Lily Collins hopes her new film will help raise awareness, but eating disorder experts aren’t so sure. Abi Jackson speaks to anorexia survivors to find out their views.
Netflix’s new film To The Bone – about a 20-year-old woman called Ellen, played by Lily Collins, who’s in the grip of anorexia – isn’t out until next month, but the trailer alone is already causing a stir.
Some eating disorder experts have suggested it should come with a ‘trigger warning’, and risks ‘glamorising’ the condition.
According to UK charity Beat (www.b-eat.co.uk), eating disorders affect around 1.6 million people in the UK, both males and females, with 14-25-year-olds most at risk. Anorexia accounts for around 10% of these figures, and while the mental illness is about far more than just being very underweight, it can lead to serious complications and death, and is linked with higher suicide rates.
From the trailer, it’s apparent anorexia is being portrayed as a very serious illness – Ellen enters a group recovery home for treatment – and there are also scenes relating to the wider impact on other family members. But it’s also apparent Ellen is painfully thin, and is seen obsessing over calories, reciting food-denying mantras and defying the advice of her doctors.
Just as Netflix’s teen suicide drama, 13 Reasons Why, recently attracted concern that it could encourage young viewers to kill themselves, experts are worried To The Bone could have a negative impact on vulnerable people. Dasha Nicholl, chair of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says: “It is potentially risky to two groups of people, including those who have not yet developed an eating disorder. There is always a risk of glamorising it [anorexia] and also slightly trivialising it.”
Netflix viewers have expressed similar concern on Twitter. Lily Collins herself responded to one Twitter user with: “I appreciate the concern but no one made me do this film. I wanted, needed to. I’m so proud of what we accomplished. Time we talk about it!”
And it’s a subject Lily, 28, can relate to, having previously talked about her own experiences with an eating disorder. The film’s director, Marti Noxon, has also experienced anorexia and bulimia first-hand, and says she knows “the struggle, isolation and shame” it can bring.
In her own statement, Marti tweeted that they wanted to tell the story as “responsibly” as they could, and that her “goal with the film was not to glamorise EDs [eating disorders], but to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded in secrecy”.
And surely awareness is a positive thing? The film has also attracted praise from other quarters, and support for its attempt to highlight the reality of an important and often taboo topic.
However, the experts at Beat stress that the way in which such things are portrayed is very important. A spokesperson for the charity said: “We very much support the media in raising awareness of eating disorders, as the more we talk about these serious mental illnesses, the better we can break down stigma and, in turn, encourage individuals to seek treatment as soon as possible.
“Equally, we know that when eating disorders are glamourised or trivialised by the media, this can trigger negative behaviours in people who are affected by these complex mental health issues.”
This is why Beat has guidelines for reporting on eating disorders, which warn of the potential dangers of using photos of people at very low weight, for instance. While these images might have shock factor beneath a dramatic headline, they can be harmful too.
Kim Marshall, who founded Kiss Goodbye to Ana to help others struggling with eating disorders, after recovering from anorexia herself, says: “I hope To The Bone creates awareness and educates people. However, it potentially has dangers.
“Women with anorexia constantly compare themselves to others, and punish themselves to be thinner. Watching To The Bone will trigger many women.”
Kim adds that in the film, “common anorexic behaviours will be highlighted. This maybe educational and a way to ‘spot’ any potential eating disorder in someone else. However, this also provides unhealthy weight-loss tips.”
Hope Virgo, who developed anorexia aged 13, knows only too well how strong a grip the illness can have on vulnerable young people. Just as the To The Bone trailer shows Ellen reciting mantras to herself to stay “in control”, Hope recalls how anorexia became her “best friend”.
“She knew me, she valued me, but in reality, she was killing me. I hid my friendship with her for four years – until I was admitted to a mental health hospital where I spent a year recovering,” says Hope who, now 27, has written about her experiences in her book, Stand Tall Little Girl (Amazon, £11.99), and campaigns for mental health.
“At 17, my heart had nearly stopped. My death certificate would have said cause of death: anorexia. It’s scary, and that day when I entered hospital, I didn’t realise I was about to undertake the hardest year of my life.
“It’s nine years since I got discharged and I have managed my recovery since. And I am absolutely appalled at this Netflix drama. Glamourising a mental health problem is just not acceptable. Raising awareness of mental health and encouraging others to talk about their feelings is vital, and something we need to keep doing, but this needs to be done in the right way.
“The worry with movies like this is that people will find the content triggering and will think it will improve their lives if they befriend anorexia.
“I hope people who watch this can become educated on the dangers of anorexia, and learn that being friends with anorexia is not worth it.”