“Fuck fault. Fault and blame have no role here.” So says Keanu Reeves’ Dr William Beckham in Netflix’s anorexia drama, To The Bone. Which is just as well, really. You don’t want to start blaming anyone or anything for the spread of eating disorders. Where would it all end?
It might end, for instance, in a situation in which films about anorexia are themselves accused of glamorising anorexia. How stupid would that be? “Looking for one reason’s a losing battle,” notes Dr Beckham. “It’s never that simple.”
He’s right, of course. There’s never one reason for an eating disorder, but several. What’s more, sufferers have fought for years to make this understood. For decades, anorexia was written off as the "slimmers' disease", an affliction of vain, silly girls wanting to look like models.
It’s important to challenge this myth; at the same time, I can’t help feeling this has become an excuse for letting popular culture off the hook entirely. Dr Beckham might not want us to point the finger; I’d say there are times when it’s irresponsible not to.
When the trailer for To The Bone was released last month, there was panic over whether the film would prove triggering to those with EDs. Writer Marti Noxon and actress Lily Collins, both former anorexia sufferers, stepped in to offer reassurance.
“My goal with the film,” wrote Noxon, “was not to glamorise EDs, but to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions.” A noble aim, for sure, but that’s not what the film achieves. Having watched it, my overwhelming feeling was “I wish I was anorexic again”. It’s not one upon which I intend to act, but as a veteran consumer of anorexia films and autobiographies, I know where it comes from.
One is left with the impression that she can remain thin – phew! – while embracing the life she previously rejected
You can tell To The Bone is written by a former anorexia sufferer, not because it depicts anorexia as it actually is – otherwise you might get two hours straight of someone wandering up and down Sainsbury’s aisles, reading food labels – but because it’s the perfect faux nostalgia trip.
Collins’ character, Ellen, is the anorexic you never were, but always dreamed you could be: cool, quirky, beautiful, she never throws full-on tantrums in the middle of McDonald’s because she’s convinced they’ve swapped her Diet Coke for the sugared version. She never shits herself in public due to a mistimed laxative dose. Hell, even when she’s spitting out food, she manages to make it look kinda sexy.
Throughout the film, a voice in my head was telling me that I could have been like Ellen, if only I’d done anorexia properly. If only I’d been cooler! If only I’d had Keanu Reeves to guide me, rather than a boring old NHS therapist called Vanessa! If only I’d ended up taking tentative little bites, instead of finally stuffing my face and going from dangerously underweight to overweight in less than six months!
You never see Ellen gain weight, of course. Her recovery amounts to deciding to recover. One is left with the impression that she can remain thin – phew! – while embracing the life she previously rejected. Such a delusion is the cause of countless false starts in real-life recovery stories. It’s easy to choose life until you’re reminded how life responds to an average-sized woman.
There’s an early scene in which Ellen is sitting with her sister, who tells her, “You look like absolute crap.” Yet, in Hollywood terms, the emaciated Ellen doesn’t. On the contrary, it’s her sister’s figure – slim but healthy – that stands out. In any other film, Ellen would be the beauty queen, her sister the plain, envious sidekick who’s desperate to lose a few pounds.
It’s not all down to Noxon, Collins nor anyone else involved in the film that this is the way things are. Even so, it matters that this is the cultural context in which they are working, because what we are left with is this: a starving woman, working in an industry in which women are routinely encouraged to starve, being watched by other starving and wannabe starving women.
Given that’s the case, isn’t it about bloody time we had a conversation about fault and blame?