‘To the Bone’ Netflix’s next controversy

Graphic film about anorexia may be trigger for vulnerable

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Addie Gleekel wasn’t sure what to expect from a Netflix movie about anorexia.

An eating disorder survivor who believes in speaking openly about the disease, she was curious to see how the new film, “To the Bone,” would tackle the complex and often-deadly mental illness.

As she watched the trailer about a young woman’s battle with anorexia, Gleekel, 18, became increasingly upset. Close-up shots of the young woman’s bony spine were too much for her.

“I do think the images in it could be very triggering and could jeopardize someone’s recovery,” said Gleekel, a senior at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minn.

Her concerns are shared by many in the eating disorders world, where debate is raging over the movie’s impact on young people.

Some argue that the film glamorizes anorexia and could cause impressionable young viewers to develop eating disorders. Others applaud the spotlight it puts on eating disorders — the third most chronic illness among teen girls. But nearly everyone agrees that how the message is delivered is crucial.

“Entertainment has always been a platform for talking about the things that are big in our emotional lives,” said Peggy Conway, senior editor of TV for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that encourages safe media and technology use for kids.

Shielding young people from “dark issues” isn’t the answer. But entertainment companies such as Netflix have “a certain responsibility when you are dealing with children who aren’t fully emotionally developed and aren’t able to process information the same way adults do,” she said.

And Netflix often goes straight to children. The streaming entertainment behemoth, which is increasingly delving into controversial topics, reaches kids directly on their mobile devices. About 65 percent of Americans age 16 to 24 are Netflix users, according to Global Web Index.

That’s raising fears about potential adverse effects. “To the Bone” comes on the heels of “13 Reasons Why,” Netflix’s provocative TV series on teen suicide.

“Kids are watching a lot of things on tablets and phones as opposed to the big TV in the living room,” said Conway. “Things are less regulated in that space.”

Without a parent or other caring adult to provide context, many worry that kids will get the wrong message.

“When I hear parents talking about watching it with a teenager and having conversations, that’s good. Because I do think we don’t talk about these things often enough,” said Gabrielle Filip-Crawford, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Catherine University. “The question I run up against is: Is that worth potentially triggering or potentially glamorizing a suicide or disorder?”

Buzz about the film began at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and gained steam after the release of an edgy trailer that attracted millions of views on YouTube.

Both the director, Marti Noxon, and the lead actor, Lily Collins, brought their own past battles with eating disorders to the project. Collins told the Associated Press that the movie was meant to start a conversation.

Oh, how it did.

Even before its July 14 release, petitions were filed on Change.org demanding that Netflix pull the movie. Protesters railed against the film’s potential to be used as “thinspiration” fodder (pictures of gaunt bodies shared online to encourage people to resemble them). Many critics also condemned what they see as a stereotypical presentation of a person with an eating disorder. The main character is female, white and from a family with means.

The controversy reached the young patients at the Emily Program, a national treatment center for eating disorders in the Twin Cities.

“All the kids were talking about wanting to see it,” said Lucy Chermak, the center’s clinical nutrition manager for adolescent services. “We knew they were going to watch it and they had requested to watch it as a group.”

On the day the movie was released, the center set aside its regular schedule and hosted a “To the Bone” viewing with clients and staff therapists, who led discussions of the movie as they watched.

“To the Bone” accurately depicted known eating disorder behaviors, said Chermak. Scenes showing Collins’ character overexercising and severely restricting the food she ate rang true.

“It’s pretty eye-opening and shocking to see someone who is as malnourished and as ill as that client,” she said, “so to be able to put context to what all symptom use is with an eating disorder was a benefit of the movie.”

At the same time, she said that authenticity could pose a serious problem for those watching alone.

“People who are struggling with eating disorders cling to comparison. So somebody who may not struggle with eating or body (image) can say ‘This is impactful’ or ‘This is scary or maybe life threatening,’ ” Chermak said. “Someone with difficulty with body image or who has a diagnosed eating disorder, they might look at that and think ‘Why can’t I be that way?’ ”

The movie does include a warning to viewers, and it offers insights into the disease for people who want to understand it better, Chermak said. But she doesn’t recommend people with eating disorders watch it on their own.