‘To the Bone:’ A Case Study in How the Media Supports Eating Disorders

The opening scene of To the Bone, the new Netflix feature film about a young woman suffering from anorexia nervosa, takes on America’s greater culture of disordered eating, diet culture, discrimination, and body hate.

“It’s like every time you turn on the TV or look at a magazine, it’s — ‘Oh my god, this cake is so delicious, and like, your reward or something,” says a woman playing an inpatient at an eating disorder treatment center. “And then you turn the page and there’s some sad, fat, ‘before’ girl and she’s all ‘I hate myself.’ And then the thin ‘after’ girl goes, ‘I did this diet and now I’m happy and everyone loves me.’ What about the chocolate cake? It’s like they’re trying to drive us crazy.”

“Ugh, society’s to blame,” says the film’s star Ellen, played by a gaunt Lily Collins. “The world is so unfair I have to die. There’s no point in blaming everybody. Live with it.” Her tone drips with sarcasm and mockery.

Collins appears on the cover of the July/August issue of Shape magazine (her body likely reshaped and contoured with photo editing software) in a bikini, surrounded by cover lines in promotion of “gorgeous skin” and “water workouts” and “clean, vibrant meals.” She has that subtle ab definition so many of us covet, clear pale skin, and a suggestive smile on her beautifully made-up face.

Collins, who has suffered from anorexia and bulimia and lost an alarming amount of weight for To the Bone, mimics Ellen’s dismissiveness in this opening scene by participating in the media in this way — as an idol.

Shape and many other media outlets explore and support behaviors and ideologies that fuel disordered eating, excessive exercise, and poor self-image. Shape and its compatriots — movie posters and music videos and advertisements and other publications — support a monolithic beauty narrative that excludes women of color, and really anyone who isn’t white, thin, and able-bodied.

The Symbology of Lily Collins’ Body

American culture equates weight loss with goodness, with achievement, and with purity and health. Losing weight means you’re getting your shit together. A trim, muscular body is a symbol of mastery and ease; conversely, “extra” weight signifies laziness, lack of discipline, and lack of control.

We refuse dessert and say, “I’m being good.”

Lilly Collins’ thin physique, celebrated on film and red carpets and on the cover of “women’s health” magazines, is more than just Lily Collins’ physical self. Her body is a coat rack for American aspiration, an avatar of accomplishment and morality.

Doctor of Theology Michelle Lelwica explores the spiritual roots of weight loss in her 2009 title, The Religion of Thinness, tracing our values of leanness, beauty, and purity back to the first lady, Eve, perpetrator of the original sin. Eve literally brings sin into the world by failing to control her hunger. She eats.

At least 30 million people of all ages, races, and genders suffer from some kind of eating disorder in the Unites States.

We see little of this diversity represented in the film, which serves to limit its scope of advocacy and awareness down to a state of entropy.

During her graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School, Lelwica began to understand the strong themes of bodily shame within the works of historical Christianity, and the modern-day relevance of these biblical tales. Her research showed early theologians painting women’s bodies as vessels of temptation, as physical evidence of inferiority and weak intellect. In the story of Adam and Eve, Eve’s body and her appetite singlehandedly bring about the downfall of humankind.

“We are culturally conditioned to want a ‘better’ (read: thinner) body and to assume that the bodies we are born with are not okay,” Lelwica said when I interviewed her about her book in 2010. “The media is not the only factor persuading us that our bodies need to be fixed, but it is certainly one of the most widespread and thus powerful influences on our thinking and our relationships to our bodies.”

“I used to read Seventeen magazine like a bible,” said Lelwica in preceding interview with Shannon Cutts, founder of the former online eating disorder community MentorCONNECT. “And I had no critical consciousness, I had no real ability to look at what the messages were. I made no connection whatsoever between the kind of profound self-loathing I had for my body and the images I was studying all the time.”

The Face of an Eating Disorder

To the Bone does well in exploring some of the psychological factors that can contribute to an eating disorder. Ellen has a troubling relationship with her family. Luke, Ellen’s love interest and a fellow sufferer of anorexia, had his ballet career cut short by a devastating knee injury.

The film also does well in reinforcing stereotypes around eating disorders as an illness pertaining to thin, affluent, white women. Ellen herself is a trope. She is a tiny thing, she is what our mainstream culture deems beautiful, and she is a brat who’s angry at the world. Most of the other women in her rehab center are also thin and white. Luke, a white man, is thin.

Here it is: the thin, white beauty standard on an even more sickly pedestal, with those who deviate furthest from these standards populating the background once again. Nonwhite, non-thin people are excluded from the limelight — and from the suffering.

There are five characters of color in the film, none of whom have leading roles. All are women. Two are fat — Kendra has binge eating disorder and sits at the meal table with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon (there’s another splash of token diversity with Kendra, she’s gay); Lobo is on staff at the rehab center, a no-nonsense caretaker. Margo is also a staff member, at the rehab facility in the opening scene. Another woman of color is a nameless “Anorexic Patient” and also appears in the opening scene. In a scene where Ellen and Luke go to a restaurant, a woman of color is their waitress.

In To the Bone, we are offered one kind of eating disorder — the skinny, white, glamorous kind with furry arms and prominent ribs and precisely counted calories. Meanwhile, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders states that at least 30 million people of all ages, races, and genders suffer from some kind of eating disorder in the United States. We see little of this diversity represented in the film, which serves to limit its scope of advocacy and awareness down to a state of entropy.

Marti Noxon, To the Bone’s writer and director, has every right to make a film about her own monumental experience with an eating disorder. She is not a woman of color, she is not a man, and it makes sense for her to write what she knows — the story of a thin, white, privileged girl who can afford care at multiple rehab centers.

The issue is that Noxon’s career was built in Hollywood, the mecca of our pro-eating disorder culture. To the Bone doesn’t address America’s obsession with thinness, its quiet suggestion to starve and sweat and stuff and purge and loathe.

Lily in Shape Magazine

Before we dive into Shape’s feature on Lily Collins, take a moment and do an image search for “Shape magazine.” Note who you see represented on the cover, and what their bodies look like. Note the cover lines advertising the magazine’s written content. Consider these statistics: In 2016, 29 percent of cover models appearing in 48 top international fashion magazines were women of color — that’s 197 out of 679 total surveyed covers. Just over 25 percent of Spring Fashion Week 2017 runway models were not white.

The Shape profile on Collins details the mechanics of her eating disorder — the bingeing and purging, the diet pills, the laxatives, the secrecy. Then, rather than exploring the significance of her experience, the nuts and bolts of her recovery, or the thin and white beauty standard coaching her along, the article’s focus runs parallel to these disordered mechanics.

We get Collins’ love for “clean” eating (quinoa, fish, vegetables, no red meat). Beneath a subheading stating “Exercise is Everything” we learn of Collins’ love for swimming and running, the fitness program “Body by Simone,” and her goal to be active every day. Then a summary of her no-frills beauty routine, including a $105 face mask.

By appearing in this way on the cover of Shape, by agreeing to be intensely interviewed about her food, exercise, and beauty habits, by failing to call out Shape and every publication like it, Collins is complicit in the idolatry of America’s pro-eating disorder culture.

“I never dreamed I’d be posing in a bikini on the cover of Shape,” Collins says. “It’s a complete 180 for me. It’s a magazine about what it means to be healthy.”

Shape is not a magazine about what it means to be healthy. It is a magazine sold via images of lithe, mostly white female bodies. These women are usually wearing a bikini or a sporty outfit to expose a taut stomach. Cover lines promise belly fat loss, slimming secrets, and how to “run your flab off.”

It’s not my place to comment on Collins’ recovery from her eating disorder. I can, however, attest from personal experience that endeavors to “eat clean” and exercise daily might seem like progress in eating disorder recovery when in fact, these new (and elite) “healthy” guidelines are merely a more insidious, harmful, and culturally accepted incarnation of the same illness. Cutting out food groups, fasting, and punishing exercise are just a few things that can fall into the realm of “eating disorder behavior.”

By appearing in this way on the cover of Shape, by agreeing to be intensely interviewed about her food, exercise, and beauty habits, by failing to call out Shape and every publication like it, Collins is complicit in the idolatry of America’s pro-eating disorder culture — which is now frantically at work attempting to disguise itself as the “health and wellness industry.”

Ellen’s Troublesome Tumblr

There are a couple of meta aspects to To the Bone. The first is that Collins, an eating disorder survivor, lost a significant amount of weight to play the film’s leading role.

It doesn’t matter if this was Collins’ idea, or the idea of her director, or if she was supported by nutritionists while and after she lost weight. Supporting a formerly eating disordered person in losing a dramatic amount of weight, even for the purpose of her work, is akin to watching a lung cancer survivor take up their pack-a-day habit again.

The second meta aspect is an intriguing little side plot in the film. Ellen is an artist, and she once had a popular Tumblr where she posted drawings pertaining to her eating disorder. There is a moment in the film when we see one of her drawings at a distance. It’s an emaciated girl looking down at the ground, with an indecipherable thought bubble above her head. Love-interest Luke has it pinned up on his wall.

Later, we learn a girl who committed suicide was obsessed with Ellen’s Tumblr and her artwork. After hearing from the girl’s parents, an anguished Ellen pulled her drawings from the Internet.

Woman who once starved starves again for starring Hollywood film role. Images of thin women affect the course of people’s lives.

Like a mirror reflecting a mirror into infinity.