Though one was produced by a couple of teenage girls and the other by an esteemed Hollywood filmmaker, there are some great similarities between two new, short films about young women with eating disorders. Both have been featured on national television -- both are popping up all over the Internet -- and both deliver the same important message about how life feels to a person who has an eating disorder.
Both depict pretty, teenage girls who feel distant and alienated, though they are surrounded by friends. Both center on social gatherings. Both bulimic girls run off, alone, to the bathroom. Both look searchingly at themselves in the mirror and then run to the toilet to vomit. They then return to their friends, acting as though nothing had happened. In both cases, their friends ask whether they are alright.
Of course, neither of them is all right, and that's exactly the point. These films are hauntingly, achingly sad. Each was made with the best of intentions -- to show the deep suffering of seemingly normal people with eating disorders. I applaud both of those efforts but, as a therapist who treats people with eating disorders, I want to strongly recommend one and caution vulnerable people against watching the other.
You may be surprised to learn that, in my view, the better of the films is the one produced by the two young girls. Titled You Are Beautiful, the four-minute film was a winner in the My Hero International Film Festival and taker of the Viewer's Choice award at the annual Colorado Colorful Film Festival. The other, The Likeness, is longer (8.5 minutes), glitzier and more polished. Compared to it, the homespun one is sweeter and simpler and, most importantly, more effective. It's also far more hopeful and helpful.
Why? Because the heroine of the film (Mia, though we only know that's her name from the credits) passes out, to the astonishment of everyone around her. We next see her in a therapist's office and then in a hospital bed, where she struggles (unsuccessfully) to convince herself to eat a saltine cracker. Even here she faces a long and uncertain road to recovery -- but at least she's on the only path that could lead there.
The girl in the other film may not be so lucky. She shrugs off her worried friend's concern and the party continues around her -- nothing changes. Given this, the odds are high that neither will she.
But that's not all that I think is wrong with this slick, stylish film. As it begins we see the heroine (played by a fairly robust and healthy Elle Fanning) walking through a house party where exotic beauties -- some hideously thin -- drape themselves around each other and over furniture as though they're being photographed for a fashion magazine. Some are naked and we can see their wretched ruined bodies; others wear dramatic makeup. All of it seems sort of cool and exciting.
The film sends a mixed message. It simultaneously glamourizes and stigmatizes eating disorders, making it seem like people who have this problem are both aberrant and beautiful. I realize the director meant it as a deterrent (he made the film with his own daughter, who has had anorexia) but it's not. It's a horrifying trigger that puts people with eating disorders who watch it in grave danger.
I realize that you can't stop art, so this film is out in the world. Telling people not to watch it won't work -- it's like shining a spotlight on it. But please, if you have an eating disorder and feel that you must watch this film do so only in the presence of a therapist or a loved one you trust to help you navigate it safely.
Meanwhile, though, I hope that the other film -- You Are Beautiful -- enjoys a wide audience and is shown in homes and at schools and anywhere else that young, impressionable kids (and adults, for that matter) gather. These teenage filmmakers have a lot to teach seasoned artists about what makes an effective message!
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.