In case you haven’t seen it yet (and you don’t mind some spoilers) “To The Bone” is a film recently released on Netflix that follows a young woman, Eli, as she battles with anorexia. Now, I understand that this film has stirred up a lot of controversy (which is understandable due to the nature of its subject matter), so I think it’s valuable to explore the reasons why this film can potentially cause harm to some viewers. At no point in this article am I attempting to undermine the important conversation on metal health that this film has inspired.
Casting a model as the main character makes her condition look desirable:
Let’s face it; Lily Collins is a beautiful human being. She’s drop dead gorgeous. On top of her looks (which have given her a career in modeling), she also has the acting chops to take on the role of Eli, the main character in “To The Bone.” Now, despite her outstanding performance, choosing to cast someone who matches long standing beauty ideals as Eli sends mixed signals.
On one hand, both the script and the performances suggest that anorexia is a disease that is highly dangerous and not something to be desired. On the other hand, Lily Collins still looks beautiful as Eli, and this makes the disease her character has seem less serious. Some viewers may be tempted to drop weight in order to try and look more like her.
This conflict, in my opinion, is best explained through a scene in which Eli’s stepmom forces her to weigh herself to assess her condition. Eli’s stepmom holds a picture of Eli’s dangerously slim body up to her and asks, “Do you think that’s beautiful?” to which Eli responds, “No.” However, Eli (or Lily Collins), though dangerously underweight, still looked beautiful because of course she did she’s a model for cryin’ out loud! I’m sure for some viewers who lack self esteem when it comes to their appearances, seeing such a beautiful woman as an anorexic romanticizes anorexia in general, making even critical weights seem desirable.
Anorexia opens doors for the main character:
Now (as a preface to this point in particular) it’s only fair for me to point out that Eli’s condition is shown as destructive and life-threatening, so, obviously anorexia itself isn’t shown positively.
With that said, the treatment of this condition provides Eli with opportunities she wouldn’t have had otherwise. For example, as an in-patient at a treatment facility, Eli is able to meet Luke, an interesting and witty recovering anorexic who is eventually set up as Eli’s love interest.
At first, Luke’s involvement in the plot is harmless. He cheers the other patients on and provides a tangible example of someone who has overcome their eating disorder. His positivity is refreshing when paired with the cynicism of Eli. However, as their relationship turns romantic, the film seems to change from an honest depiction of an anorexic woman in critical condition to something from a young adult novel.
In fact, as the film grinds on it shows fun field trips and free dinners and an insanely cute baby shower. As much as this happiness is accompanied by tragedy, the act of having Eli’s recovery linked to a journey of self-discovery and romance is dangerous because it gives viewers the impression that had Eli not been anorexic, she wouldn’t have been able to fully experience life.
Anorexia gives Eli attention:
Lastly, anorexia provides Eli with the attention of the person she seems to care the most about in her family: her sister. During a family therapy session, Eli’s sister confesses that Eli’s disease has taken over not only Eli’s life but her own as well. She says that she cannot look back at milestones in her life (for example, her prom) without thinking of what Eli was going through at that time.
While Eli herself responds to this with what appears to be mild guilt, for viewers who crave this type of worried attention, the film reinforces the notion that nearly killing yourself is a sure way to receive it.