Eating disorders in the spotlight at Sundance

"Girl culture" photographer Lauren Greenfield premieres a devastating new documentary.

Published January 26, 2006 2:14PM (EST)

Thanks to the likes of Renée Zellweger, Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan -- most of the moviegoing public has grown quite accustomed to seeing skeletal women on film. But in "Thin," a new documentary by photographer Lauren Greenfield that premieres this week at the Sundance Film Festival, the terribly reality of life with an eating disorder is laid bare, stripped of haute couture and any pretense of Hollywood glamour.

As a photographer, Greenfield is best known for her images of youth subcultures and for her 2002 book, "Girl Culture," which featured unflinching portraits of American girls from across every class and clique. "Thin," while revisiting some of Greenfield's earlier themes, focuses entirely on life at one south Florida clinic for women with eating disorders, drawing viewers into the lives and struggles of both the patients and the staff.

A review in yesterday's Los Angeles Times introduces a few of Greenfield's subjects. There is Polly Williams, who at 29 slit her wrists and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills because she didn't get home in time to purge two slices of pizza she'd had for dinner; Alisa Williams, who as an Air Force officer consumed no more than 200 calories a day, but drew a self-portrait in which she looked like a marshmallow man; and Brittany Robinson, who as a teen dropped from 185 to 97 pounds in a year, causing hair loss and permanent liver damage.

The film owes much of its impact to Greenfield's extraordinary access to even the most personal and painful moments in her subjects' lives. In the months while she was filming, Greenfield was given complete freedom to approach patients, to sit in during tense mealtimes and to attend staff meetings, therapy sessions and "community meetings." The resulting portrait is an unblinking examination not only of the nature of eating disorders themselves but of the men, women and methods used to treat it. And it is grim. For instance, the Los Angeles Times writes that "room searches for contraband items ... and Draconian rules" at the center "contribute to a sense that the patients, who already seem like little girls (their chests are flat and many have stopped menstruating), are infantilized further by the clinic protocols."

"We have a long way to go in the professional treatment of psychiatric disorders," Sheila Nevins, president of HBO's documentary division, tells the Times. "I grew up thinking that anorexia was a Vogue magazine disease -- you flipped the page and you wanted to look like that. [But] these children, young women, need psychiatric help and pharmaceutical help, not just rigorous bootstrap philosophy."

"Thin" is scheduled to air on HBO later this spring. So, for all of you who can't make it out to Utah, set your TiVos now.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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