Portrayal Of Anorexia In The Film To The Bone

To the bone talks about a 20-year old Ellen who suffers from Anorexia and spends her time moving from one recovery program to the next due to her defiant behavior. She lives with her step mother, step sibling and dad (who didn’t seem to make the movie since he wasn’t seen not once). Due to her been sick for so long, the other members of her family have given her up for death. Her mom came out as gay when she was only thirteen years and abandoned her for her dad and step mom and moved away with her girlfriend to another state. She starves herself out of fear of gaining weight and she barely eats anything throughout the entire movie. When she does eat something, however, the furthest she will go is put the food in her mouth, chew it and then spit it back out. She will then try and go for a run out of fear of gaining weight. She showed both the Restricted type of Anorexia Nervosa where she can go days without eating and the Binge-Purge type when forced to eat but use compensatory behaviors such as going for a run after even though she was below the average BMI of 18.5. Her step mom finally decides to check her into a group home for youths which was overseen by a non-traditional doctor. She gets to this group home but as usual doesn’t seem to care for treatment, but this time she’s forced to stay there. The group home already has 6 other female patients and one guy patient named Lucas also suffering from Anorexia; half of which are serious about getting treatment and the other half not so much. In this group home, she finds the secret of the other patients; what they do when they don’t want to eat as well which somehow encouraged her to continue being reluctant in improving. Lucas falls in love with her, but it isn’t reciprocated. Due to the doctor’s and Lucas’ constant perstance, she decides to be a bit social and start improving but backslides again and leave the group home without telling anyone. She goes to visit her mom in Phoenix where she runs a horse therapy farm. She decides to go out for a walk in the woods but collapses out of fatigue. In what looks like a dream, she sees herself walking up a mountain through the woods, Lucas appears in the dream to tell her to get up, she got up from the floor and realize she is no longer anorexic. She walks up to a tree and see herself already sitting on the tree, Lucas appears again, and they share a kiss and tells her to look down, she does and see her anorexic self-lying lifeless on the ground. Overcome with pity for herself, she decided to do better by swallowing a coal that Lucas gave her in the dream. As she swallows it, she coughs and comes out of the dream. She thought she was dead but soon realized she was giving a second chance to live and this time, she promised herself and her family to go back into the group home without any force to get treatment.

Throughout the movie, you don’t really see what the doctor does medically to help them, but you can see that he uses some elements of Cognitive Behavior therapy in his approach to help them cope with their disorder. For instance, in one scene, the doctor takes his patients to an art installation where water pours through the ceiling and encourage them to let go and dance under the waterfall. He also tells Ellen to get over her head and tell the voices in her head to “Fuck off” whenever she gets a sense of defeat. There was also the Family therapy treatment involved because he will have a meeting with the families of the patients about every other week or so to discuss their progress and how they can help with their ongoing treatment.

The producers of this movie try to lighten the mood rather than present the topic in a very sad way by somehow turning it into a romance between Lucas and Ellen and from there, it kind of took the focus from the disorder at hand. You realize that the purpose of the movie wasn’t about tackling the disorder but really about Ellen having enough self will and love to live. And this is where I think it favors the disorder rather than educate it. Especially, in this age and time where being lean is considered socially normal and attractive, making movies like this and not fully addressing the causes and effects can lead to women generally and the youth/teenagers specifically to think that in order to combat such a disorder you need someone to find you sexually attractive or be in a relationship before you get help. Not that it is a bad thing to get help from someone who finds you sexually attractive even when ill, but what I am trying to get across is the manner in which the focus of the movie shifted to their relationship and how Lucas was all of a sudden the one pushing Ellen to get help rather than her step family. So, it was like Lucas took the position of Ellen’s step family and that is what might mislead people with the disorder into thinking they also need a significant other to be there for them through their treatment and not getting that could also lead to other mental illness like depression.

Ellen remained a ‘secret’ psychologically in that she was portrayed as someone who lacked interest in who she was. Apart from what we already know as her having an Anorexia, you don’t necessarily know what she is about or where she is coming from. You see what she does by mostly her outward attitude but that was about it. As mentioned previously above, physically the character portrayed the disorder accurately. However, psychologically, you don’t understand why she feared so much of weight gain. Was it due to something that occurred during her childhood? Or was it due to the societal norms? One might argue that maybe it was because she has her self-esteem tied up in image and self-control. Fine. However, not once did she portray such image. If anything, she was represented as not having any self esteem at all so it kind of leave the viewer thinking why she chose not to eat when she could have. And even though it might not have been a choice so much to speak but there wasn’t enough information given to counterargue that.

According to the DSM-5 Criteria for Anorexia Nervosa, before one can be diagnosed as Anorexic, there has to be a “restriction of energy intake relative to requirement, leading to a significantly low body weight in the context of age, sex, developmental trajectory and physical health” (McGraw Hill Connect) among other factors like “intense fear of gaining weight and disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight is experienced…” (McGraw Hill Connect) and they were all portrayed in this movie. However, I do not think this movie was very educative because of its lack of a root cause. Even though in the end it seem to shine a little light on the psychological cause of her developing this disorder, when the left the group home and went to visit her mom and her mom said it in passing that she believed Ellen developed this disorder due to the fact that she didn’t hold and bond with her enough during her childhood because she had postpartum depression after giving birth to Ellen.

However, the way the story was narrated wasn’t with a strong intention as it would if it was say alcohol addiction or drug use. I also believe this was so because, culturally, being lean is considered normal and women especially in Hollywood with lean physiques are considered more attractive. So, for this movie to be produced by such a big Hollywood movie production like Mockingbird Pictures and still not address the very core reasons and consequences of this disorder just goes to show how the wider culture participates in preserving these ailments. 

09 March 2021
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