Jazmin Kopotsha | Culture Writer | Friday, 14 July 2017

Is There Ever A ‘Right’ Way To Portray An Eating Disorder On Screen?

Is There Ever A ‘Right’ Way To Portray An Eating Disorder On Screen?

The Debrief: The new Netflix film 'To The Bone' sparked lots of concerns around the glamourisation of anorexia. We spoke to actress Lily Collins ahead of the release of her new Netflix film 'To The Bone' to find out how she, having suffered from an eating disorder herself, found working on the film.

Eating disorders are difficult territory to talk about at the best of times, and it well acknowledged that there’s danger in not addressing topics as important as this one when it affects so many people – about 1.6 million people in the UK alone, in fact. 

That said, the portrayal of eating disorders in the media is also a tricky one to navigate, which might be why we very rarely see it tackled on screen. But Netflix’s new film To The Bone starring Lily Collins tries to explicitly and very visually, tackle anorexia head on. The release of the trailer was, understandably, very quickly followed by loads of concerns about its perceived glamorisation of eating disorders and the potentially triggering nature of the film, and since the film’s launch on the streaming site today, a petition to take it down has already received more than 700 signatures.

To The Bone follows 20-year-old Ellen, played by Lily, who has spent most of her teenage life battling anorexia. She finds herself on a recovery programme lead in a shared home sort of set up under the supervision of her not-so-traditional doctor played by Keano Reeves. Lily has been pretty open about her own struggle with anorexia in the past, and speaking to her earlier this year before the To The Bone trailer had even surfaced, she told us that for her, taking on this role was instinctive.

‘I read [the script] in one sitting, start to finish’, she explained. ‘And I emoted every emotion you could imagine, especially having a relationship with the subject matter. At the end, I just thought “oh my god … the world is sending this to you for a reason”’. 

Lily received the script just after writing a chapter for her book, Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me, all about the same subject matter. ‘It was like the world just saying this is something you need to bring to the attention to more people, or you need to deal with yourself again, or something’, she said.  

Amid worries about the impact of the film on vulnerable people who have suffered eating disorders, were also concerns around how responsible it was to allow a former anorexia sufferer to lose weight to play a character that so closely echoes her own experiences, but Lily explained that the whole process was closely monitored.  

‘With this subject matter, it is so personal and there is a fine line between playing a character and then falling into a trap of maybe it leans over into your personal life again and there was that line to tread’, she explained, ‘but I was surrounded by so many amazing people who wanted to make sure I was okay and medical assistants as well. I didn’t really fear that aspect of it and I actually was excited to tell my own story through Ellen’.

One of the biggest, most frequently acknowledged issues with eating disorders is that they’re very rarely addressed in public. There seems to be a really worrying perception of this particular type of mental illness as being unseen and not spoken about which can make experiencing one even more alienating when in reality, it’s a condition that can affect anyone at any time. When Lily was dealing with her own eating disorder, she didn’t really talk about it either. ‘I felt very alone’, she said. ‘So I wish that I had a movie like this to explain it to me, to relate to. And I didn’t reach out and ask for help because I think part of me thought it was a weakness, but reaching out for help is a strength’. 

‘I think the more we talk about this subject matter, the less taboo it’ll become and I think more help and change can occur’, Lily added.

With the potential detrimental effect of To The Bone whirling around the internet, we spoke to Dr Bryony Bamford, specialist clinical psychologist and is clinical director of The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image, about how far an eating disorder portrayed on film can be triggering for those who have gone through it themselves, and her thoughts seem to align closely to Lily’s. 

‘The presentation of eating disorders within the media is, for the most part, a positive thing. Eating disorders have been heavily underreported over the years and lack of awareness from friends, families and even health professionals plays a large part in this’, Dr Bryony said. ‘In general, the accurate portrayal of eating disorders can help to raise awareness of the seriousness of these disorders and can also help motivate people to seek support either for themselves or for someone they are concerned about.’

She went on to explain that of course, there are downsides. ‘Anorexia Nervosa in particular can be a highly competitive illness and the portrayal of particular behaviours around food could of course play a part in shaping or exacerbating an illness’.

As with any potentially controversial subject matter, particularly those that centre around mental health, there will always be difficulties in ‘correctly’ depicting something so personally challenging for entertainment purposes. The backlash to Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why set a new precedent for that. But is there ever a way to get it right? Well, probably not. ‘It is incredibly hard to get the balance right within mainstream media. Accurate portrayal of a serious eating disorder may contribute to denial or minimisation of a persons own disorder; whilst misrepresentation or glamorisation of an eating disorder can of course be extremely dangerous’, Dr Bryony explained. ‘That said, it is highly unlikely that a person would develop an eating disorder after viewing a TV program.  The chances are if their eating disorder was going to develop, or to worsen, it would have don't this anyway. Therefore, in the case of media representation of eating disorders, generally the positives will outway the negatives.’

It’s difficult because at the moment in particular, it feels like we’re forever commenting on how things like social media are having a negative effect on our mental health. So, in the context of a society already bombarded by images of how we’re ‘supposed’ to look and behave, it’s even harder to establish where the line is in promoting healthy conversation around really serious health issues. 

Eating Disorder charity released a statement specifically about To The Bone that said: ‘It is important to recognise that To the Bone is a fictional, dramatised story, with characters portrayed by Hollywood actors and models, and does not represent the reality of suffering with or finding treatment for an eating disorder,’ explained   though many people affected will identify with the themes it presents.' 

They went on to address that there is 'a strong likelihood that people who have been affected by eating disorders would find the film highly distressing or triggering – it includes frequent references to calories, weight and eating disorder behaviours, and images of Ellen at a very low weight'. So I suppose, as always, that it's with caution that we approach watching films like To The Bone, which portray struggling with mental health so graphically. And of course, there's a responsibility on the creators of these films to be true to the experiences of those with eating disorders, for example, and mindful of the effects of doing so. But the crux of a very complicated issue is that for the most part, speaking about mental health is crucial to debunking harmful myths around a common experience that remains pretty taboo is really important. It'll always be a challenge to get that right, but it's a challenge that we need to continue to tackle. 

Like this? You might also be interested in…

‘Did I Inherit My Disordered Eating Habits From My Mum?’

Eating Disorder Patients Are Being Told To ‘Get Thinner’ If They Want More Help From GPS 

New Study Claims That Brains Of People Suffering From Bulimia Are Wired Differently

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Tags: Film, Eating Disorders, Mental health