by Lauren Greenfield
Every girl is affected by the desire to be thin. In the United States, we grow up feeling like our bodies are an expression of our inner selves. To be thin is to be beautiful, desirable, and even moral. Fat is equated with laziness, slovenliness, a lack of regard for oneself, and a deficiency of self-control.
Perhaps it is due to the power of these ideas in mainstream culture and feminine identity that the pathology of eating disorders has become so common and extreme in our time. Eating disorders now affect one in seven young American women and have become a mental health epidemic.
Anorexia and bulimia are coping mechanisms that are similar in many ways to alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and self-harm. They are used primarily by women to numb out emotional pain and experience a measure of self-control. Though the media and popular culture help create the body as a primary focus for girls, eating disorders are the result of complex mental illness and should not be confused with fad dieting, vanity, or poor self-esteem (although these qualities show up within the illness). Indeed, anorexia nervosa is the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders with one in seven dying as a result of the illness.
The making of the documentary THIN was a continuation of my decade-long exploration of body image and the way the female body has become a primary expression of identity for girls and women in our time. I am intrigued by the way the female body has become a tablet on which our culture’s conflicting messages about femininity are written and rewritten.
Eating disorders are a compelling pathology because they are related to the experience of most girls who have been on a diet and feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and yet they take the commonplace female self-criticism to an extreme that is incomprehensibly irrational. As Alisa, one of the featured women in the film says, “This is the one thing that I want so bad. I just want to be thin. So if it takes dying to get there, so be it.”
THIN is a cinema-verité exploration that follows four girls, Brittany, Shelly, Alisa, and Polly in their daily lives at the eating disorder treatment center as well as the workings of the treatment center itself. The documentary explores the process of treatment, the cycle of addiction, and the unique relationships, rules and rituals that define everyday life within the treatment center.
Unfortunately, the film does not offer prescriptions for treatment, nor explanations of causality of this painful condition. In many ways, the illness remains a mystery to the patients who suffer from it and the experts who study it. The self-help shelves of bookstores, and the magazine racks of newsstands are filled with controversial theories on causality, treatment options, as well as confessional diaries of former patients. THIN does not attempt to compete with any of these sources of information. Rather, the film provides an emotional and experiential journey into the day-to-day reality of four women engaged in a life-or-death struggle and the Sisyphean task of the caregivers trying to treat them.