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Another Response to “Thin”: From an Inside Perspective

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.

Shelly talks about her feeding tube
Shelly talks about her feeding tube

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.

– Marisa

7 thoughts on “Another Response to “Thin”: From an Inside Perspective

  1. I’ve never had a serious eating disorder before, but I have had serious depression and I think that depression takes over your mind in a very similar way. So much of my struggle through depression has been trying to understand the relationship between my actual self and my depressed self, and, even harder, trying to explain that difference to people who haven’t experienced anything similar.

    I’d never heard either eating disorders or depression characterized as parasitic beings before reading this, but I think that that’s an excellent way to describe them.

  2. I love your text. I’ve no history with eating disorders (well, not more than what seems normal nowadays for a girl that tries to get through puberty -which is scary enough), but I’ve done self injury and I have quite similar feelings about this, the competition of who’s capable of more self destruction, the feeling that if I give it up, there’s nothing interesting about me any more and the little thrill of excitement in your stomach whenever someone talks about self destruction. (Luckily enough, these days are over -it really shocks and scares the hell out of me when I remember the state I was in these days and I don’t want to go there EVER again.)
    But (although I haven’t seen this particular movie you’re talking about) I very much agree with you about those kinds of documentaries that are just too.. understanding? Letting the self destructive part of the personality talk uncommented and thinking “you know, it’s so empowering to these girls that they are being listened to without judgement” is just one big misunderstanding. I’m not proposing that there’d be someone commenting after them and saying how wrong and stupid they are, but there’d be enough girls/women who’ve gotten over it or are seriously fighting to do so, but I suspect what they have to say isn’t nearly as exciting to the audience?
    The most appaling thing I found on the internet was a “support forum” for SI (run by a person who hadn’t even gone through this hirself, it seemed) with a disgustingly triggering story of a girl who burnt herself and sold herself to strangers since the age of thirteen. At that time, I was already trying to get better, but I had a really hard fight with my jealous self destructive side which wanted to do at least a little harm ’cause obviously, “she” could never ever compete with this girl.
    I wrote a complaint on the guestbook about that when I felt a bit more stable later , but it got deleted. So much for empowerment.

  3. …erm, I just reread my comment and I think it’s not really clear, so:
    This story about the girl was on the first page of this site and she was kind of shown as the prototypical self injurer.

  4. Sarah,

    I’m so sorry you had that experience with the self-harm website. I think self-harm is one of the hardest things to get support around because it is so incredibly misunderstood and talking about it is difficult to do without triggering other people with that history. But it sounds like they really weren’t being sensitive to the effect they are having on viewers.

    I’m glad to hear that you are doing better now. I hope you have the support and help that you need and please keep taking care of yourself. I think one of the best things we can do to combat the sensationalized image of self-harm, eating disorders and other addictions is to speak our stories of recovery and health; to be examples of the strength and hope that it does take to get better; to show people that it is possible.

    Take care,


  5. “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.”

    Marisa, you hit the nail on the head with this article. I remember watching “Thin” in the throws of my eating disorder and while it made me feel understood, it only spurred me on deeper into the pit.

    It’s so true: eating disorders like to brag, despite the shame. It’s important that you say that; I don’t think enough girls realize that is what happens. Thank you for your honesty.

    Even though I am now free from ED, I remember those times clearly. I used to brag about my eating disorder, but now I rejoice in the fact that I am LIVING free from his controlling grip.

    If only women would listen more to the voice of recovery than the voice of ED.

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