Saturday, July 15, 2017

Beyond the Bone

As a ballet dancer in my youth I was naturally obsessed with my weight and did some pretty extreme things to keep the weight off, including eating nothing beyond breakfast for six days of the week and binge-eating on the seventh, as well as using laxatives when I broke this strict diet even with just a spoonful of food beyond breakfast. And I exercised more or less all day. I weighed 37 kilos from when I was 15 to 17. I loved my hip bones and my thigh gap, though I wanted more of a gap, as well as bonier shoulders and arms.

To the Bone
This extreme dieting kind of worked for me at the time, as it does for many ballet dancers - and models and actresses - which is a problem for these art forms and one that is reflected, with slightly less intensity, in the wider experience of growing up female in a culture that values the aesthetic of female thinness and bones.

If I'm honest I still value this aesthetic to a degree, though I have not dieted - nor been thin - for many decades now, and I think my values have changed somewhat since I was a skinny teen. I can see that Keira Knightley is too thin here. Much too thin.

The Netflix movie To the Bone tackles this issue head on, with a story featuring a girl struggling with anorexia who is played by an actress who is clearly too thin (she lost 20 pounds for the role), and who has suffered from eating disorders in her past, as have the women who wrote and directed the film.

It's a pretty common female story to be sure, and for this reason it should be told in film. But the fact that the actress had to dice with this disease by losing so much weight when she was thin to begin with and had experienced eating issues in her real life, is rather problematic, as it kind of suggests that the disease is not as serious as it is, if you can just come in and out of it like that, an assumption all too easily made when the cure seems to be to just eat.

But the disease kills a high number of sufferers and the cure is far from simple. Indeed the only real cure is prevention, which is the opposite of easy as it means undoing all those messages that tell us in Western culture that thin girls are prettier than not-thin girls.

The film's inclusion of a not-thin girl as one of the patients in the clinic for treating eating disorders was a progressive - if slightly awkward - move in that it helps us to see that thin and fat are really the flip sides of the same disordered, food-preoccupied mind that is the reality for so many western girls and women, a perspective that shows, indeed, that eating in itself is no cure.

I don't think I have been a particularly good mother to my daughter in her struggles up and down with weight, no doubt partly because of my own weight issues and preoccupation with bones as a young dancer, but I think I am getting better at seeing it is preferable for women to be overweight than underweight, or at least realising that this mental adjustment is the first step towards developing a healthier perspective on women and weight.

To the Bone is, on balance, a story worth telling on film, largely because it shows the unattractiveness of being a thin and bony woman, in contrast to its usual glamorisation, without simplifying the cure or blaming the thin woman - or deflecting blame, either. There is no finger-pointing; 'blame' is diffuse and shared, a novel concept in itself.

I hope this cutting-edge, female-centred film helps anorexic girls and women - indeed all girls and women - to move beyond anorexia and other eating disorders, including bulimia and obesity. It has helped me already.  


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