protagonist.
I thought being workshopped in a group with a teacher who already addressed the subject writing-wise would be great and her support of my work was as well as her input on something she’d directly experienced. One day she asked the class how our writing week was, as she kindly did each session, and I told everyone that my agent had terminated our contract because after a year and a half I still had not completed the book and she needed active clients. This came as a relief. I hadn’t wanted anorexia to be the basis of my writing career or the word people associated me with. But I also now know that I hadn’t fully confronted by then some of the unhealthy behaviors associated with anorexia that To the Bone does.
I love that Marti Noxon made certain choices, a major one being not to disclose the actual weight of the majority of the sick characters including Ellen, but still shows the angst associated with being weighed. If I’m being honest with myself as a means of control I have a safe weight that I don’t like getting too far away from. I have finally acknowledged that in my therapy, alongside other things that allowed my illness to fester and emerge in troublesome times. The family session in the film was also on point; a group of people sitting in a circle arguing about their own issues, a toxic environment for Ellen that fails to contribute to her recovery.
We can’t use our family problems as what another resident, Lucas, who befriends Ellen calls an “excuse” to remain sick but To the Bone takes the time to acknowledge that they don’t help either. It also shows how much anorexia affects others.
“I don’t get to have a sister,” her sister Kelly says tearfully, acknowledging that important events in her own life had taken a backseat to Ellen’s illness. It was a statement that brought clarity, I hope, to anyone watching the film thinking that the lifestyle of anorexia is something worth aspiring to or maintaining. Someone close to them misses them, the person they were or might have been. The person they still have the chance to become. Not the one who is starving, binging or purging but a whole human, something far away from Ellen’s declaration,”I’m sorry. I’m not a person anymore. I’m a problem,” which is hardly glamorous. The doctor in the film, Dr. Beckham, played by Keanu Reeves is the one who reminds the residents that they are “alive” and how “beautiful life can be” when he takes them on a field trip to see water art. He also says, “Bad things are going to happen. It’s not negotiable; what is is how you deal with it” and other harsh truths Ellen needs to hear, even when the end result is her becoming pissed off.
In addition, each time Ellen’s mother, Judy, reunites with her daughter, she is shattered. She can’t bear to watch her daughter disappearing before her very eyes. I had an awful time at first with the intimacy of Judy feeding Ellen, later I realized because my mother would and did do anything she could to push me to get better. When To the Bone ended, Ellen’s recovery was beginning again and I was grateful for being so far into mine. I called my mother and we talked about the film and my college graduation where I looked as gaunt as Ellen in my dress. We were so glad those days were over.
Kathryn Buckley lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing in Brooklyn and New Jersey. She holds an MFA in Fiction from The New School and her work has appeared in From the Heart of Brooklyn Volume 2, Toad Journal, The American, Ebibliotekos, 34th Parallel, XoJane, Eclectica, Press Play, The Rumpus and The Chaffey Review.