We need stories like To the Bone to break the taboo around eating disorders

“You’re wasting away,” my boss said looking me up and down. “You look fantastic!”

With her PhD and life experience, perhaps she should have known better. But this highly accomplished professional woman was just telling me what she’d spent her entire life being conditioned to believe. That when it comes to being a woman, thin is a form of currency that can’t be beat.

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Trailer: To the Bone

A young woman struggles with anorexia, a battle affecting her family and altering her life-view.

I may have looked healthy, but my life at that time was ruled by food and an intense fear of regaining the weight I’d lost. It was restrictive, controlled and depressing.

And sadly, I was far from alone. Eating Disorders Victoria estimate approximately 15 per cent of Australian women will have an eating disorder at some point in their life, and about 20 per cent of eating disorders remain undiagnosed.

And this is why the new Netflix drama, To the Bone, a feature film about a young woman’s recovery from anorexia nervosa, is so important. And so controversial. 

Although the film won’t be released until July 14, the trailer alone has sparked debate, with national youth health organisation Headspace and eating disorder organisation The Butterfly Foundation expressing concern that Marti Noxon’s film debut glamorises anorexia and could be triggering for some viewers.

But what these groups fail to acknowledge is that this short two-minute trailer has already managed to prompt not only awareness, but an international discussion about the insidious nature of eating disorders; an issue that Noxon, who has spoken openly about her own battle with anorexia, says is “too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions”.

For this reason, US-based eating disorder charity Project Heal have staunchly supported the film. As stated on its website, “To the Bone sheds light on the severity and complexity of eating disorders – capturing the impact of these perplexing illnesses on both patient and family – while emphasising that recovery is possible.”

Triggering is one of the biggest concerns surrounding the telling of eating disorder stories. Yet, as Eating Disorders Victoria makes clear, an eating disorder is a complex mental illness that does not have a single identifiable cause.

This is not to say that we should dismiss the potential for a film like To the Bone to be triggering for some people, but to stop telling these stories, to silence those who wish to share their experiences, will only further stigmatise eating disorders.

Noxon herself acknowledges that it would be virtually impossible to create an eating disorder story that didn’t trigger somebody. However, as Project Heal’s co-founder Kristina Saffran points out, triggers can be found everywhere; and it’s important for individuals to evaluate their own triggers before watching the film.

Saffran, who developed anorexia nervosa when she was just 10 years old, said in a public statement: “Eating disorder recovery was the most challenging journey in my life, and in the early stages, I was triggered by many things – friends from treatment, diet talk amongst peers, stepping into a gym, and seeing very underweight people.

“I had to understand where I was in my journey and avoid those triggers,” she added. “I hope that our community can keep this perspective in mind when carefully evaluating whether to view this film.’

We need to trust audiences to make their own decisions about what they should and shouldn’t watch. Art and literature and film enable us to talk about difficult issues through storytelling. A good story develops empathy; it helps us understand what it might be like to be somebody else. It helps us learn about the world and the people in it.

A story that’s told well, even when it’s confronting, does more good than harm.

As The Butterfly Foundation states on its website, “everyone’s experience of an eating disorder is different”. To the Bone is just one story. It can’t speak for everyone who has had, or is experiencing, an eating disorder. And we can’t expect it to.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a story that shouldn’t be told. Because the worst thing we can do is create a culture that fears discomfort, that avoids challenging stories, that silences voices because of what we fear might happen.

All that does is push everything underground, and that’s where darkness thrives.

Winnie Salamon is a Melbourne based writer. Her latest YA novel, Pretty Girls Don’t Eat (Ford Street Publishing) is out now.

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