Many of those with eating disorders or whose family has been touched by them will have taken great interest in the recently released Netflix drama-comedy film To the Bone, which charts what the distributor has described as a “harrowing, sometimes funny journey of self-discovery” by Ellen, a 20-year-old with anorexia nervosa.

A film almost guaranteed to divide opinion

The Marti Noxon-directed film certainly has no shortage of star appeal, featuring the British-American model and actress Lily Jane Collins – the daughter of musician Phil Collins – as Ellen, along with Keanu Reeves as Dr William Beckham and The Good Wife actress Carrie Preston as Ellen’s stepmother, Susan.

However, while To the Bone has received critical acclaim from many quarters, receiving a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and being described by that site’s ‘Critics Consensus’ as “an insightful, empathetic look at a widespread issue”, other observers have been less charitable in their assessments, even likening it to a ‘how-to’ manual for anorexia.

That latter view comes from Northwestern University psychology professor Renee Engeln, who was quoted by the American TV news programme Chicago Tonight as stating: “There’s a very real sense in which the film could be used as a how-to manual for someone struggling with eating disordered behaviour. From my perspective, a good film about anorexia doesn’t provide a how-to manual; it doesn’t show close-ups of ribs and spines like this film does.”

Similar sentiments were voiced by critical reviewers such as Ellie Williams, who wrote for Cambridge University student newspaper Varsity that the film “does not represent the complexity of eating disorders, or the diversity of those who experience them.” She described the character of Ellen as being similar to the image of “an emaciated yet ethereally beautiful, white teenage girl… that has been romanticised and tokenised by online communities for years.”

A sensitive portrayal of anorexia, or an oversimplification?

There is much more that could be said about To the Bone’s approach to the frequently extremely complicated and fraught subjects of anorexia and eating disorders in general – and much more certainly will be said.

Amid all of the claims and counterclaims about the film’s content, it should be noted that Noxon herself struggled with anorexia and bulimia in her teens and 20s and has spoken of the “tricky balance” to be struck in directing such a film. As she told Vanity Fair: “We didn’t want to show a whole lot of behaviour [and] make it aspirational. But we also wanted to tell the story in a way that felt authentic.”

We are sure that the debate will rumble on as to whether To the Bone makes a positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful contribution to the discussions surrounding eating disorders and anorexia and how these conditions are depicted and addressed in wider culture.

In the meantime, if you are affected by any of the issues addressed in the film, please feel free to contact Portland Practice to learn more about the highest standard of suitably and sensitively tailored psychotherapy in London.