In 2006, when Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Thin came out, I watched the film on my computer in the single dorm room that had become something of a cave for me. I was in the throes of a life-threatening eating disorder, and, needless to say, the film hit home. A few months later, I saw the documentary again, though in a different context: I watched it at an inpatient eating disorder treatment facility where I would spend the bulk of my 22nd year.
I agree with Kate’s thoughts (“‘Thin’ Is Thick With Reality”) that the film touches on something very real, although I think there is a subtlety that may not be apparent to all viewers.
The vast majority of films about addiction and mental illness focus on the “rock bottom”: the shocking and devastating turmoil in the addicts’ lives and all those around him/her. Thin appears to explore something deeper: the painfully difficult yet life-changing process of recovery. However, in truth, it is stuck in the same awestruck stare that other media attention has always been — the skeletal images, the double-digit weights, the tubes and medications and blood.
When I listen to the women in Thin tell their stories, I sadly do not hear the voices of these struggling women; I hear the competitive, proud, sick voices of their eating disorders. One may think I cannot truly know what is going on in their heads — and to a certain extent that is always true — but I assure you that I know an eating disorder voice when I hear one because it makes my heart ache with empathy in a way that no other sound can.
When I watched this documentary while I was sick, I was enthralled. I compared my body and my weight to each image and number on the screen or in the book. If I weighed less, I felt like I was winning. If I was more, if their bones protruded where mine did not — I was a failure. I felt undeserving of treatment because I was not as sick as every single one of those girls. This film was incredibly triggering — a term used in the treatment of addiction to refer to images, events, people, etc. that trigger addictive thoughts or behaviors. We would say that we were “triggered” when something made us feel more compelled to engage in self-destructive behaviors or resist treatment.
Though it is confusing for those on the outside to understand, an eating disorder is more like a parasitic being that slowly takes over more and more control than merely a disease of behavior and health. That voice and personification of the eating disorder is not so much metaphorical as it is an incredibly accurate and useful way of conceptualizing a disease that so often becomes difficult to disentangle from one’s true self. A notable percentage of the psychological community has actually proposed that eating disorders be categorized as psychotic disorders due to the extreme level of disconnection with reality.
“It’s totally disgusting, I know, but I had to get it out of me” says Shelly, when speaking of purging through her feeding tube, yet she smiles coquettishly as she says it. I can see behind her eyes that even as she may be embarrassed, her eating disorder is proud and nostalgic. Greenfield gives these women the opportunity to share their most terrible secrets, and though their honesty may seem brave, I know — from my own experience and from the experiences of other women I have known — that eating disorders crave the opportunity to brag, to compete, to shock, to live in the limelight.
One of the reasons it is so hard for many women to give up their eating disorders and embrace the long and arduous process of recovery is that they have grown up or lived much of their lives getting attention, love, and nourishment (in every sense of the word) as a result of being sick. To feed into that (pun intended), to give them yet another stage on which to dwell in the sickness in the form of being the subjects of this film, is neither service to these women nor help for the viewers. It perpetuates the sensationalized image of eating disorders — the gruesome images that, like a car crash one cannot look away from — instead of focusing on recovery, treatment, and prevention. Yes, it is important to know how bad things can get. But to dwell in numbers and behaviors — in short, to dwell in symptoms — is to miss the point and to reduce these women — much like their eating disorders have — to bodies.
I long for an opportunity to tell the story I now know is my more interesting one — not the story of body hatred, of lifelong depression, of self-destruction and of pushing my body and soul to the limits of life. For a long time I thought that was the most interesting thing about me. But it is not. I have also spent the last few years fighting for my life. Not because I was starving myself or throwing up my food but quite the opposite — I have been fighting because I have stopped doing those things.
Having an eating disorder was easy. But recovery gave me a life.