Back in the mid-1980’s I stumbled upon a Hallmark or Lifetime movie about bulimia. The show demonstrated in detail, a lot of which I can still remember, how the young, pretty, skinny white actress engaged in her symptoms. I remember staring at the screen, mesmerized. The show didn’t make me want to copy the girl’s behavior. Gratefully I never went on to develop bulimia. But in the ensuing years, eating disorder specialists began doing research on the harms of these kinds of movies as well as the unintentional harm caused in health class lectures which intended to provide education but ended up planting ideas in young minds.
So I felt a large pit in my stomach when I saw the trailer to the new Netflix movie about one girl’s struggle with anorexia. I posted my feelings about it in a quick rant on my FB page Saturday night and was shocked to see that in 24 hours it had been shared nearly 150 times, far more than anything I had written before. The comments I received on this post are why I’m writing this blog in response. The first dozen or so comments are from sufferers of eating disorders. Many of those who commented later are from those defending the film. I’d like to share with you some of the comments I received from those who suffer from an eating disorder. And provide a response to some of the arguments defending the movie.
“It’s exactly the sort of thing I was drawn to when I was really, really sick – all those horrible Lifetime movies and ED books that give tips and tricks to the vulnerable. Not good.”
“As someone recovering from anorexia, it’s absolutely miserable to see this stuff and my eating disorder voice becomes about 20 times louder (thus making it 20 times harder to eat).
It has stirred up so much in my already murky mind. Two minutes of this movie and I can barely hear myself think.”
“This movie is irresponsible, at best. It’s perpetuating stereotypes that make seeking and accepting treatment much more difficult. Time for a Netflix hiatus.”
“I am very passionate about my recovery– and what it took to get to where I am today. Here. I am proud of my 10 years of hard work. I am not easily triggered. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I felt truly triggered. EDs voice isn’t as strong as mine these days. You can imagine my surprise when I watched this trailer and felt that pit in my stomach and that voice a little louder than it has been in the past 10 years. My biggest fear is that someone who is in delicate stages of recovery will see this and feel the same. I am so disappointed that this movie has been made.”
“Ever since I saw the trailer, I’ve struggled more. I think what bugs me the most is knowing that the actress has had ED herself. Yet, they made her lose weight for the role. Some articles say she had to “relive anorexia.” I keep reading she lost weight in a healthy way and had a dietician, but her weight is anything but healthy. What kinda of dietician allows that? It’s triggered me into thinking that if she can be that size and it’s healthy, then…why can’t I? Also, if you look at her social media pages, young girls are asking her how she stays so small and saying they want to be like her.”
For some people, it IS “just” a movie that will spark some dialog. That’s fact. But I implore you to consider that this very film about anorexia has already and will continue to harm SOME people. Ironically, the people it will harm will be some of those who are vulnerable to develop or already suffer from an eating disorder. That to me, breaks my heart.
My response to those who provide arguments FOR the movie:
#1 “This movie shows real issues. We shouldn’t ignore real issues that affect people.”
I agree on all counts. And the cool thing is that there are so many ways to talk about the reality of eating disorders while reducing harm by the way we do it. There are large organizations who do this well and whose missions I support. I’ll provide resources at the bottom.
Rape is also a very real issue. But most of us wouldn’t defend the viewing of rape scenes in a movie as a great teaching tool to spread awareness. Nor would we show it to our children to generate discussion.
Based on the trailer I’m deeply worried about the film. But I don’t think our only two options are films like this one or nothing at all.
#2 “This movie spreads awareness.”
I also agree. It’s stirred so much controversy and people are definitely talking, including me! But I believe in human creativity and ingenuity. Movies like this have been made since the 1980’s. Have we not improved in over 3 decades?? We have the capacity to do better! While I don’t have the creative skill, I have no doubt that an incredible movie about eating disorders can and hopefully will one day be made. A movie that raises awareness, sparks conversation, hopefully raises money, and doesn’t harm the vulnerable. I feel like the film “Embrace” is a perfect example. It tackles the tough and very real topic of negative body image while doing so in a mostly inspiring way.
#3 “We should give people freedom to make films about eating disorders and we should not suggest censorship.”
I also agree. People will continue to make all kinds of films and I am going to continue working with my clients and with my social media platforms to help my clients become conscious and thoughtful consumers of media. I do this literally all day from my office. To be clear, the petition is to ask filmmakers to have a content review by professionals.
#4 “It’s a movie and not meant to cause harm. It’s demonstrating real life.”
I can’t speak to the intention of the movie. For certain, this movie will not be at all harmful for some. I’m confident that viewing it wouldn’t harm me. But it will harm the vulnerable. And the vulnerable are whom I’m interested in. They are the reason I wrote my FB post. They are the reason for this blog. I have sat with countless clients who have told me, “I got the idea for my bulimia by watching that Lifetime movie. Had I only known that I’d still be suffering 20 years later…I wish I never saw that film.” So yes, YES, I want to yell out “let’s find another way to raise awareness and have conversation.”
My entire career is dedicated to the treatment of people suffering from eating disorders. To you I say:
1. If watching this trailer has triggered you, make a commitment to not watch it. If you feel up to it, share your experience as to why you feel it’s harmful. You have a voice. Use it!
2. There are so many ways to suffer with an eating disorder. If your eating disorder doesn’t look like what is shown in this film, your struggle is still real and valid. You deserve support. And you deserve treatment.
3. There is no healthy way to do what Lily Collins did for this film. I don’t know who the nutritionist was for the film. And the idea that what she did for the film could be accomplished “healthfully” is as far from any truth I can imagine. It is literally NOT A THING. Erase that from your minds. To think of the young people asking Lily for advice on how she did it and how they can be small like her is breaking my ever-loving heart.
I’d love to see greater awareness for eating disorders. But we can do better. We can do so much better.
Reporting and Portrayal of Eating Disorders by Mindframe (scroll down to “Other Media Resources”