Earlier this year, 13 Reasons Why was released on Netflix and has polarized the public. Some applaud the show for bringing attention to the issue of mental illness to a wide audience; others lament it for glamorizing depression and suicide. Amidst this controversy, Netflix released another film that depicts a very painful and very salient issue among teens: To the Bone.

To the Bone follows 20 year-old Ellen (played by Lily Collins), who has just been kicked out of yet another rehabilitation center for her "defiant attitude." She is cynical and sardonic. "Suck my skinny balls," she says in response to one of her counselors. "I'm sorry I'm not a person anymore. I'm a problem," she sneers at her mother during family therapy. Oftentimes, you'll laugh at her witty comments. Sometimes, you'll grow frustrated at her inability to let people in.

Early on, we understand that she is in a lot of pain, that she is suffering, and, if she keeps up her destructive habits—doing sit-ups to the point that she's developed bruises on her spine; wrapping her spiny hands around her arm to ensure that they remain rail-thin—she will die. And it's hard to watch Ellen as she enters another live-in facility, because we suspect that it won't be easy.

But that's precisely the point.

Nancy Chen

There's this common misconception that eating disorders are glamorous or even a "choice." That they're not a real disease. That they can be solved easily.

"Just eat," I remember people telling me. "Just eat and you'll be fine."

However, eating disorders are not that simple. Eating disorders are the most fatal mental illness, yet they're completely overlooked in the dialogue concerning mental health.

My Story

For the entirety of my high school career, I quietly deteriorated into a painful bout of anorexia nervosa that consumed me. I didn't address my problem until coming to college because I was ashamed, because I didn't want to burden my loved ones, and because I was in denial. However, in college, I had access to resources that enabled me to talk through my issues and seek treatment for the psychological and physical turmoil of my illness. 

It's been almost a year since I started seeking help, almost a year post-anorexia, so I thought that, to put my past behind me, I had to confront it head-on. Thus, on a sleepy Sunday, I logged into my Netflix account and watched To the Bone.

What To the Bone Does Right

I was dreading watching this movie because I feared that I would get triggered. Seeing Ellen's ghostly frame, her paradoxical revulsion yet obsession with food, hearing all the tricks she would do to keep up her disordered eating (counting calories, exercising excessively, purging), I worried, would force me into regression, and all the progress I made would be futile.

That's not what happened.

To the Bone's greatest asset is its authenticity. The filmmaker Marti Noxon and lead actress Lily Collins both suffered through eating disorders. The film was made by and even stars people who understand what it's like to be in that myopic and labyrinthine place. It deconstructs the notion that everyone with an eating disorder starves themselves or is skinny or is a female. And it doesn't bother with the why or the how of Ellen's story, as they are unique only to her. It bothers with the "now what," with the process of healing and treatment that is based off of the idea of self-empowerment, because this is what the audience should get out of the film.

There is certainly a "wrong way" of portraying eating disorders. That would be to glamorize them. But there is no such thing as a "right way," and that's what's apparent in To the Bone.

To the Bone focuses on the realities of people with eating disorders and the people around them. It shows the anguish on Ellen's stepmother's face when Ellen steps on the scale and reveals her protruding ribs, not the number on the scale. It shows the detriments it can have on the body, such as skipping periods or developing lanugo. It shows the strain it can have on interpersonal relationships. 

But, here's the thing with To the Bone. It shows a reality of people with eating disorders. It's not a universal depiction of them. That would be far too simplistic. The movie is a case study into a specific person's story, and a poignant one at that. Ellen's experiences—who, by the end of the film, has changed her name to Eli in an attempt to regain agency and control over her illness—are hers, and hers alone. My experiences are mine, and mine alone. And that's what people need to realize before they watch this film.

To the Bone works because it does not sugarcoat eating disorders, and it does not attempt to claim that it speaks for sufferers/survivors. It strives to spark mainstream attention and therefore awareness for this mental illness: how it should be approached, how it should be treated, and how it should be portrayed.

To the Bone is a valiant and successful effort to destigmatize and demystify eating disorders. But we can't stop there. We need to continue educating ourselves on the issue to end this epidemic and be able to support those who have been afflicted by this illness. And you can do so by clicking here.

If you or someone you know is suffering through an eating disorder, you can call 800-931-2237 or click here to talk to someone and seek guidance.