Sometimes no news is bad news. I have to admit that I have been feeling particularly skeptical as of late. I feel like those around me, the world we live in, just cannot catch a break. It is tough to be positive when there is so much hate, misunderstanding, and just general sadness everywhere we turn. The events that are making headlines in the news have been really hard to process. These last several months I have noticed that my clients have been finding it particularly difficult to battle their brains when the world seems to be mimicking the chaos.
The news is scary. The world is scary. We all know that the media is there to make headlines and sometimes we cannot believe what we see. But we all do need to pay attention to what is happening because although we wish it were fake news, it isn’t. During this scary and less than optimistic time, please practice good self care and remember to find someone you trust to discuss what are real issues that causes justifiable stress.
In an effort to shut off from the media this summer I took a much needed media break. When I signed back on in mid-July I was inundated with talk about the movie "To the Bone." It has taken me over a month to reflect and "cool off" in order to reflect in a way that was productive. I have had many people asking about my thoughts of the recently released movie "To the Bone". Anyone in the Eating Disorder community will know what this movie is, and has read the reviews, heard the criticisms, and is likely over it by now.
I never want to criticize or minimize anyone’s story. This is not a case of "fake news" or an unrealistic portrayal. Just because this is a story we have heard before, doesn't mean it is not worth telling. There is no typical eating disorder story, but there is a popular eating disorder story. What I don't see is one that represents the voices of all of those suffering. I applaud this woman for making this film and equally to the main character for her portrayal. If that was her story, who am I to say she shouldn't share it? What I will say is that this film did not depict what all Eating Disorders are like, and I feel it feeds into a lot of damaging stereotypes about Anorexia. These include but are not limited to the belief that Eating Disorders are about being thin, that Anorexic people are manipulative and treatment-resistant, and that you have to hit rock bottom to deserve or be ready to get well.
I heard about this movie from one of my clients initially. Hearing her describe how just watching the trailer of this film sent this person into a tailspin with their thoughts and behaviours enraged me. Visually, watching this emaciated woman living her life on screen made her illness scream and her brain spin. My immediate reaction to this was similar to the reaction I had hearing of "13 Reasons Why." "I am not watching it — I know it will upset me and make me want to write a blog post."
Then my inbox just kept filling up with people asking my opinion and so I decided I would eventually have to watch it. I sat down to watch a movie about what was supposed to depict the most emotionally charged part of my life. It was going to show a young woman battling Anorexia and I was prepared for it to be emotional. I did not shed a tear through this whole film.
I feel badly saying this as I want to reiterate that her battle was terrible. On a very superficial level it showed aspects of the illness well. But, it didn’t show the pain and the struggle fully, it showed the Hollywood version.
Please do not watch this movie to learn about how your loved one feels. Please do not watch this film if you are struggling with this illness.
This is what this film showed me: This film showed me that people still want to see the Anorexic body and despite numerous interviews saying that the director did not show her body, it did. It showed me that people are not ready to see what the intensity of recovery is actually like. It showed me that we still see anorexia as a white, middle class female’s illness. It showed me that it is an illness that we associate with hopelessness and resistance, and it showed me that no matter how long the film was the creators felt it more important to show the stereotypes of the illness rather than the journey to wellness.
There is something strange and dangerous that happens in the brains of Eating Disorder patients. The drive for perfection, worthiness, and control can act like a devil in their brains. Watching a film like this does not remind sufferers why they need to keep battling, it shows them what they did wrong. The comparisons are fierce and this illness thrives off of never being good enough. The inability to recognize the severity of their illness is a critical part of the treatment and understanding of this illness. Those in their illness will watch this and be even more confused as to why they are sick if they don't match those portrayed in the film. While the film did not use numbers (although I did notice that the male patient used numbers which I found interesting), the Eating Disorder will find other markers, other things to compare to. What this film doesn't take into account is that not unlike the alcoholic who needs to stay out of the bar, some people with Eating Disorders are clinging to everything they have to stay in a place of wellness. They look at this and they see safety, they see comfort, and they see what they want back in their lives. As complex as that is to understand, it is the truth and something that should be considered when making and supporting these films.
I had several clients watch this film and feel invalidated. They watched it and didn’t see themselves and therefore why should they get better?
The film touched briefly on the other patients' illnesses in the film. Each of which fell into what I see as problematic stereotype. It showed the Bulimic mother that only when she got pregnant did she stop engaging in symptoms. It showed the male who of course had to be a dancer. The gay black woman who struggled with what seemed like Binge Eating Disorder. The childlike anorexic who was fearful of growing up. I felt the film lacked the depth and complexity which the everyday viewer would watch and believe.
This is a systemic problem with Eating Disorders. Anorexia is given a lot of attention because it is seemingly more understood (they just don't eat, right?!) and because you can see it adds shock value to a film. What we know is that this adds to the resistance for others to recognize that they too deserve to be well and to recognize that their illness is just as valid, fierce, and life threatening.
I felt that the film showed two characters very well. I felt that the main character's sister was a very real depiction of how this illness impacts the entire family including siblings; I felt her words were real and the reaction was believable. I felt that the mother (biological) was something I see quite frequently. Her exhaustion and her battle to know how to handle the illness and the tough decision to cut ties with her daughter is a very real circumstance many parents face. Others may have watched and judged her; they have not walked in her shoes.
There was a part in the film where the main character is so exhausted that her mother feeds her a bottle. This part is likely really hard to understand, probably feeds into the "that mother is nuts" but I felt that this part was really powerful. What this represented to me was the exhaustion that is felt with Anorexia and the desperation that one feels at points in their illness. This touches on the need to be cared for, the need to have the decision taken out of your hands, and the importance of comfort.
Is all awareness good awareness? The question that I am a bit torn about is whether this is good for the Eating Disorder world because it puts them on the map? Or whether this awareness is doing more harm than good?
My ending thoughts lie with the fact that this film didn’t show her getting better. There is a time when you are ill with your Eating Disorder when you are on top of the world. Where you do not see the issue and when you are really living in what I refer to as the "Eating Disorder High". I feel like the character for the most part was in this place during the film; I mean honestly, who falls in love when they are in treatment?! What I think we need to see more awareness about is what it is like to work on staying well. Not only in the Eating Disorder world, but if you look at films depicting addiction, alcohol abuse, or other mental illnesses it is always about the battle not generally about getting though it.
The reality is that this film would have been a lot more impactful to me if it showed how hard it is to do the thing you are afraid of. It would have been more realistic if it showed the self hatred that one feels when they have to endure their body changing, showed how difficult it is when you are forced to challenge the behaviours and sit with the pain. How hard it is to feel like you are losing your identity, how hard it is to lose things and time to this illness. How difficult it is to look better but still feel so sick and how recovery is a long process that could not possibly be shown in a film a couple of hours long.
Do me a favour. If you want to know what it is like to battle something like this, ask someone who has been there — don't watch "Fake news".