Phoebe, the Oracle, was telling me, with her trademark restrained outrage, about the new Netflix film To the Bone, which she feels glamorises anorexia. Since then I’ve seen a one star review in the Guardian (“Nothing useful or insightful [is] said about anorexia or anything else”), and Hadley Freeman has attacked it in the same publication.
I haven’t seen the film, (I know, I know, how can I pass judgement? Give over…) but Lily Collins looks far too beautiful not to glamorise her role. A truthful representation of anorexia ought to be too boring to watch. How long can you watch somebody else dithering over what to have for dinner or getting stuck in the loo for hours because they’re so constipated? How many times can you watch somebody changing their mind in the chilled foods aisle? Where’s the drama in somebody refusing to leave the house and being incapable of speech or thought? One of the reasons anorexia got such a grip on me was because it allowed me to concentrate on trivialities rather than confronting the enormous geo-political or psychological terrors that surround and beset us all. Jo, my wife, once called me “the most tedious person in the universe” just because I was agonising over what to cook. With typical anorexic inversion, I was rather pleased with this. I’m not sure why (which is also typical of anorexics) perhaps it proved to me that I’d successfully hidden myself among the details.
From the inside, of course, anorexia is a fevered and surreal melodrama; you’re crashing around your own life, falling over the furniture like a giddy drunk but without the hilarity. (It also makes you literally clumsy. I’ve broken so many glasses. The kitchen is outlined in tiny, sparkling glass shards that I couldn’t be bothered to sweep up properly.) As you begin to recover, or at least gain a bit of weight, you become more capable of analysing your own experiences. This inevitably makes you pretty introspective because you’re asking yourself “What the fuck just happened to me?”
The writer-director of To the Bone, Marti Noxon, “based the movie on her own experiences with the illness” but how do you make such a boring condition worth watching when its about somebody else? Well, you add spurious, but engaging story elements. You make the anorexic’s journey to recovery into a compelling narrative. You make it a satisfying and ultimately positive experience. This is, by definition, glamorisation.
If a writer-director is somebody who’s had an eating disorder in the past, then of course their film will glamorise anorexia. You can never, never trust what an ex-anorexic says about anorexia. It is anorexia that gives Marti Noxon the authority to make a film about anorexia, just as it is anorexia that gives Hadley Freeman the authority to condemn that film. Ms. Freeman mentions her “first three hospitalisations” and her “last three admissions” with a hint of pride; disappointingly, I have never been hospitalised, but it is my experience of anorexia that allows me to comment on both these people. Anorexia gives us importance and interest. It gives us something to say that’s worth listening to. And because of this it keeps getting off the leash – it blurts things out through our mouths, especially when we’re explaining our condition or giving each other advice.
All this is a way for us to express our damaged souls. Ms. Noxon has said “I started to need to turn to the other female producers quite frequently and say: ‘I’m going to need you to tell me that I don’t need to lose weight’”. So you see, the film is about Marti Noxon. It is part of her ongoing struggle with the need to starve herself. She is the sufferer at its heart.
It is also interesting that she made Lily Collins, who has also had eating disorder issues, lose enough weight to look “credibly anorexic”. This is a dangerous thing to do, because the thinner you get, the weirder your thinking becomes and the more likely you are to have a relapse. We are a very disloyal bunch. The spiritual, metaphysical and emotional dimensions of life turn out to be functions of the brain, and, as it begins to starve and shut down, it sheds its ability to include these aspects in your mental life. One of these deep brain structures is empathy, the ability to immediately imagine and identify with another person’s experience. You don’t realise how easily you do this every day, until you lose it. You are all far more empathetic than you think you are.
But lose it you do, if you’re anorexic. We can become very cold-blooded and Machiavellian and will happily sacrifice each other to validate our own positions. In Marti Noxon’s case, she will need reasons not to relapse, and one of these will be her film. She might well be willing to sacrifice the well-being of some little upstart, encroaching on her pre-occupation, in order to improve her film. And, yes, there could be such an involuntary edge of cruelty in her manipulation of her star. I was babysitting a class recently, and one of the girls was being extremely snappish. Eventually she told me she hadn’t “eaten for a week”, then she collapsed on a chair and started shaking. Her friends swept her off with great excitement and more appeared out of nowhere, summoned by text, to fuss over her. It must have been very satisfying for her. I felt annoyed. I thought to myself “you’re not the only one with a psychological problem, Sunshine!” I was being territorial about my own disorder. I didn’t want other people to have it too. That would cheapen my experience.
So any work that we produce on the strength of our illness is going to be “Pro-ana”. Having had the condition allowed us to create. Without it, there’s be no work. This blog is partly pro-ana: You too will have the right to enter the debate if you keep denying yourself food.
The creature will always, always try to hijack our voices. Sometimes even we can’t be sure who is speaking from sentence to sentence. When we lick our lips, you should notice that the tongue is forked.
Oh, and can I just say, the eating disorders team did consider hospitalising me, so I still get to wear the Anorexia Campaign Medal, right?