Eating Disorders on Film

After watching a short interview with lead actress Lilly Collins for her role in “To the Bone”, we learned that she had struggled with an eating disorder in her teen years. She was successfully treated and now reports living a full life. What caught our attention were her comments on the potential challenges and triggers she and her family encountered as she was required to lose weight for the role.

Despite fears that her role in the film would lead to unhealthy behaviors or thoughts, Lilly reported that the film was meaningful to her and important to make as, talking about eating disorders is “ a conversation that you need to help start among young people—males and females—because it is becoming more and more prevalent for both now.”  Additionally, Lilly was concerned that her social media followers would glamorize the weight she was losing for the role as they were unaware that she consulted a nutritionist to assist in a safe weight transformation.

During filming, the actors volunteered participated in a PSA in conjunction with World Eating Disorders Action day called “The Nine Truths About Eating Disorders.” As reported in, this kind of activism and the release of the film are sure to benefit the eating disorder community, as mainstream films can have such an impact on society’s views of eating disorders and chip away at the stigma surrounding them.

This project inspired us to think more critically about how films on eating disorders have positively and negatively affected eating disorders.

Have these films helped to chip away at the stigma surrounding eating disorders and how effective have they been? In analyzing films that came before “To the Bone”, a number of common themes emerged. Films have been criticized for perpetuating myths and existing stereotypes about this condition, de-emphasizing the complexity of eating disorders and glamorizing weight loss and ‘thinness’. Additionally, films have come under fire for the lack of diversity in their lead characters and for potentially triggering their viewers.

In recent years, such films may have reinforced the myth that only young white women struggle with eating disorder.

It is now widely accepted that eating disorders affect men and women of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. In response to this knowledge, we have seen a growing desire to highlight individuals of color and diverse backgrounds in these lead roles surrounding disordered eating and treatment. Slate magazine writes, “I was 12 when I saw my first made-for-TV movie about eating disorders. The year was 1997, and Amy Jo Johnson, the actress famous for playing the pink Power Ranger, starred as a gymnast-turned-bulimic in Perfect Body. The ’90s was a big decade for eating disorder melodramas. Tracey Gold battled her own disorder and starred in For the Love of Nancy in 1994. A few years earlier there was Kate’s Secret, then A Secret Between Friends, and later Sharing the Secret. Lots of secrets. But the women keeping them were mostly young, thin, popular, and white.”

Nutritionist Michele Vivas spoke to this point when she wrote “for all the information and raised awareness, the stereotype won’t die—eating disorders are a white-woman problem. And it’s not just a false image set forth by Lifetime movies and the author pics of eating disorder memoirists. Communities of color buy into it, too. There’s this mentality that this is a white chick illness.” Vivas specializes in eating disorder treatment and works with teenagers in Oakland, Calif. She continues, “an African-American girl came in and her mom suggested to the school principal that they start a program to increase eating disorder awareness. The principal looked at her and said, ‘Why would we have that? Black folks don’t get eating disorders.”

While no two viewers will have the same reaction to any film, films that depict eating disorders will likely receive scrutiny and often elicit a variety of responses.

While Slate Magazine criticized For the Love of Nancy for its lack of diversity, it was also one of the few movies found in our research to have been praised for its more accurate depiction of a family’s experience as a unit. The movie was noted to have successfully identified warning signs, red flags and the transition into treatment. With increased awareness surrounding eating disorders, and new information flooding the media, clinicians, critics and survivors are hopeful more modern and realistic depictions of eating disorder in film are still to come. Given the success of recent box office hit Silver Linings Playbook it appears that the public may be ready to start changing the dialogue surrounding mental health.

Marni Noxon, prominent television writer saw this need for more authentic portrayals of eating disorders and mental health struggles in film. She reports this is what prompted her to write “To the Bone” for Sundance Film Festival. The film is already receiving accolades for the realistic perspective shown. Noxon was able to portray the complexity of eating disorders as she and the film’s young star both struggled with anorexia in their teen years. It is the hope of our clinic and the community at large that Noxon’s To the Bone will be the film to redirect the conversations around eating disorder.

What are your thoughts on eating disorder in film? Feel free to send your comments our way via Facebook or twitter. We would love to hear from you!

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