Boston Globe

Boston Globe

"'Thin' offers intimate look at torments of eating disorders"
Matthew Gilbert, Globe Staff - November 14, 2006

Most of us know a little about eating disorders. Maybe we've encountered a person with anorexia or bulimia, maybe we were fans of Karen Carpenter. Maybe we've been arrested by images of skeletal women on the cover of People magazine for a story about celebrities going too far. Indeed, the same media that glorifies fat-free glamour also captures us with grotesque images of Nicole Richie and Kate Bosworth having starved themselves to the bone.

But this level of awareness does not prepare you for the power of "Thin," an HBO documentary chronicling four women at the Renfrew Center, an eating-disorder clinic in Coconut Creek, Fla. Directed by photographer Lauren Greenfield, "Thin," tonight at 9, is a stunningly intimate look at the extreme private torments of those struggling with anorexia and bulimia. Greenfield's camera shows us women for whom swallowing a bite of food is torture, purging a meal is effortless, and obsessing about diet is constant. "I used to have a personality," says Shelly, 25, grieving the fact that she can't think about anything other than losing weight.

Shelly is a good example of just how far the women in "Thin" go to deny themselves nurturance. At the start of the film, Shelly has a feeding tube in her stomach. Her facial features exaggeratedly angular, her lip region pocked with malnutrition sores, she has been force fed for years. She sobs when the clinic requires her to swallow a nutritional drink, and later we see her purging it -- through her feeding tube. Clearly, Renfrew has good reason to deny bathroom breaks during meals and forbid handbags in the dining room.

Shelly develops a bond with Polly, 29, who's tough on the outside but shattered inside. Polly acts like a rebel, leading Shelly and others to break clinic rules, but she cries as she has to force down a birthday cupcake -- "I wanted a bran muffin," she says -- and we learn she once tried suicide after two slices of pizza. When she gets kicked out of Renfrew for misbehavior, she falls apart and heads for the toilet to vomit. Her act of purging requires surprisingly little physical exertion, but it speaks loudly of her anger and self-loathing. The scene is heartbreaking.

The youngest subject is Brittany, a 15-year-old overcompensating for early years of overeating. Brittany's mother also has a disorder, and Brittany describes the two of them bonding by chewing and spitting out food together. It's sad to see anyone leaving Renfrew because of insurance woes, and when Brittany has to go prematurely, home to her mother, it's one of the movie's many pessimistic notes. "I just want everyone to let me die," Brittany cries at one of her final therapy sessions.

Greenfield and camerawoman Amanda Micheli have done a fine job of presenting this material without contrived positivity or facile judgment. They don't try to explain eating disorders as cultural pressures or control issues. Instead, they just show us what it looks like, so we'll never forget.