Make Anorexia Boring Again

July 14, 2017 § 1 Comment


Inpatient hospitalization: as boring as it gets. Photo: Netflix.

Been reading and hearing a lot about To The Bone, a new Netflix movie on anorexia out today. Like a lot a lot–mostly mixed reviews, with most of the criticism centering on the inherent trickiness of representing anorexia cinematically (see here. And here. And omg, here!). Because it is an illness that already depends so heavily on the visual, specifically a glamorization of wasting, creating an accurate portrayal in film seems to unavoidably risk playing into the core logic of the disorder. Any visual representation–and maybe any representation at all–becomes thinspo in the end. Anorexia is like a meaning machine, transforming every attempt to disrupt it into a tactic of reproduction. (Actually, depression works a lot like this too, which is why it’s frustrating as fuck to try to help with someone who’s depressed. Any possibility offered, any interpretation of reality that counters that of the depression, automatically gets converted into evidence of total impossibility.)

I say this as one who knows. I’m recovered now, but from ages 14 through 19 I actively starved myself–a physical manifestation of suicidal depression and intense anxiety more than any simple desire to be thin. Significantly, I was anorexic before the internet was widely available, and thus before the emergence of an online pro-ana culture. And yet. I distinctly remember hearing about the death of Karen Carpenter. It was 1986 or 87, a few years after her death from anorexia. I was in the car with my mom, and when a Carpenters song came on the radio, she told me how Carpenter had died. I remember that it felt deeply meaningful–tragic and fascinating both. I was seven years old. I had no context whatsoever for what I was hearing. Still, at nine I remember checking out The Best Little Girl in the World from our elementary school library–furtively, aware that my interest was somehow too keen. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was reading about or that I was so interested. At nine, reading my book on the school bus, I remember consciously considering anorexia but dismissing it. No, I could never do that, I thought. I like eating too much. I had no desire to be thin then, and no depression yet to soothe counterproductively via self-injury. But if there is something inscrutable about you that makes that particular brand of madness appealing, I think maybe there is something about anorexia that spreads just by knowing about it–whether represented in fiction, film, online or just via word of mouth. Just by hearing about what happened to Karen Carpenter.

So, the question remains: if this is true about anorexia, should we represent it at all? And if we should (which I think we should), how should we do it?

What I’ve been thinking about, in reading and hearing all this commentary about To the Bone–and what all of this prefatory introductory blah blah has been for–is one possible solution: cast anorexic characters so that they’re played by unremarkable-looking, non-thin actors.

One reason for doing this is similar to a point raised by the Guardian article: namely, that the best films about anorexia are actually non-representational or at least non-literal, as in Todd Haynes’s Superstar (in which Karen Carpenter and her creepy brother are played by Barbie and Ken dolls).

But the other reason is that casting someone who doesn’t look anorexic–perhaps even casting someone we’d describe as overweight–probably isn’t too far removed from the experience of many people who struggle with anorexia. I know it wasn’t for me. Only for a couple years of my illness did I appear significantly underweight. The other three years I was basically at a normal weight, because I was wobbling wildly between starving and bingeing. I looked healthy enough, but I wasn’t. Moreover, most of the folks who struggle with eating disorders aren’t anorexic at all–they’re bulimic, they’re binge eaters, they’re orthorexic (controlling weight/size with exercise), they’re “EDNOS” (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), a diagnosis I got a couple years ago, reflecting the reality that while I no longer actively starve myself, I still struggle with the impact of emetophobia (extreme fear of vomiting) on my weight. For many, many folks whose anxiety and depression manifest as struggles around eating, pain is not inscribed on the body as thinness.

So, as in the exercise where we expose unconscious cultural assumptions by imagining what would happen if we switched the genders or racial identities of a film or story’s characters: imagine an anorexia film where all of the actors don’t look anorexic. Where all the anorexic characters are not white, not female, not particularly attractive or unattractive. The plot, the dialogue, the hospital setting, the thoughts and behaviors of the characters are the same, but the bodies of the actors are “normal.”

There’s a campaign in there somewhere, I know it–Make Anorexia Boring Again? Because really, that’s what it was. Boring and not fun at all.

(ETA: In the time since I finished writing this – so, less than 12 hours – yet another article has come out on this film, this one in the Atlantic, raising similar points as those in the Guardian article and in my own commentary but missing my perfect solution, ha.)


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