Behind The Controversial Storyline In “To The Bone” About Art And Eating Disorders


“The art has a right to exist,” Marti Noxon, writer and
director of To the Bone, told BuzzFeed News about the
backlash to her controversial Netflix film.

Posted on July 21, 2017, 21:02 GMT

After Netflix released its first trailer for
To the Bone,
a film about a young woman with anorexia, it didn’t take
long for people to share a range of complicated feelings on the
subject. Without having even seen the film, a lot of viewers
were worried about the way eating disorders would be portrayed
onscreen and that this piece of media could be more harmful
than helpful to those in recovery.

Writer and director Marti Noxon did not anticipate that the
reaction to her film would mirror a fictional storyline in
the movie. But in a classic example of life imitating art,
Noxon has been forced to confront the same ideas and questions
that are brought up in her own film: How do you create art
about eating disorders that doesn’t glamorize it and
potentially cause further harm?

“I hadn’t really thought about the film itself being a
provocative piece of art, but I did think that that it would be
interesting to show that it’s such a dicey thing trying to
express yourself around such a hot topic,” Noxon told BuzzFeed

To the Bone, which debuted at the Sundance Film
Festival in January and started streaming on Netflix earlier
this month, tells the story of a 20-year-old college dropout
named Ellen (Lily Collins) who struggles with anorexia. Ellen
has been in and out of different treatment facilities and
programs, and her battle with the eating disorder puts a strain
on her family. She used to publish her eating disorder–related
drawings online as a coping mechanism and a way of grappling
with her disease. But her art garnered a significant following
online, with lots of people idolizing her work and using it as
thinspiration, in the process making Ellen a semifamous
celebrity artist on Tumblr. One of her fans, however, kills
themselves and sends Ellen the suicide note. The parents of
that fan also mail Ellen explicit photographs of their
daughter, blaming Ellen for the suicide.

Noxon said she didn’t realize it at the time of filming or even
during its original conception, but creating a movie about
anorexia ended up yielding similar reactions from viewers as
Ellen’s online artwork did. After she completed To the
, Noxon said “it was a little bit of a house of
mirrors” to witness people responding similarly to how some
reacted to Ellen’s controversial drawings on the internet;
there was a thin line between fiction and reality.

Noxon, who herself had an eating disorder in her teens
and early twenties, drew from personal experiences when
creating To the Bone. She agrees the film isn’t for
everyone, and that it’s important for viewers to carefully
consider if they’re “ready to consume it,” a process she
understands firsthand.

“When I was actively on the brink of death, [my doctor didn’t
want me] around a whole bunch of other anorexics,” she said.
“But he does feel, now, that the movie is really important for
people in a certain process in their recovery.”

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated
reports that a minimum of 30 million people in the United
States suffer from eating disorders. “The art has a right to
exist,” Noxon said. “The world is full of intense things, and
the worst possible conclusion, I think, would be that [the
movie] shouldn’t exist.”

When Noxon, who’s now 52, was dealing with these issues, the
world was a different place than it is today, and the internet
has changed the landscape of how we discuss eating disorders
and other mental illnesses. While thinspo communities have
existed prior to the internet, Tumblr, for example, which was
founded in 2007, streamlined these communities and heightened
their visibility to outsiders. Noxon believes it’s created a
paradox for those with disorders and illnesses, in which going
online can be “both really good and really bad.”

“Its proliferation of images can’t help but have some kind of
subconscious effect on you,” the filmmaker said. “On the other
hand, I feel like there’s a real burgeoning feminist discourse
that’s happening because of the internet. Like-minded people
are able to push forward a conversation that didn’t exist until
women could really have a full-bodied voice that wasn’t
censored by a kind of male-dominated media.”

Before making To the Bone, Noxon was already aware of
anorexia communities on Tumblr because “as a recovered woman”
she pays attention to what’s happening in the community. Her
inspiration for the Tumblr artwork and her suicidal fan
storyline, however, came from reading a graphic novel by a
young woman who wrote about her experience with anorexia.

“I thought the images in it were so beautiful, but they were
really painful,” she said. “I knew that it deserves to be in
the world, but I also felt like I could see how someone would
say it’s hurtful to make these images.”

There’s a great deal of shame surrounding eating
disorders like anorexia and bulimia, and Noxon hopes To the
will combat that stigma. When people are “ashamed to
admit it and confess that part of themselves,” she said, they
sometimes resort to communicating with anonymous online
communities instead of their families and other people who care
about them.

“If people could talk more about it, maybe there wouldn’t be
such a secret internet community of supporters around their
fascination with it,” she said. “I do feel like when people
take art or images or ideas and use them to harm themselves,
there’s probably a bigger issue.”

Noxon emphasized that she is “so against any form of
censorship,” but concedes that when dealing with such sensitive
issues and depictions, “just the nature of acknowledging it
could be activating for somebody.” The very existence of this
film and others like it can be triggering for its intended

“It’s such a strange time,” Noxon said. “On the one hand it
feels like we’re living in a culture that’s so reckless and has
such disregard for people’s feelings, and then on the other
hand it’s like, everything needs a trigger warning.”

To the Bone has a warning of its own. Before the
107-minute movie begins, the following message appears on the
screen: “The film was created by and with individuals who have
struggled with eating disorders, and it includes realistic
depictions that may be challenging for some viewers.”

Noxon said she agrees it’s “the most responsible thing” to do
if you’re someone who creates content about eating disorders
and other sensitive subject matters “because it’s prone to

Netflix and Noxon also partnered with Project Heal, a nonprofit
organization that provides funding and resources for people
with eating disorders, to help viewers make sense of To the
. The organization released a
discussion guide on its website that features sections like
“Responsible Viewing,” “Parental Supervision,” and “Starting
Conversations.” There’s also a resource guide for viewers,
including information about eating-disorder recovery.

“I think that we did our very best to try to convey it in a way
that was authentic and also shows that it is like a death and
not fun and not glamorous,” she said. “But if simply seeing the
images and seeing it represented is going to be potentially too
provocative for someone, they need to check whether they’re
ready to see it.”

Without ignoring the harsh realities and possible triggers
To the Bone could prompt for viewers, the filmmaker
wants those who watch the movie to take away a deeper
understanding of what it’s like to battle anorexia. Noxon knows
there’s nothing pretty about depicting eating disorders, but
she wants those who suffer from them — and their loved ones too
— to know there can be a light at the end of the tunnel.

“At my worst, I was trapped. I was absolutely miserable and
desperate, and I thought there was no way out,” Noxon said.
“The hope is that the film helps you see that you can still get
a life, and find a beautiful one at that.”

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