Netflix eating disorders film To the Bone likely to raise controversy

On Friday, Netflix starts streaming its film To the Bone, in which Lily Collins plays a 20-year-old suffering from anorexia. It may be as controversial as teen suicide series 13 Reasons Why.

Experts warn the film could be a trigger for young women at risk of anorexia

Lily Collins lost weight to play the anorexic teen in To The Bone and the story of her weight loss is just the beginning of controversy over the Netflix film. (Gilles Mingasson/Netflix/Associated Press)

It's been nine years since Hope Virgo battled anorexia in hospital in Bristol, England, and in that time she's avoided watching anything depicting the eating disorder that nearly stopped her heart.

That will change on Friday, when Netflix starts streaming its controversial film To the Bone, in which Lily Collins (who herself has battled an eating disorder) plays a 20-year-old suffering from anorexia.

Virgo, who writes about her anorexia battle in her new book, Stand Tall Little Girl, says she isn't looking forward to seeing the film but feels she must because she's been warning about its hazards in articles and social media.

"I think (the trailer) makes eating disorders look like kind of a fun thing to have and that it makes it look exciting and that people do it for attention," says Virgo, 27, who battled anorexia for four years in her teens and spent a year in hospital recovering.

"Also the comments that Lily Collins made about her losing that much weight in a healthy way (for the role) doesn't make sense, because you can't lose that much weight in a healthy way. If you're that underweight, then it's unhealthy."

Several eating disorder organizations around the world are also warning about the film, including Canada's National Eating Disorder Information Centre.

"It's very similar to the controversy that was surrounding (Netflix's teen suicide series) 13 Reasons Why," says Marbella Carlos, outreach and education co-ordinator at NEDIC, which estimates that 600,000 to 990,000 Canadians suffer from an eating disorder.

Could trigger behaviour that makes disorders worse

"It can maybe show people who might be struggling with dieting or disordered eating — not quite a full-blown eating disorder — show them methodology or ways to engage in behaviour that would make things worse, which is really, really dangerous."

While Carlos has only seen the film's trailer, it raised concerns for her.

"What's troubling is that eating disorders can look very different for very different people, and what the trailer does is it sort of perpetuates this idea that eating disorders only happen to thin, white women or people who look emaciated and that sort of thing," she says.
Collins, left, and Alex Sharp in To The Bone. The treatment centre is shown to have a diverse mix of people. (Netflix/Associated Press)

To be fair, the treatment centre depicted in the film does have a more diverse slate of patients. And writer/director Marti Noxon knows first-hand the film's subject matter, having struggled with anorexia and bulimia in her 20s.

"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," she said, adding she hoped the film would be "truthful in a way that wasn't exploitive."

Zaineb El Khayati, a 22-year-old who's battled an eating disorder since age 14 in Brussels, Belgium, supports the depiction of people struggling with anorexia and bulimia.

"I want to watch it because as someone who has an eating disorder, I hope to see myself portrayed, because it's such a taboo," she says.

"I couldn't tell my mother for years I had an eating disorder. Even my brothers and my father didn't know about it. It has a stigma around this disease and I really hope people will watch it, will understand and judge less people."

Watch it with someone else

For those who are battling an eating disorder and plan to watch the film, Virgo recommends doing so with someone else, talking about it after, and then seeking treatment.

Carlos says treatment can be found through a hotline like NEDIC's (1-866-633-4220, or in Toronto at 416-340-4156).

"We have a database that connects people to every single resource available in the country, so every treatment centre, private therapist, publicly funded therapist or publicly funded program," she says.

"Another thing is to go to your family doctor and then they will be able to refer them."