In Netflix’s To the Bone, Lily Collins plays Ellen, an angsty 20-year-old anorexic girl who, despite various treatment programs, can’t get ahead of her eating disorder. Her family, desperate for her to survive, finds a group home led by a unique doctor who allows Ellen to confront her disorder in a non-traditional way—including screaming in the air, changing her name, and rediscovering passions she once loved. By the end of the film, Eli (nee Ellen) returns home, and viewers are led to believe she’s on the road to recovery.
It’s a strange thing to admit to being excited about an eating disorder film, but I’ve been waiting for To the Bone to come out for months.
Having completed my own treatment only a few months ago, my curiosity for how Hollywood would handle something so complex was high. The only films I had seen about eating disorders were the ones shown in high school classrooms, perhaps a Lifetime Original here and there. But none that I really identified with, or felt encapsulated my story.
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For about 20 Saturdays, I sat with a group of eight girls and talked about hunger/fullness cues. I rated my food anxiety on a scale, 1-10, and ate breakfast, a snack, and lunch. These girls became my family. For almost 200 days we tried our best to relearn how to eat and not hate ourselves for it.
Some things that happened during this time:
I cried while eating a pastry.
I cried when I wasn’t allowed to see how much I weighed.
I cried when I couldn’t miss treatment because of the election.
I had to stop using the app I swore by to count my calories.
I had to make a promise to myself to remove scales from my apartment, and all future hotel rooms.
I had to change my life.
How on earth would a Netflix film handle all of that?
Director/writer Marti Noxon (also executive producer of UnREAL and, oh yeah, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) came to the project with a strong agenda. Both she and Lily Collins struggled with eating disorders, and Noxon hoped the film would open up conversations about EDs, which are still considered taboo talk about.
“Having struggled with anorexia and bulimia well into my 20s, I know firsthand the struggle, isolation, and shame a person feels when they are in the grips of this illness,” Noxon says in her director’s statement. “My goal with the film was not to glamorize EDs, but to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions. I hope that by casting a little light into the darkness of this disease we can achieve greater understanding and guide people to help if they need it.”
I watched a screener of To the Bone and found myself relating to different facets of each character. It touched on five of the most important (and for me, frustrating) things about ED recovery that often never gets any screen time. Over the phone, I spoke with Noxon about them.
Eating Disorders don’t look like one thing
I remember when I made the decision to go into treatment; one of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t look the same as the other girls there. I had a very clear concept of what an anorexic girl looked like and in my mind, I looked nothing like that. In fact, in my teens, I’d been to a doctor who implied I didn’t look sick enough to be in treatment. One of the biggest lessons I learned being in a group is that EDs don’t look like one thing. It was refreshing to see in the film that the group home had the traditional type-A model of what anorexia looks like (Ellen), mixed with a man, a pregnant woman, an African-American …
"It was 30 years ago that I was going through this," Noxon says, "so I knew that things had changed and I know the definition of what an eating disorder is has gotten broader and more comprehensive. When I was going through it, the TV movie that was made at that time was The Best Little Girl in the World and it was really considered a middle class, type-A, white, girl disease," Noxon says. "And I am a type-A, middle-class white girl, so I fit right in. It was interesting to see now that it crosses all ages ranges, genders, races … it doesn’t look just one way. One of the reasons I set the film in a group home was because I wanted an environment where we could show these kinds of people interacting."
Treatment is weird, awful, and sometimes sort of fun
I really related to Ellen’s attitude when she first enters the group home. You look around you and see these people, some of whom are fully grown adults, doing seemingly ridiculous things and you’re like, “THIS is supposed to cure me?” I remember in my case being told to “walk” like my eating disorder, having to play with hot pink scarves, talking to empty chairs … but halfway through, there’s a mind shift and even the weirdest stuff starts making sense, or at the very least, you form bonds with the people you’re experiencing it with. And you look around and you’re laughing together and smiling. I would go from hysterically crying in front of a pastry to hysterically laughing. You become a family; albeit a screwed up one, but a family. These women knew more about me than some of my closet friends, and that attachment is real. As my good friend so perfectly put it, we were a crew boat.
"I’m a person who has been in recovery from a couple of different 'isms and one universal quality that I’ve found to get through it is dark jokes and silliness," Noxon says. "I felt like one thing that gets missed a lot in movies about disease is that you’re still a human being. Who you were before is still present. I wanted to share that trajectory with Ellen; that she has a light in her that wants to survive."
Recovery is not linear
And though the film ends with Ellen going home, leaving treatment in a seemingly healthy manner, you aren't left with the sense that she's this happy, cured, perfect specimen. I can only imagine this was an intentional ending? To leave the audience guessing if she'd stick to her plan, so to speak?
"That was very much a reflection of my own experience. I had a turning point where I accepted that I wanted to get better and that I wanted to fight," Noxon says. But I didn’t get better overnight and it was ups and downs for years and really wouldn’t have called myself “recovered” until about five or six years after that. But something fundamental changed, which was accepting that I needed help."
There’s no one fix for all
One of the most surprising things about EDs that I discovered in my own journey was how difficult it is to find help. And then, once you do, getting the kind that works for you. It’s not like an illness where you can go to any treatment center, stay for a few weeks, and you’re one and done. For me, I saw three very different people before finding my group. The process was awful.
"For me, it was a culmination of many things, and meeting a doctor who had a method that penetrated," Noxon says. "And, you know, like Ellen, my mom really was and is a hippy and took me to a doctor who recommended all kinds of things, like spicy foods and a vegetarian diet, and then she bottled me. We tried everything. I didn’t want there to be a magic one-size-fits-all solution because of what you just said. It’s a really confounding disorder and there are so many facets that go into it. You don’t just magically, one day go, 'Aha! I’m better!'
It was tough back then. There weren’t even treatment centers. But even if there had been, I don’t know that would have worked for me. I had a cobbled together version of different types of treatment. I was a little bit immune until someone talked to me in a more specific way about the sickness of my soul and my fear."
It’s all about food. But it’s not at all about food
There are so many scenes in the film that show how food is one part of what EDs are about. It involves so many other things, like control, anger … for everyone the concoction is different ... but it’s never just about the food. For me, one of the biggest parts of my recovery has surrounded breaking obsessive habits: not putting a napkin on my plate when I think I’m done eating, not starting to clean the table before everyone is done eating (still working on that one), not asking for a check the second a meal is over.
"People talk to you about body image or ask you, 'Do you think this looks beautiful?' And you look at them, and you think, 'I’m so far past that.' It was really important to me to show Ellen saying, 'I’ve got it. I’ve got it under control,' because that is the thing that’s going to kill you with all kinds of self-destructive mental illnesses," Noxon says. "It’s really terrifying to the people around you who can clearly see that you don’t 'got it.'"
* * *
Rhodonite is the name of the stone my case manager gave me on the last day of treatment. It was my crystal ceremony. Are your eyes rolling? I get it. But to this date, it was possibly the most meaningful moment of my life.
These women, of all ages, from all different walks of life, went around the room “infusing” the crystal with a quality.
"I infuse the crystal with fearlessness.”
“I infuse the crystal with self-love.”
Rhodonite is a stone used often in crystal healing for trauma—both physical and spiritual. It’s supposed to bring emotional balance and confidence and a sense of calm; something that I definitely did not go into treatment feeling I had enough of.
My road to recovery was quite different from Ellen’s. I was 10 years her senior when I decided to go into treatment; a program that was not residential; a program that was in some ways less intense and in many ways more.
There were parts of the film where I thought to myself, that could never happen in a treatment facility! Or, no way would she have given that habit up so easily. But the genius thing that To the Bone proves is that there isn’t one story to tell about EDs. The best we can do is tell a few different stories, however, mobilized together and more of them.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.