Netflix’s original film To the Bone, released this past weekend, tells the story of a young woman named Ellen (Lily Collins) who struggles with anorexia nervosa and confronts recovery with the help of a specialist (Keanu Reeves). Coming on the heels of Netflix’s last controversial foray into the mental-health sphere with 13 Reasons Why, which was problematic in its depiction of suicide, To the Bone has already sparked much discussion and debate as to its value. Is the film problematic for young women to watch? Does it glorify anorexia in scary ways? Does the film do more harm than good? Or is it accurate, albeit hard to watch, in its depiction of the disease and the people it affects?
In order to confront these questions, we spoke with recovery expert and eating disorder survivor Robyn Cruze of the Eating Recovery Center to hear her take.
Mary Rose Somarriba: As someone who has recovered from an eating disorder yourself, how did you feel after watching the film?
Robyn Cruze: I bawled my eyes out! I was moved by this movie—because of its honesty. No matter what anyone says about the movie, it’s such an honest depiction of one person’s experience with anorexia nervosa. I think Lily Collins did an amazing job of relaying the pain and the anguish and the battle of anorexia nervosa. Bulimia and bingeing, which are more common eating disorders, are not depicted in this film, but within its context, I believe it effectively showed one woman’s story.
I’ve been recovered for about fifteen years now, so I’m very removed from it, and I’m very educated on eating disorders and the mental illness aspect of them. From that perspective, I believe that the movie is a contribution that shows recovery is possible. Eating disorders are such lonely illnesses because they’re mental. People need to know that they’re not alone.
MRS: Did you think To the Bone glorifies anorexia?
RC: I don’t think it glorifies anything. I think it did a really great job of showing the implications—the harsh and deadly effects—of anorexia nervosa. I think there’s concern that some people, upon watching, will be triggered and will find ways to get further into their eating disorder. That’s always a valid concern, but people experiencing eating disorders do that already. They already do that by watching reality TV shows or by comparing themselves to people in fashion magazines or on social media. That’s what an eating disorder is—a mental illness that has us constantly comparing ourselves to other people. But the movie also shows the deadliness of the condition. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and To the Bone shows that very clearly. I’m not sure there’s a way to get around the movie upsetting someone except to offer warning signs ahead of time. To that effect, I would say: Do not watch this if you are in early stages of recovery. It will always be there when you are ready. I encourage you, if you’re triggered, to talk through it with your treatment team. Use it for what it was meant to do, which is foster awareness and conversation.
MRS: What parts of the story did you find most powerful?
RC: There was a moment when Ellen was overcome by negative self-talk and temptation to unhealthy behaviors. In a powerful scene, the therapist told Ellen to tell the eating disorder to “F— off.” He understands what she’s up against—hearing voices whispering in her ear—but he’s telling her to fight back against them. That’s a necessary point of recovery—to overpower the force that the eating disorder has in your life. We have a choice. We may not have chosen the eating disorder, but we do have a choice to recover.
Also, the film accurately depicts the pain on the family well—the stepsister and its effect on her; the mother and the role she thought she had in the illness—these were well-done and heartbreaking. The film beautifully depicted how eating disorders are not just one person’s pain. These mental illnesses affect everyone around us, not just one person. We don’t give voice to that enough.
MRS: What parts did you find most concerning?
RC: I think the movie had room to grow. There are some things we could have done without, to protect those with eating disorders. I always urge people to share their story responsibly; I always warn against using numbers and food types in calorie counting, and behaviors that could trigger others. With that in mind, there are a few things I would have left out—things that relate to behaviors and numbers (such as weight on a scale or counting calories). But we do have to learn to live with triggers in life.
In general, eating disorder behavior numbs us—protects us from feeling our feelings. Much like pressing a morphine pump, when someone employs eating disorder behaviors, they give relief. The behavior is a coping mechanism that allows the person to avoid thinking about anything else. Attached to those behaviors are beliefs around body size and food type because in our illness there are a lot of rules and numbers that we can obsess about—like if I just reach this weight I’ll feel better. If we’re in our journey of recovery, these numbers and behaviors are obstacles we have to face—and overcome. We have to redefine our beliefs about ourselves, our weight, and our comfort; when we are confronted about moving forward, it is triggering for us. The recovery process itself is triggering.
Reaching the other side is empowering because you take away from that eating disorder voice and give it back to yourself. Most of us thought it would kill us—to go through the recovery process is both scary and empowering.
MRS: What cautions would you give people who are in recovery?
RC: For potential viewers who are early in their recovery, I would recommend waiting until they have progressed enough in their treatment that they have what I’d call “a voice.” It’s important in recovery to learn to detach one’s identity from the mental illness—to articulate who they are and where they stand in relation to their eating disorder. If you’re in recovery and you want to watch the film, make sure you have your treatment team around you; have a support team. Choose your time.
Watching To the Bone is like reading a book about recovery; a lot of treatment teams will use it as a conversation builder, not as a bible. This is not everybody’s story; it’s just one woman’s story about anorexia nervosa. I cannot say that enough.
MRS: How should those who don’t have eating disorders prepare for going into the film?
RC: I think it’s a great educational tool for families. Do not assume that everyone with an eating disorder acts that way. Do not assume all eating disorders are represented because that is not the case. If you know someone who has an eating disorder, this woman’s journey might give insight to that. And if that’s the case, talk to the person you know who is struggling; talk to them about the possibility of recovery; talk to them about their eating disorder being a mental illness; use it as a gateway to conversation and helping someone toward treatment.
Whether one loves or hate the movie, it’s a resource for us, and it’s here whether we like it or not. I believe it will make a difference if we use it to bring awareness to educate others—that an eating disorder is a mental illness, that it has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, that thirty million people currently struggle with it, and that they don’t always look like Ellen; they look like everyday people of all different races and backgrounds. If we use To the Bone as a chance to have a discussion, then we’re giving people a greater chance to recovery, to know they’re not alone. If you know someone who might be struggling with an eating disorder, encourage them to get the help that they need.
MRS: How often do people get help because of loved ones urging them to do so?
RC: I think we probably underestimate how many people get into recovery because loved ones have been educated and now know how to speak to them. Families and loved ones have a massive power on people’s recovery—being a great support team and knowing how to encourage recovery is an amazing support for someone to have in their recovery.
Education is a powerful thing, and maybe that’s what this movie is about. Maybe it’s for loved ones and school teachers and professionals outside the eating disorder field. These people are the ones who might watch this movie and say, “I’ve seen that behavior.” When I’m educating professionals on how to recognize eating disorders, it’s amazing to see the light bulb go off; they’re able to help those people.
MRS: Would you say, overall, the film does more good than harm?
RC: As an advocate for those with eating disorders, I believe there is nothing better than to have a mainstream platform compellingly depict a woman’s story about anorexia nervosa. In that regard, no matter what one thinks of the film, I think it’s a positive that they have given us a platform to discuss eating disorders as mental illness; they have given us a platform to bring awareness; they are educating families and loved ones on anorexia nervosa and the severity of it. For that, I am grateful.
Some people fear that people with eating disorders will compare themselves to the main character in a harmful way. But we know, no matter what, those of us who have experienced eating disorders are going to be triggered throughout our lives and throughout the world. You can walk on the beach and compare yourself; the eating disorder voice can come right back in. That can happen anywhere, not from just watching this movie.
The good thing about the film is that it’s a conversation builder. Onlookers can learn to be empowered by it and ask questions of themselves. If you’re concerned about it not representing what you’ve experienced as an eating disorder survivor, ask yourself: What is different from what I've experienced? What do I want people to know? I say, use your voice and empower yourself and others to speak more about it—use it for the greater good.
Robyn Cruze is Eating Recovery Center’s National Recovery Advocate. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo Credit: Netflix