Monday 22 January 2018

Comment: How Netflix's latest is ignoring the harsh reality and glamorising pain yet again

The harsh reality of eating disorders is spots, hair loss, yellow teeth, purple lips and thermals, writes Ciara O'Connor

Cynical: Actress Lily Collins has had an eating disorder herself
Cynical: Actress Lily Collins has had an eating disorder herself

Ciara O'Connor

Netflix has done it again. Hot on the heels of the 13 Reasons Why controversy, a series that was almost universally criticised for glamorising suicide, Netflix has released a trailer for To The Bone - a film that looks to be repeating the sins of 13 Reasons Why, this time with anorexia.

The film features actress and model Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) as a 20 year-old trying to recover from anorexia in an "unconventional" group home with "non-traditional" doctor Keanu Reeves.

Very few people have actually seen the film - it isn't on Netflix yet. The platform has just released a two-minute trailer, which has been enough to cause uproar. It opens with Collins pushing food around her plate as her sister tells her it's like she has "calorie Asperger's". So funny. Collins adorably shakes her fist.

Just 17 seconds into the trailer and we see Reeves touching her delicately jutting spine. This is the kind of imagery rife on pro-ana sites - dark corners of the internet for sufferers to exchange tips and encouragement. A brief look on one of these sites shows that Collins's emaciated arms and legs are already popular "thinspiration".

Like with 13 Reasons Why, professionals and sufferers are expressing serious doubts about the film already. Once again, they point out that it can work as a how-to, suggesting it makes mental illness beautiful, romantic and aspirational. Once again they warn that it will do serious harm.

Earlier in the month, the worst fears about 13 ­Reasons Why were realised - a 23-year-old man in Peru died by suicide and left behind audio recordings - exactly what the protagonist on screen did.

It won't be enough to persuade the industry it has a real responsibility when it comes to depicting mental illness.

Collins's apparently extremely unwell character doesn't look all that different from the models in the pages of magazines. In fact, Collins models in real life. In the film, she looks thin but still gorgeous. Indeed, the problem with To The Bone starts perhaps with the ­reality of the filming, not just its fiction.

Collins, who has suffered with an eating disorder (ED) in the past, said she lost weight for the role in a "healthy" way, with the help of a nutritionist. This is disturbing. One ED therapist Jennifer Rollins says it's akin to saying that an alcoholic is able to "drink in a healthy way".

It's confusing and triggering for those in recovery. This isn't fiction - this is a woman with a history of anorexia actually losing a lot of weight so that she looks anorexic again.

Collins admitted that she was apprehensive about taking on the role but "it was like the universe was sending me the message that there's a reason that you are able to talk about this right now".

Aside from cosmic messages, the other justification we're given for the film is that old chestnut "raising awareness" - but this doesn't fly either.

The story has been told many times: young, white, beautiful woman with supportive family and money for private treatment. It's in Glee, Skins, Gossip Girl. This isn't groundbreaking, this isn't new. Just like with 13 Reasons Why, it's tired and reductive. And incredibly alienating for those suffering from eating disorders who don't look like Collins.

The director defended the film against such criticism, saying it's "just one of the millions of ED stories that could be told in the US at this very moment". So why not tell any one of those stories? Why tell this one? Again? This is the story we expect to be told. This isn't the kind of "awareness raising" that is needed. We are very aware of all the models like Collins who can't eat.

What about awareness of the people suffering from eating disorders who are not skeletal, who are not white, not female, who do not find missing meals and doing sit-ups so easy, whose families aren't concerned, who can't afford treatment? A well-documented problem with eating disorders is the idea that "I can't be ill because I don't..." fit into whatever culture keeps telling us is anorexia. This is why wide-ranging and challenging storytelling is crucial.

Eating disorders are not pretty. Collins also wrote that her real-life illness caused her hair to fall out and her nails to become brittle. But this doesn't appear to be photogenic enough to feature.

The show's director Marti Noxon also suffered with an eating disorder in the past. I do not doubt the pain and reality of Collins's and Noxon's eating disorders; but I don't think it gives them carte blanche to produce whatever they want on the topic. A 13 Reasons Why writer had a history of suicidal ideation - it didn't make the show helpful or even acceptable.

Sophia, a young woman I know recovering from an ED, says in a vlog that she can't believe how wrong they got it. "There are moments that resonated, but for the most part it was just like, 'That's not how it works'. When you're malnourished, your hair falls out in clumps, and the hair that is left is brittle and thin. Why does she have a full head of really nice hair? Your teeth turn yellow or even rot and fall out. Your skin is dull and spotty. Your lips are tinged purple because you're so f***ing cold. And the clothes? No one has the body heat to dress that way. In the middle of ­summer I was wearing a coat and thermals."

Sophia is clear the show glamorises anorexia and could be a trigger for those who have, or have previously had, eating disorders. She finishes her vlog with a warning: "If you haven't watched it, don't put yourself through that."

When the film was initially announced, it provided fodder for pro-ana message boards. One girl wrote: "I'll probably watch it by myself once it's out on DVD just to trigger me tbh." She wasn't the only one. But she won't even have to buy the DVD - from July 14, her and thousands of others will be able to access it on Netflix.

Noxon wrote that her goal "was not to glamorise EDs but to serve as a conversation starter about an issue".

This was the same defence of 13 Reasons Why and every other irresponsible bit of 'art' out there and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of imploring people to 'talk', as if that's enough.

Awareness raising is not an end in itself. Starting conversations on the basis of fuzzy and unrealistic information is careless and exploitative. Don't open the Pandora's box and then run away.

The industry needs to stop wrapping up these cynical offerings in psuedo philanthropy. If you're going to make this stuff, don't pretend it's some noble project for the benefit of sick people. Don't pretend that you don't have a responsibility to the vulnerable people watching. Don't fall back on your own history of mental illness as if that makes you an expert in producing responsible and realistic content. Until it figures this out, Netflix should stick to prison lesbianism and Gilmore Girls reboots.

Sunday Independent

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