The "eating disorder movie," beyond sickness and health

If "Feed" and "To the Bone" show there's a market for "anorexia movies," how should it be served?

Published July 23, 2017 5:30PM (EDT)

Lily collins as Ellen (Eli) in "To The Bone"   (Netflix/Gilles Mingasson)
Lily collins as Ellen (Eli) in "To The Bone" (Netflix/Gilles Mingasson)

You sprint through the night; you do crunches in bed (a relief with the cushion of a mattress and pillows — you can almost forget you’re working out). The noise of mealtime comes in stereo or through the hum of rumination: the grind of someone chewing, the distinct tink of a fork and knife working on a relatively empty plate. You have an oblivious family or a supportive family or an absent parent; back ribs, side ribs, collarbones, an especially prominent nose. Shadows under your ears, shadows instead of cheeks. In just 90 minutes, with makeup and prosthetics and wardrobe — and a supervised diet — you can go from very thin to gaunt, emaciated, almost dead.


Or at least, the depiction of anorexia that we continue to see.

This summer, the trajectory of the anorexic protagonist is more visible — and more mainstream — than ever. With the release of Marti Noxon’s "To the Bone" and Troian Bellisario’s "Feed," the film industry demonstrates a willingness to confront eating disorders on screen in a way that’s seemingly unprecedented. After all, these aren’t the cheesy, didactic Lifetime movies of the ’90s, dire and dully acted. "To the Bone" is chock-full of “inside-joke gallows humor,” as film critic Sheila O’Malley puts it; "Feed" is more psychological thriller than drama, with hints of Dario Argento circa "Suspira." And it’s impossible to deny the good intentions behind both features. Bellisario partnered with Instagram on their #HereForYou project, which raises mental health awareness; Noxon consulted with eating disorder fundraising organization Project Heal.

Still, though neither film is being released to theaters, both have continued to garner significant attention from the media and prospective audiences, fostering divisive conversations that range from championing the projects to criticizing their triggering or romanticizing side effects. And as someone who’s written extensively about eating disorders (and lived with them for nearly 20 years), I can’t help hearing where writers like Ankita Rao are coming from. Rao, who details her own anorexia in an article on Vice's Motherboard, “Netflix Just Released the Eating Disorder Movie We Don’t Need,” argues that "To the Bone" (and I imagine the same critique would apply to "Feed") poses what she and reporter Brenda P. Salinas describe as “the big white problem with movies about eating disorders.”

Do movies about white anorexia leave no space for movies about brown anorexia, TV series about white bulimia those about brown bulimia? (And what about books about white eating disorders? this white author asks sheepishly.) Maybe — and maybe they occlude movies about the other demographics eating disorders impact, too. If it’s a big white problem, it’s also a big cisgender problem, a big American problem, a big young-person problem. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s not a big anorexia problem most of all (though web series like Jessie Kahnweiler’s "The Skinny" and Angela Gulner’s "Binge" — two often wonderfully irreverent, darkly funny comedies about bulimia — are doing their damndest to represent bingeing and purging, as well as the commonly comorbid alcoholism).

I’m glad that "To the Bone" and "Feed" remind viewers of the gravity of anorexia, but I worry about the market. You can hear it now, can’t you? "To the Bone" is “the anorexia movie.” It’s easy to minimize these stories because the protagonists are whittled down to their illnesses: Ellen (Lily Collins) in "To the Bone" may be artistic and sardonic; Olivia (Troian Bellisario) in "Feed" may be her high school’s valedictorian, crippled by grief; but these characters’ arcs only allow their personalities to shrink rather than blossom, even in the afterglow of almost-recovery.

And so it’s possible to ask why we would need more than one or two movies about eating disorders, especially when they can (and do) romanticize the disease they depict? Is there an appetite for that? (Of course there is, but appetites are swallowed and starved and curbed all the time. Appetites are ignorable.)

What’s the solution? Writers and filmmakers need to start making films that stop perpetuating an ableist attitude toward eating disorders. The goal of “the eating disorder movie,” whether it’s "To the Bone" or "Feed," seems to be to steer the anorexic protagonist toward a place of regained weight, a place of neurotypicality. Is acknowledging that recovery is a process enough? (I keep thinking that the only way to really portray an eating disorder through film is in a "Scenes from a Marriage"-esque epic.)

Ironically, these movies are as defined by their eating disorders as the medical professionals they depict caution their patients from becoming. This is dangerous, confusing, and limits the narrative possibilities — not to mention the character possibilities — in these films.

As queer writer Sam Dylan Finch explains on Everyday Feminism: “The fear is that if we 'over-identify' with our mental illnesses, we’ll never be fulfilled — because mentally ill people apparently can’t be fulfilled unless they’re aspiring to be as far-removed from their illnesses as possible. . . . I don’t believe for a second that people can’t take pride in their identities as mentally ill — seeing those struggles and triumphs as formative and significant — and also live exceptional lives, in which we’re thriving and whole.”

Rather than “the anorexia movie” or “the bulimia series,” we need features and shows (as well as books and plays) with diverse characters, who, sure, have eating disorders, but are also doing that little thing called living life. Given the long labor of recovering from an eating disorder, surely most of us will do some of that along the way.

Hitting rock bottom or flailing toward a crisis might provide a readymade plot, but these narratives do a disservice toward our overall understanding of eating disorders (or, frankly, any mental health or addiction issue). In the time since I was diagnosed with anorexia, 19 years ago, I’ve done thousands and thousands of sit-ups. Some frantic, some lackadaisical, some sloppy, some focused — some that were sending me toward disaster; some that were keeping me sane.

By JoAnna Novak

JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her debut novel, "I Must Have You," was published in 2017.

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