Erasing the Girl: Why Don’t We Trust Women to Tell Their Stories of Disordered Eating?

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Almost all of my memories of being anorexic are based on how other people saw me. The woman in my brother’s karate class who looked at me and told me she knew what us dancers were like: “I’ve seen the movies—all of you pretty girls. Starving and starving.” The girl who told me I was her thinspiration: “I want a picture of you on my fridge.” There were boyfriends who didn’t know what to do with me and my parents who couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to eat. To my Cuban mother my rapid weight loss was not only dangerous, but strangely foreign. She grew up drinking sugar water in order to gain just the right curves. She didn’t understand why a young woman wouldn’t want the fleshy beauty of hips.

Since Netflix’s To the Bone’s trailer was released, I’ve watched with interest as viewers and critics have waxed on about the responsibility of depicting the anorexic body, while simultaneously erasing the human being inside of that body. Many are annoyed at seeing another white, thin female as the “poster child” for anorexia; others worry that depicting calorie counting, various purging behaviors, and weigh-ins might trigger these behaviors in vulnerable populations. Still others express concern that skeletal bodies are already glamorized enough—that the anorexic bodies of models are worshipped in the media, and that a film about how to get “model skinny” is always going to provoke, rather than heal.

In my teens, being obviously anorexic was deeply embarrassing. To be thin enough to be noticed meant that I had lost control. I didn’t feel pretty and it was surprising to me that others saw me that way. It didn’t fit the cultural narrative I was raised with where women were meant to have luscious curves, not obvious bones. So many of the comments I received came from people who thought that they understood what I was going through because they had seen a few Lifetime movies and Karen Carpenter specials.

In her now famous TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which I teach every year in my College Writing class, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes how a culture can reinforce a stereotype by only allowing a single depiction of it. While many people have rightly pointed out that recent films depicting anorexia like Marti Noxon’s To the Bone and Troian Bellisario’s Feed reinforce the narrative that anorexia is a disease that primarily impacts white, young, upper-class women, I think there is also another single story that predicts the response to any new media depicting eating disorders: the idea that women who have survived a disorder are too vulnerable, sad, or attention-seeking to be taken seriously. In this narrative, women who have suffered from anorexia are seen as repulsive evidence of a corrosive culture of body shaming and compulsive weight-loss, and are thus viewed as not very trustworthy, either in terms of their own personal motivation, or how they can contribute to our cultural understanding of disordered eating.

It’s this culture that sees actor Lily Collins’s body as evidence that she is still in the throes of the disease, even when she says she isn’t, and that contends that being young and pretty precludes her ability to be seen as anything other than the “vulnerable anorexic girl”: beautiful, but infantilized; precious, but voiceless. It’s this same type of culture that also tends to minimize the intellectual worth of women who write honestly and fiercely about the female body and the weight loss industry, from Roxane Gay’s recent memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, to the absolutely underrated experimental 2000 novel Aliens & Anorexia by Chris Kraus.

Our culture often tries to distance itself from the ways that media encourages a disordered relationship with bodies and food by emphasizing how the anorexia narrative is a necessary kind of activism. In this landscape, filmmakers stress over and over how anorexia is bad, even though they have no real control over whether images they portray are interpreted as seductive or glamorous (the way thinness is always portrayed in magazines, movies, and on TV). As Jia Tolentino points out in her review of To The Bone for the New Yorker, and Sophie Gilbert discusses in her review for the Atlantic, writing a “responsible” narrative of anorexia is exceedingly challenging. After all, whatever story you write is never entirely in the realm of the control of the creator, and what may seem obviously troubling or disturbing to some viewers is active “thinspiration” to others.

When I watched To the Bone, I was most struck by how the film did nothing to trigger me at all, even when I recognized behaviors that I sometimes manifested in my teens, like memorizing the caloric value of foods, or compulsively exercising even when I was hungry and tired. Even more so, the film also helped me to see the ways that I bought into the single story of anorexia when I was recovering. Not only did I deliberately eschew all eating disorder narratives (probably a wise approach to dealing with triggers), but I also dismissed the anorexia narrative as intrinsically pointless. I complained to friends and fellow writers that the anorexic narrative was overindulgent and self-involved, girly and repulsive, trite and uninspired. Maybe, at some level, I feared that I was all those things, too. I wanted to recreate myself into someone stronger and braver, someone who would never have “gotten” an eating disorder to begin with.

For me, To the Bone’s vision of eating disorders may be imperfect, but it also pushes back against the idea that a person who suffers from disordered eating is just the sum of her broken parts. Even when Ellen is at her most fragile, she is darkly funny and smart and artistic, a person who has an identity that exists outside the realm of her compulsive behavior. She shares inside jokes with her sister who playfully taunts her “calorie Aspergers” and also tells her that, “If you die, I’m going to kill you” when Ellen joins a new treatment facility. When her stepmom asks if she might be gay, Ellen makes a joke about eating pussy. When counsellors ask Ellen to share feelings in constructive ways she shows them a poster that has “suck my skinny balls” scrawled defiantly on it.

To the Bone is filled with gallows humor—from the moment in the film where Ellen’s stepmother brings her a cake shaped as a giant hamburger with the words, “Eat Up, Ellen!” written at the top, to the first date she goes on with fellow patient Lukas, where they pretend she is a cancer patient going through chemotherapy in order to snag free beer (and not offend the waitress who is concerned that Ellen keeps spitting up her food into napkins). It’s a sad, uncomfortable scene, but one that also has a lot of humanity in it, too, illustrating how clearly Ellen is aware that she is sick, but how truly unable she is to stop.

Some viewers have been exasperated by Ellen’s likably unlikable persona, criticizing everything from her fashion choices (too much eyeliner!) to her lack of regard for other patients. Many critics of To the Bone seem frustrated by what ends up being a catch-22—that in order for Ellen to not be reduced to an eating disorder, she needs to have some other positive qualities, and, that, in order to show how bad an eating disorder can be, Noxon needs to show how devastating disordered eating can be, too.

TV and film showcases all sorts of mental health issues—from the rampant alcoholism found in shows like Mad Men and BoJack Horseman, to the compulsive sexual behavior found in shows like Love and Fleabag. Yet the kind of pressure we put on anorexia narratives seems to be unique. Part of this is because, unlike alcoholism or sex addiction, there is evidence that disordered eating can be contagious in vulnerable populations, and, as such, survivors of anorexia are warned never share too much, lest they lead other impressionable young women astray. There is a strange paternalism to this idea—that the best way to prevent the spread of eating disorders is not to attack a culture than worships thinness, but to demonize the young women who are already suffering, painting them as temptresses who will somehow lead other girls to their doom. Meanwhile, our culture’s fascination with the starving woman archetype illustrates both how normal it is for women to moderate their food intake, but how taboo it is to actually talk about. We expect women to diet; we fear when they take dieting too far. We applaud women who are able to control what they eat, but also see those with eating disorders as intrinsically damaged. We’re not sure whether to blame victims or protect them from themselves. We don’t trust survivors like Marti Noxon or Troian Bellisario to tell their story in ethical, honest, and non-triggering ways.

This is not to say that films like To the Bone are above criticism—the movie was too staunchly a romantic comedy for my taste, and I found elements of it to be cheesy and overdone. I’ve read critiques by writers like JoAnna Novak (whose recent novel, I Must Have You, delves into disordered eating in all sorts of brave, smart, and funny ways) who point out the problems of having a male savior help show Ellen the way, and I have listened as other survivors point out that the film was painful for them to watch. I didn’t like a scene that came at the very end, where Ellen is nursed with a baby bottle by her mom, while other viewers thought this was the most powerful scene in the entire film.

I’m sure for someone who has never struggled with anorexia, Ellen’s constant need to make sure her thumb and forefinger can circle her arm looks strange and disturbing, but I’m also sure to many survivors, it’s a move that is familiar and painful to watch. While critics fear that an insider’s view will inspire copycats and converts, To the Bone’s emphasis on humanizing Ellen seemed simple and important to me. For all the talk about how glamorous thin bodies are, we also live in a culture that is quick to insult the anorexic body, which is perceived as both disciplined and repulsive; unwomanly yet desperate for affection. “Eat a sandwich” people sneer at fashion models. “She’s just doing it for attention!” others exclaim.

Ellen’s experience with anorexia was very different from my own. Like many young women, having disordered eating didn’t define my teens and early twenties. I was never hospitalized and I didn’t have a big “come to Jesus” moment that suddenly changed my life. My recovery was a series of starts and stops, where I learned to eat in balanced, holistic, healthy ways. Like many critics have pointed out, the exaggerated version of the anorexia narrative we often see—where health can be measured by how thin the sufferer is, rather than his or her behaviors, and where we only see one image of anorexia—can end up “othering” survivors, rather than encouraging empathy.

And yet, the knee-jerk dismissal of individual narratives written by authors who have experienced disordered eating is also a problem. Even if I didn’t share Ellen’s experiences, there was something I found about watching To the Bone that felt profoundly healing. It helped me to understand how far I’d come, and how it was maybe time to forgive a younger me who suffered from anorexia over a decade ago. For the first few years I was in recovery, talking about anorexia was impossible—I refused to discuss it, write about it, acknowledge that it was a part of my story. I worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a writer, or that I’d be forever seen as damaged. Perhaps that is why I felt so maternal towards Ellen, protective of her. I didn’t want to criticize her, or demand explanations from her. I just wanted to hear her speak.

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Feature image courtesy of Creative Commons.


Arielle Bernstein's work has been featured in the Atlantic, Salon, IndieWire, and RogerEbert.com, among other publications. She teaches writing at American University and edits TORCH at The Rumpus. You can follow her on Twitter at @NotoriousREL. More from this author →