To the Bone is a Netflix show meant to entertain.
Or is it meant to educate?
Is it meant to dispel the myths surrounding eating disorders? Maybe a simple encouragement to the, “30 million people of all ages and genders suffering from an eating disorder in the U.S.”
Did the creators of To the Bone achieve what they set out to do?
I am a mental health practitioner who in the past ten years has eaten with, cried with, prayed for and sat at the funerals of beautiful souls ravaged by a disease of such torturous methods. While my professional take on the disease is clinical, my personal view is derived from my own years of battling an eating disorder. I was the bony girl standing on the scale crying like Ellen does in the show. Crying because I wanted the numbers to transport me away to a place where I no longer had to feel the flood of emotions holding court in my body and my mind. An eating disorder does exactly what Ellen describes to her family, “I am sorry I am not a person but a problem.” I have been her.
By the grace of God and a tremendous amount of work, I have come out on the other side living almost twenty one years free from the berating torment of the voice of Ed (eating disorder), so poignantly expressed in this show. Furthermore, I have been and still am on the side of wanting to offer hope, like I believe the creators of To the Bone were intending. I also intended to offer hope when I wrote my memoir, Table in the Darkness - A Healing Journey Through and Eating Disorder, so I wanted to view this with an open mind.
I tell you this, so you understand my view is professional, personal as well as understanding the myriad of challenges that arise when one creatively attempts to tackle this subject.
Why have the last few weeks been full of warnings and cautions from eating disorder professionals?
For most of our society it is hard to comprehend this, but shows like To The Bone (when someone is in the throws of an eating disorder) can serve two purposes, despite the intended message of hope.
Almost every patient I have met on the inpatient unit of the hospital where I work has expressed this distorted sentiment, “I am not sick enough.” The voice of the eating disorder thrives on competition and compares sick to sick. The measuring stick becomes who is the skinniest, who can plummet to the lowest number and live, who can purge the most, or even who has the most harrowing tale. It doesn’t make sense to the general public, but this IS the disordered and twisted way the eating disorder assaults the mind.
2. Fuel For The Fire
Many will watch a show like this and gather ideas from the subtle suggestions meant for entertainment. Ideas like drinking water before being weighed, hiding purge under the bed, or obsessively exercising while in bed like Ellen does. If you don’t have an eating disorder, watching this will be an observation from the outside, but many will use these ideas as ammunition to keep the eating disorder alive.
Other triggering messages are the blatant talk of numbers, the subtle blaming of mothers (read here to understand the role of mothers in eating disorders), the generalizations made of what eating disorders look like (there are MANY OTHER eating disorders than anorexia and despite what the media portrays, you often can’t tell who has an eating disorder by looking at them) and the dark humor with words like, “between us rexis.”
The images of Ellen’s body, the clear zooming in on her bones and the scene of her almost dead naked body in the hot Arizona sun feels like outright glamorization. People with eating disorders are NOT motivated by fear. They aren’t motivated by someone telling them how bad they look or by scary images of skinny bodies. In fact, many will see those images and feel shame because they aren’t THAT skinny. You don’t have to have bones sticking out to almost die. Images of her body checking and measuring her bicep with her fingers were key to demonstrating her torture, but can be twisted harmfully by those struggling.
I have worked with thousands of patients and families and I can tell you what I know to be true:
What finally clicks for one person is not the same for another.
Some need rock bottom, like Ellen did. Some need restoration in the family system. Some need trauma work. And others, need to be led to the water over and over again until they finally take a drink. THIS is the most challenging part of working in the field and trying to inspire through creative realms like shows or books; what helps is different for everyone. While I did write a book about my own journey, I am aware that my story is only one story. What worked for me might not be the same for someone else. Ellen’s story is also just one story. But maybe someone see themselves in her and finds hope?
What To the Bone Does Well
1. An Eating Disorder is NOT a Choice. Recovery Is
In my opinion Keanu Reeves was an uninspiring casting for the therapist, but his lines were right on. (Do NOT say this to someone struggling with an Ed, this was a therapeutic conversation but the lines are the hard truth that each person has to come to terms with individually.)
“I can’t reassure you. This idea you have, that there is a way to be safe. It is childish and cowardly. It stops you from experiencing anything including anything good. Stop waiting for life to be easy. Stop hoping for someone to save you. You are RESILIENT. Face some hard facts and you could have an incredible life!” - Dr. William Beckham in To the Bone
Best scene in the entire show.
2. Spirituality is Pivotal for Recovery
Subtly done, but beautifully crafted is a scene where the patients are in an art gallery. They stand in what appears to be rain, yet no water touches them. Mysterious and unanswerable.
That is faith.
Faith to understand something bigger is at work and surrendering under it as they do, feels free. Later, Ellen has a spiritual awakening in the desert. Recovery means surrendering to the not knowing. To understanding something bigger than our finite minds can fathom is at work, and resting in that hope. There is a reason why it is the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous. She surrenders to the not knowing. To trusting. I found it beautiful and accurate.
“Step 1 is about letting go. You admit you have a problem and begin to seek out help. It isn't easy, but admitting powerlessness allows you to break the cycle of addiction that you've been stuck in. Alcoholics Anonymous believes that admitting you can't control your alcohol use is a necessary first step on the path to recovery.” - Recovery
To the Bone had some redeeming moments. Unfortunately, I can’t help but worry about the impact it will have on young women and men who might not have a critical eye or who it will potentially trigger. I anguish about the person who is silently struggling with an eating disorder and confusingly finds this something to aspire to.
I worry about the impact it has on our society to continue to see anorexia as the only deadly eating disorder, which it isn’t. I worry about someone wanting to die watching To the Bone only through the lens of dying by starvation. I care deeply about the person watching it in the pit of depression unable to glean the hope it is trying to offer. I am concerned about parents who will repeat some of the language to try and motivate a struggling child.
So what do I hope?
I hope despite my misgivings, someone WILL watch and make the choice to reach out for help. Make the choice to live again. Make the choice to tell the eating disorder voice to TAKE A HIKE!
I have to believe this is what the creators were hoping too. I am cautiously optimistic.
If you are interested in other opinions regarding this show, check out the links below: