To the Bone doesn’t premiere on Netflix until July 14, but the streaming platform is already facing sharp online criticism from people who say the trailer’s portrayal of a young woman’s eating disorder is triggering and potentially harmful.
One look at the Twitter hashtag #TotheBone and it’s easy to see why those who’ve had eating disorders are worried about how the film portrays a complex condition like anorexia, which often isn’t accurately or responsibly depicted in the media.
The two-minute trailer focuses on Ellen, played by actress Lily Collins, who counts calories and becomes increasingly frail until a presumably triumphant turnaround. Ellen’s extreme thinness is the subject of much of the criticism, as are fears that the movie romanticizes what can be a fatal disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) recommends against showing “dangerous thinness” because of the way that imagery can affect people experiencing or recovering from an eating disorder.
“The images, for someone who is at risk or struggling, it can be a very visceral experience.
“The images, for someone who is at risk or struggling, it can be a very visceral experience, it can trigger all kinds of upsetting feelings,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of NEDA. Some viewers, she says, may see it as a “race to the bottom” to lose even more weight.
The trailer has been viewed more than 1 million times since debuting Tuesday.
Marti Noxon, the film’s writer and director, responded to the criticism on Twitter soon after the trailer dropped. “We hope the film helps people talk about a subject that is too often ignored,” she wrote.
She followed up with a more comprehensive statement Thursday night that acknowledged her own experiences with anorexia and bulimia and stressed the importance of responsibly portraying what it’s like to have an eating disorder.
“My goal with the film was not to glamorize EDs, but to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often shrouded by secrecy and misconceptions,” she wrote.
The initial fallout over the trailer probably feels like familiar territory for Netflix. When the streaming platform released the fictional young adult series 13 Reasons Why in March, mental health experts and suicide survivors argued that the show’s graphic portrayal of suicide might negatively influence young, impressionable viewers. Researchers have shown that news reports and dramatizations of suicide may be linked to a temporary spike in suicides.
Aside from the complicated subject matter, To the Bone shares another similarity with 13 Reasons Why: Both projects were made with the hope that they’d tell an important story by tackling a common but highly stigmatized experience. Noxon based the film on her own experiences and Collins has talked about previously battling an eating disorder as well.
“I was writing to try to help people who don’t understand, who can’t relate to why someone would starve, or throw up, or just spend their life obsessed with food, or obsessed with their body size,” Noxon told Indiewire earlier this year.
Thirty million Americans experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to NEDA. In order to help raise awareness, To the Bone partnered with Project Heal, an organization that raises money to help people get access to treatment. In her statement issued Thursday, Noxon described how she spoke with survivors to inform the film and worked with Project Heal throughout the production “in the hopes of being truthful in a way that wasn’t exploitative.”
“There are a lot of people who struggle in higher-weight bodies, people of all ages, races and genders whose stories don’t get told.”
While Mysko wishes the trailer had fewer scenes portraying extreme thinness, she is hopeful that the film will share an important story about illness and recovery without glorifying eating disorders or erasing the diversity of people’s experiences. Collins’ character is cast as a thin, white, middle-class woman.
“There are a lot of people who struggle in higher-weight bodies, people of all ages, races and genders whose stories don’t get told,” says Mysko.
While the public commonly associates extreme thinness with anorexia, not everyone with the disorder has that body type. Hollywood, however, often defaults to the stereotype even as other aspects of a person’s life, including their work, relationships, and education, are deeply affected by anorexia and offer alternative ways to show the condition’s impact.
Andrea LaMarre, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, who has spoken about her own eating disorder, says that the passionate reaction to the trailer reflects a larger frustration with how these stories are told and whose experiences they feature.
“It’s representative of an ongoing tension in the field, and this [trailer] has crystallized it,” she says.
Critics of the trailer also pointed out that it offered no mental health resources for those who might need support after seeing the images pop up in their newsfeed. Mysko is hopeful that Netflix, which received the same criticism over graphic episodes of 13 Reasons Why, will air the film with the contact information for appropriate helplines.
She is cautiously optimistic given that, prior to the film’s Netflix distribution deal, NEDA partnered with its actors to produce a public service announcement addressing common myths about eating disorders.
“I do believe that there is a commitment to not only raising awareness but connecting people to resources,” she says.
The trailer controversy, in tandem with the 13 Reasons Why criticism, holds important lessons for Netflix. While the streaming giant continues to take risks on programming that tackles highly stigmatized issues, it still hasn’t quite learned how to respond to the outpouring of feedback from tight-knit communities of patients, survivors, and advocates who have strong feelings about the experiences its shows and films portray. It also hasn’t figured out how to anticipate viewers’ needs for things like trigger warnings and crisis information at every step of the way.
Until it begins to master those aspects of producing and distributing entertainment meant to confront shame and stigma, it’ll continue to discover its blind spots by trial and error.
If you want to talk to someone about your experience with disordered eating, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Organizations like the National Eating Disorder Association (U.S.),National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada), The Butterfly Foundation (Australia), the National Centre for Eating Disorders (UK) and We Bite Back can also offer support.