Anorexia film To the Bone triggers tears, painful memories at special screening

Alison Rogers has been struggling to keep her eating disorder under control for years, but she says she's particularly vulnerable these days. Still, she attended a special screening of the Netflix film To the Bone organized by a Toronto centre that helps people with eating disorders.

Sheena's Place, a Toronto treatment centre for eating disorders, held special viewing for patrons

Alison Rogers watches a difficult scene in the Netflix film To the Bone. The film, which came out last Friday, portrays a woman with anorexia and has been accused of glamorizing the eating disorder. (CBC)

Alison Rogers has been trying to keep her eating disorder under control for years, but she says she is particularly vulnerable now — weeks away from her entry into a local outpatient day treatment program.

In spite of that, she chose to attend a screening of To the Bone at a Toronto eating disorder support centre last Friday, the same day the controversial film portraying a young woman's struggle to overcome anorexia, was released on Netflix.

Rogers was able to sit through most of the film, often gripping the hands of the women sitting near her, but some scenes were simply too hard for her to watch. It was particularly difficult seeing the emaciated body of main character Ellen, who suffers from anorexia and is played by Lily Collins.

It makes me feel like I need to go work on my goals harder. I need to go starve myself more.- Alison Rogers, suffers from eating disorder

"[The film] makes me feel like there's something wrong with me," said Rogers. "It makes me feel like other people are watching this film ... thinking, 'God, how awful that is, how bad I feel for this young woman.'

"At the same time, I would die to look that way. It makes me feel like I need to go work on my goals harder. I need to go starve myself more. I need to run more." 

'Please do not show this film': petition

That sentiment is precisely what critics of To the Bone have warned about: that the film glamorizes eating disorders and calorie counting and might serve as an instructional video on how best to have an eating disorder. 

Similar kinds of concerns were raised earlier this year with the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which deals with teen suicide and assault, and the streaming service was forced to add more warnings to certain episodes.

Lily Collins plays 20-year-old anorexia sufferer Ellen. The actress has had her own struggles with an eating disorder but has had to defend the role against critics who fear some viewers may try to emulate Ellen and take the film as a blueprint rather than a warning. (Netflix via AP)

This time, Netflix included a trigger warning, stating that the film includes, "realistic depictions that may be challenging for some viewers."

That preamble wasn't enough to stop an online petition from being launched to pull To the Bone from the public domain.

The petition decried the movie, saying it would "glamorize mental illness, exacerbate the stigma surrounding eating disorders and be triggering for those attempting to recover from an eating disorder."

So far, the petition has more than 850 signatures.

A safe space to watch

The controversy surrounding the movie prompted Sheena's Place, a Toronto eating disorder treatment centre, to organize a screening to create a safe space for participants to watch and discuss the film. 

"There's no way I could have watched this at home," said Rogers.

The centre's executive director, Debbie Berlin-Romalis, said seeing a Hollywood portrayal of a disorder you're struggling with can bring up the "old feelings of shame and stigma that you lived through."

Netflix included this warning to viewers which displays before the movie starts streaming. (CBC)

Despite the concerns about the movie, Berlin-Romalis said the film is useful because it starts a conversation and may push people who are quietly battling an eating disorder to seek help. 

"We don't necessarily want to shoot the messenger," said Berlin-Romalis. "But we want to really actively listen to the message."

Clients of Toronto eating disorder treatment centre discuss controversial Netflix film about anorexia 2:53

Part of that is highlighting the numbers many Canadians might not be familiar. 

According to statistics provided by Sheena's Place, eating disorders are the No. 1 cause of death among all mental illnesses. Almost one million Canadians struggle with various eating disorders. In addition, men make up 25 per cent of those dealing with eating disorders. The film features a male character with anorexia.

Berlin-Romalis said if To the Bone brings attention to eating disorders, it could have a positive effect. 

"Then that in my mind makes the film successful," she said.

Not a one-size-fits-all disorder

Another client who uses the services at Sheena's Place, Kira McCarthy,  first watched the movie alone at home, armed with colouring pages on her iPad to distract her when scenes became too disturbing. She brought the tablet with her to watch To the Bone a second time, surrounded by friends at the centre.

Once McCarthy got through the first 10 minutes, which she called "uncomfortable," she zeroed in on one of the main problems she saw with the film: the onscreen struggle of yet another thin, white woman.

Kira McCarthy prepared to watch the film by making sure her iPad was nearby to distract her during difficult moments. (CBC)

"I can't relate to it at all," McCarthy said of the film and portrayals of eating disorders in general.

"It's usually very thin, emaciated young white women who are experiencing these struggles, and it's really represented as the same symptoms over and over again," McCarthy said. "[In reality], there are so many different struggles." 

'Don't watch it alone'

As difficult as the film was to watch, many at the screening felt a sense of accomplishment at being able to sit through the very personal subject matter. The centre is considering organizing more screenings for other participants.

Rogers said she was proud of herself for getting through it.

"It took a lot of courage to come in here and do this," she said.

However, she acknowledged some eating disorder sufferers may not be ready to see To the Bone

"If you're really, really active in your eating disorder, don't watch this," said Rogers. "Don't watch it, and don't watch it alone."

About the Author

Salimah Shivji

Journalist

Salimah Shivji is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau.