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Making the Invisible Visible: Why I wish everyone was watching Feed instead of To the Bone

posted Aug 16, 2017, 2:28 PM by Erica Johnstone   [ updated Aug 16, 2017, 2:30 PM ]

Films depicting mental illnesses are not new, but films with a particular focus on anorexia are rare. This summer two feature films have been released: To the Bone and Feed. Netflix’s To the Bone focuses on the protagonist’s experience in an eating disorder treatment center. Both the star Lily Collins and the writer/director personally experienced eating disorders. Feed is written and produced by Troian Bellisario of Pretty Little Liars. Bellisario’s film is somewhat auto-biographical in the sense that she has struggled with anorexia herself. I appreciate both films bringing much needed attention to eating disorders and anorexia in particular, which is the most deadly psychiatric illness. There is little dialogue about eating disorders and a great deal of misinformation. Having developed and been in recovery from anorexia for many years, I feel that the most dangerous message in the media about anorexia is that it is a choice and that it stems from vanity. I was delighted that both films demonstrate that wanting to look thin is not the driver behind anorexia. In both films, the protagonists are suffering emotionally and seeking a way to cope. This is key: Eating disorders are coping mechanisms, a way to deal with painful feelings, anxiety, self-hate, and a sense of unworthiness.


To the Bone presents a young woman already in the midst of her eating disorder. My main criticism of the film is that it could have gone deeper and done more to demystify anorexia. It did not capture the actual inner experience of living with anorexia, while Feed excelled in this area. It glamorized the disorder by depicting a romantic relationship while in treatment, which felt very unrealistic. I also found the film to be more triggering than Feed, which detracted from its educational value.


Feed illustrates the onset of anorexia triggered by the tragic death of the protagonist’s twin brother Matt. It is in a sense a horror film, as Matt reappears to the protagonist Olivia and transforms into the haunting voice of anorexia. Ironically while Feed contains surreal elements, I found it to be more realistic than To the Bone. When living with an eating disorder, you experience a voice in your head that becomes a dictator, often demanding that you not eat and that you exercise obsessively and that you achieve perfection. Using the brother’s ghost as this voice provided a great illustration to those in the audience who do not know what living with anorexia is like. It demonstrates how the voice of ED controls your every move and never allows you to be at peace. The voice screams at you and demeans you, as Matt does in this film.


Particular phrases stood out to me. Matt screams at Olivia, “You are nothing without me.” This provides a realistic depiction of the ED voice, which makes you believe that you are nothing without it. It also makes you believe that you are at fault and are a failure, which Matt communicates to Olivia in the film. He makes her feel that his death was her fault. The ED voice continually tells you that you are undeserving, bad, and worthless. Matt is nearly constant in Olivia’s life as the film progresses, which parallels the ED voice in reality, as it becomes louder and louder the more that the disorder has progressed. In the film, Olivia is terrified hearing her brother’s voice, and this accurately portrays the reality of living with the ED voice. It is terrifying, and it feels that you have no choice but to obey. It also served to paint the a picture of the misery it produces. I appreciated how the film did not romanticize anorexia in any way. It showed the true horror it inflicts.


The film did not focus on body image or weight. There were no scenes of Olivia being weighed as opposed to the multiple weigh-ins featured in To the Bone. I valued this omission because it again reinforced that anorexia is not driven by a desire to look a certain way. I also feel that seeing weigh-ins can be triggering for viewers with an eating disorder history. Weight loss is not the primary goal but rather a form of self-destruction. Restricting food serves as the means to the end of self-deprivation and punishment, as we see in the film. Olivia is taunted and punished by her brother and feels she must feed him while depriving herself. Depicting the anorexia as her dead brother may seem far-fetched, but it captures the love-hate relationship someone feels toward her eating disorder. You feel that you cannot live without it. It is the way that you cope in the world. It is how you survive, and yet it is trying to kill you. In the film, as Olivia realizes she could die from this, she asks her brother if she will, and he does not answer. Again, this mimics the ED voice, which will in fact push you to the point of death.


I found the end of Feed very powerful. We see Olivia recognize that her brother, code the ED voice, is not real and does not have her interest in mind. She has made incredible progress in recognizing this; however, the demon is not gone. As she goes out to lunch, she orders a small meal, and as she stares at her food, her brother, or the ED voice, reappears, and she is terrified. This is incredibly poignant and telling because anorexia does not just go away. It is not something that is easily cured and eliminated. For most people, the thoughts linger, and recovery is an incredibly long process. It is a journey, as Bellisario explained in discussing the film and her experience with anorexia. It is a process, and one that is incredibly dangerous and challenging. Watching this film, I thought to myself, “Wow, Bellisario really gets it.” And that is true because she has lived it. We do not usually get to experience our innermost demons portrayed accurately on a big screen, but this film goes a long way to debunking the stereotypes of anorexia and portraying the true horror that it invokes.


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