My Culture/Teen Culture/TV

There is Hope: The Hidden Gospel in “To the Bone”

I have a strong conviction that the Gospel hides in plain sight more often than we may be comfortable to admit. We see the Gospel easily in our churches, in our religion classes, on retreats, and in our Life Nights. But I believe that God, the source of all goodness, and His narrative of new life found in surrendering to Him, can be seen, at least in traces, in countless ways in the secular world.

Certainly, all the messages communicated in the world need to be critically understood. And God’s ability to work in secular messages does not mean all secular messages should be consumed (a good rule of thumb is if it leads me to sin, I shouldn’t consume it). However, the good that does exist in the secular is a reflection of the Source of goodness itself — it is a reflection of the God who can make all things work for the purpose of good for he who believes (Romans 8:28). And I firmly believe recognizing and affirming that good is one way that we can recognize the redemptive work of Christ in our lives today.

To the Bone

I heard a lot about a new movie called To the Bone that was sparking some controversy. People had both positive and negative things to say about it — so I decided to see it myself. People had a lot to say about its treatment of eating disorders, especially the way its depiction could affect viewers struggling with eating disorders. To the Bone tells the story of a 20-year-old woman named Ellen who, after going through various treatment centers to receive help for anorexia, finds herself admitted to a group home where she and various other characters fighting various types of eating disorders, are challenged and equipped, little by little, to overcome their illnesses.

While I wouldn’t encourage someone struggling with an eating disorder to watch this film and while my heart breaks for any person who looks to this film (or any image in the media) as some sort of “thinspiration,” I do believe God’s goodness can be seen in this movie. Ultimately, what To the Bone does is portray human brokenness, but it doesn’t stop at brokenness; it offers an experience of hope that we as humans can experience — and as Catholics, we believe this is experienced ultimately in union with Christ. While there is darkness, brokenness, and hurt portrayed in this movie, the Gospel and Truth can be found in its narrative.

Eating Disorders are Ugly

Some have argued that this film glorifies eating disorders, making them seem attractive to some degree. While someone struggling with eating disorder tendencies* may not react well to the images in this film, I don’t think eating disorders were depicted in an appealing way at all.

Watching this movie was not comfortable because it was an hour and a half of watching a woman fall victim to an illness over and over again, that seems like it should be controllable, but clearly, is not. From counting calories like a calculator, to cringey shots of a bruised, jutting spine, to watching Ellen spit out chewed up food, to the discovery of a purge puke bag under a fellow patient’s bed, this movie does not make eating disorders seem attractive in the least. Not to mention the painfully dysfunctional family dynamic, psychological issues, and dark consequences that lie in the background of all of this, making eating disorders seem all the more ugly and disturbing.

Human Brokenness is Hard

What this movie does do well is capture the broken reality of humanity. It tells the story of Ellen, struggling with not only an eating disorder, but also a family situation that seems to be the source of identity and worth questions. Additionally, in the treatment center where she seeks to overcome her illness, Ellen (who changes her name to Eli later in the film) is surrounded by other broken people, including a young woman who can’t overcome the images she sees in magazines, a young man who lost his ballet career to his anorexia, and a young woman who loses her first child at her end of the first trimester, presumably because of the effects of her eating disorder.

To the Bone does not shy away from the harsh realities that we as human beings face on a day-to-day basis. It tells the story of messy humanity and the ways that affects all of us. It shows a whole host of people all desperate for acceptance, hope, identity, and love, and the various difficulties that go along with that.

There is Always Hope for New Life

Along with that brokenness depicted here, there is a very clear depiction of hope (albeit a rather lazy one in the sense of storytelling). The movie here clearly illustrates that despite all the messiness, all the brokenness, all the hurt, healing and redemption is possible. Certainly, this isn’t told in Gospel terms, but it illustrates the Gospel truth that humanity is not destined for brokenness, but brokenness can be the very place where new life happens, as that is the case in Ellen’s experience. When she stops running from her illness and shrouding it in a defense of wit and false strength, when she lets herself be truly broken and sees herself in that, is when she finds the strength to overcome the illness that is slowly taking her life — it’s where she finds the will to live.

And that right there, Ellen finding her will to live, is what I think is the most encouraging part of this film. All throughout I felt myself struggling to watch as it seemed like people all around Ellen were desperate for her to live and live life to the fullest, but she just couldn’t find that desire within herself. It was a beautiful moment, then, at the end, where Ellen made a decision for herself, that life truly was worth living, even at the cost of fighting this serious illness.

Christ is Always Necessary

All that said, Ellen’s decision in the film isn’t based on a relationship with Christ and, therefore, there is something lacking in the movie because of that absence. Of course one can identify and affirm the good that does exist in the film, but because the hope illustrated in this film isn’t rooted in Christ, it is incomplete. None of us has the power to save ourselves and redeem our own suffering; but Christ, in His mercy has done so and invites us into relationship with Him that He might be free to do that in each of our lives. Traces of the Gospel can be seen in secular media, but we must always turn back to Christ and the fullness of redemption that He offers us.

The brokenness we all experience, our insecurities, our deepest wounds, these are the things that make being a human difficult. However, our humanity was created for much more than this and was redeemed to much more than this. We find our hope in a Savior who took all that on for Himself, so that we could know the glorified life of true love the He lives as the second Person of the Trinity. We find hope knowing that a life, despite the brokenness it come with, is worth living and worth living to the fullest.

*A person struggling with eating disorders may have such a severely distorted mental outlook that they actually do find the movie inspiring from the standpoint of how skinny the lead character is. It is not recommended that someone struggling in this area should watch this film, as it may create additional challenges for him or her because of the very visual representation of eating disorders and its effects.

About the Author

Leah Murphy

As a graduate of John Paul the Great Catholic University, with a background in video and a passion for that wild place where faith and culture meet, she lives to tell God's love story to the world, in the digital space. Dwelling in California, she spends all her free time doing all the things with her friends, enjoying the best music out there, and going on every adventure that comes her way.

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