What To Know Before Watching Movies About Eating Disorders

This story was originally published on June 28, 2017.

There's a new Netflix movie premiering next month called To The Bone that depicts one young woman's struggle with anorexia. The movie has already created quite a stir, and after the trailer was released, some people argued that it was triggering and glamorized the realities of eating disorders. If this argument sounds familiar, that's because it crops up almost every time there's a pop culture depiction of disordered eating — it's nearly impossible to tell stories about eating disorders without showcasing potential triggers.

But the creators of To The Bone are aware of these potential complications, and actively worked to represent eating disorders responsibly. In fact, the director, Marti Noxon, and the star, Lily Collins, both have a history of anorexia, so there are certain nuances to the experience that they wanted to be sure to portray accurately. Before the film aired, the cast released a PSA that addresses and dispels some common misconceptions about eating disorders. The film's creators also worked with Project HEAL, a non-profit organization that offers recovery support for people suffering from eating disorders, to ensure that they were approaching the topic with the right sensitivities.

"This is the first major motion picture on eating disorders where we knew that the filmmaker's heart — and Lily and Marti's hearts — were totally in the right place," says Kristina Saffran, co-founder and executive director of Project HEAL. "This gives us a huge opportunity to spark a national discussion on eating disorders in a way that has never been done before."

That said, the tricky thing about this film, and other eating disorder narratives, is that triggers are very subjective, and a person's reaction depends on where they are in their own personal struggle, says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. While it can be valuable to share stories about personal struggles with eating disorders, those same details of disordered eating behaviors or graphic images of extreme weight loss can be potential triggers for some people, Mysko says.

The most important thing for filmmakers to do when dealing with content that could potentially be triggering is to make sure that there are resources for people to connect with help, Mysko says. "You can see from people's reaction to the trailer, and from what we heard from the community, that there is a potential for people to be upset by this," she says. "But also, if they're motivated to get help, that's an opportunity, and I wouldn't want that to be missed."

If you're planning to watch this movie, or any narrative that depicts an eating disorder, here is some advice from Mysko and Saffran that you might want to consider. The most important point? You don't have to watch anything that makes you feel vulnerable.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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You don't have to watch if you don't want to.

When everyone is buzzing about a movie or TV show on Twitter or IRL, it's only natural to want to know what all the fuss is about. Only you can gauge whether or not you feel comfortable watching something, but you absolutely shouldn't force yourself to watch something that you're worried might be upsetting or triggering, Mysko says. "You don't have to start watching, and you can stop watching," she says.

In fact, it's probably best to stop as soon as you feel you might be triggered, says Heather Senior Monroe, LCSW, director of program development at Newport Academy, an adolescent treatment center. If you're someone supporting a loved one who you're concerned about being at-risk, or who is in recovery, you might want to give them a heads up not to watch the movie or TV show, Mysko says.
Remember this is just one story — and not necessarily yours.

There's certainly an eating disorder archetype that gets used in movies and other portrayals, and that's an extremely thin woman with anorexia, Mysko says. Seeing the same narrative about anorexia over and over can be triggering for some people. "There are so many people who have other kinds of experiences, whose struggles are not told in these mainstream narratives about eating disorders," she says. Mysko says NEDA often receives calls from people who feel like they aren't sure if they have an eating disorder, simply because they aren't as thin as what they associate with the disease.

"The pictures and images that are connected to eating disorders in film, TV, and mainstream magazines really leave out a lot of people whose lives are very negatively impacted, and their health is compromised, too," she says. It can be very upsetting, frustrating, and triggering for people to feel like they're left out of the discussion, but that doesn't mean that those stories aren't important. "There are many other stories about eating disorders that have yet to be told in the mainstream way," Mysko says.

To that same point, it can be difficult for movies to strike the delicate balance between showing that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, but also emphasizing that they can have a happy ending, Saffran says. "Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses, and I think we need to get out that severity, while also being hopeful and really promoting the idea that full recovery is totally possible," she says.
Talking to people will probably make you feel better.

There is a tendency to isolate and kind of shut down if you're feeling triggered, Mysko says. "If you're starting to feel that way, really resist that, and reach out," she says. You can either contact a helpline to an organization like NEDA, or talk to someone who's supporting you, whether that person is a parent, partner, or sibling. "Whoever it is you feel you can talk to, it's really important to resist the urge to shut down and isolate," she says.

In some cases, you might not feel totally triggered, but you just feel a little off, or like your feelings aren't that serious. Monroe says you should still consider talking to a loved one and going to a professional for support, so you can stop the feelings before they can potentially get worse.
Know where you are in your recovery.

If you are a person who is currently suffering from an eating disorder, it's important to evaluate where you are in your recovery before you decide to watch any film about eating disorders, Saffran says. For example, if you're early on in recovery, you might be more sensitive to triggers, she says. But as you progress, it might be easier to be around triggers. "That's part of recovery, being able to face triggers," she says.

But at the same time, you by no means have to watch or read anything that you worry might be upsetting to you. Although the filmmaker behind To The Bone did have firsthand experience with an eating disorder, the movie wasn't necessarily made for people suffering from eating disorders to watch, Saffran says. "It was made to educate the general public, which is a different goal," she says. In fact, the director, Marti Noxon, addressed this point of controversy on Twitter, writing, "My goal with the film was not to glamorize EDs, but to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions."
Honor your feelings.

If you feel even the slightest bit upset or uncomfortable after watching or reading a narrative about eating disorders, that matters. "It’s important to not ignore your feelings and to rely on factual information and professional care," Monroe says.

And if you are someone who has struggled with an eating disorder in the past, understand that, with treatment, about 60% of people will recover from eating disorders, according to the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders organization. But 20% will only make partial recoveries, even with treatment. Not everyone will experience the same relapse or trigger signs, but if you start to have worrisome feelings or lose your self-control, that's typically one indicator to look out for, according to Monroe. "Be vocal with loved ones or friends, and seek professional help," she says.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.