To The Bone: Why Netflix’s portrayal of eating disorders has got it all wrong

Not many films come with a health warning. But the recent Netflix film To the Bone, which tells the story of 20-year-old Ellen – played by Lily Collins – and her journey through treatment for anorexia, has received just that.

The UK’s national eating disorder charity Beat said in a statement: “We would strongly urge anyone that might be at risk of an eating disorder to think very carefully before watching this fllm.”

There have also been calls to ban the film because of fears the film might incite eating disorders, or make someone’s problem worse.

Eating disorder sufferers – particularly young girls – have long been presented as especially “vulnerable” to the power of media images and messages. The “anorexic” is often shown as not simply vain, but also unable to separate image from “reality”. And research has shown that people diagnosed with anorexia are routinely presented as being “suggestively vulnerable” – that is, more likely to be influenced by media images, particularly images of (often unattainable) bodies.

But while these cautions most likely come from a place of genuine concern, they can often have the opposite effect and further trivialise anorexia.

Models in magazines

Unwittingly or otherwise, debates such as those over To the Bone perpetuate the idea that girls can be “infected” with anorexia by looking at images of very slim (or starved) bodies – and that this is where the crux of anorexia lies.

 

But as my own research with people who have experience of an eating disorder shows, not only do such ideas massively simplify the complex reasons why anorexia may develop, they also trivialise it. As one of the people in my research group explained: “So [it is] less like, well there’s a model, a skinny model in a magazine, looking at that, you’ve been looking at that too much and so you just wanna be like them… I don’t agree with that at all. I think that completely trivialises…

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