Posted in social justice

Telling Diverse Mental Illness Stories & “To the Bone”

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TW: This post includes potential spoilers from the Netflix movie “To the Bone” and discusses aspects of and types of eating disorders as well as mentions depression, self-harm, substance abuse, and other mental illnesses.

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The other day, I caved and finally watched the new Netflix film “To the Bone”. As one could reasonably expect, it isn’t the worst movie ever depicting eating disorders but it’s also not perfect. I believe one of the most valuable conversations to come out of it is regarding the importance of telling different kinds of stories about eating disorders. “To the Bone” is just the latest in a long line of similar stories about eating disorders that focus on a white, dangerously thin, conventionally attractive, teenage woman who has been diagnosed with anorexia. This may capture a certain demographic that struggles with eating disorders at high rates, but does not paint a comprehensive picture of what it means to have an eating disorder. The vast majority of people who suffer from eating disorders are diagnosed either with binge eating disorder or OSFED/EDNOS, which contains eating disorders other than anorexia, bulimia, and binge. According to NEDA, three times as many people are diagnosed with binge eating disorder than are diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia combined. Still, typically binge eating disorder is either used as an offensive punchline or completely nonexistent in media. Further, people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and ages suffer from all kinds of mental illnesses. Where are the stories about binge eating disorder? Where are the stories about the people who aren’t white, aren’t teenagers, aren’t dangerously thin? Why aren’t these stories told?

In one of my favorite TED talks, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the dangerous of a “single story”. Adichie speaks from her perspective as a Nigerian woman and her experience with the American single story of what it means to be African. Her bottom line is: “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Mental illnesses are no different. Show eating disorders as white, young, starving, and pretty over and over again, and that is what it begins to mean to have an eating disorder.

There has been a growing movement demanding diverse stories in books, film, and television; demanding for people of color to create and headline movies and TV shows, for LGBT characters to be more prevalent and less dead, and for the general inclusion of more diverse characters as main characters instead of punchlines and sidekicks. People are demanding for media to stop adhering to inaccurate stereotypes and to challenge preconceived notions. This challenge should also apply to the media depicting mental illnesses.

Anorexia in the way experienced by characters like Eli is in some ways “glamorous” as far as eating disorders go. She simply doesn’t eat, and as a result, is dangerously thin. This is not the reality of eating disorders for most people who suffer from them, but it is the sick “goal” for many. This is a problem because people who are slipping into a bad place or who are already there may aspire to be like Eli and may think that they aren’t sick because they don’t look like or act like Eli. It perpetuates the idea that only people who are so thin you can see all of their bones need help. It prevents both people who are struggling and people who are afraid their friends or family are struggling from gaining a more fully accurate depiction of what eating disorders look like. The ability of a film about eating disorders to achieve it’s goal- to expand the conversation and awareness to help guide people towards recovery- is severely hampered by the single story that is created in these depictions.

To be fair, diverse stories are explored a little bit in the inpatient facility during “To the Bone”. There is one woman of color who is gay and is alluded to suffer from binge eating disorder, as well as one man, who seems to serve the purpose of the romantic subplot more than creating a different narrative. There is some insight into characters who struggle with binging and/or purging, mentioned mostly in passing. The film did not completely forget that all people with eating disorders aren’t the same, but regardless, the efforts to showcase diverse experiences are minimal and arguably rather ineffective.

This is not just an issue with depiction of eating disorders. The image of the someone who abuses substances is male and low-income. The image of someone with depression is a middle-aged women who never gets out of bed. The image of someone who self-harms is a white teenage girl who wears black all the time and listens to heavy metal. We are not getting the full picture of mental illnesses that exist or ways they are experienced, not even close.

For the sake of people who have struggled with these illnesses and those close to them who would like to help them, it is imperative that we begin to tell different kinds of stories about mental illnesses and expand upon the single stories we have created. 

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