"HBO Documentary Leaves You Feeling Thin," Maryann Johnson - November 2006
I thought I had issues with food -- I just like it too much. But to see the four women portrayed in Lauren Greenfield’s startling documentary Thin is to see people at war not only with food but with their own minds and bodies. Greenfield gives us a glimpse at women who are starving themselves to death with a discipline and a dedication that is horrifying, and one that is hard to understand even for someone like me who has been overweight and struggled to lose it. Whatever is going on in the heads of Greenfield’s subjects is far beyond the desire for good health or even simple vanity -- they are in a kind of pain that is difficult to watch: one woman is near to tears as she eats a birthday cupcake she clearly does not want to eat; another sobs that she would rather be dead than not be thin. And she may get her wish.
Thin premieres on HBO on Tuesday, November 14, at 9pm Eastern and will be released on DVD on November 21 (preorder it at Amazon), and it will be a shocking introduction to most viewers of the emotional, physical, and psychological ravaging that anorexia wreaks on a person... usually a woman. Greenfield keeps the focus intimate and does not attempt to confront the myriad social and medical questions of why so many people, as many as five million in the United States, are suffering from anorexia, but just by watching these women, we see that the causes have, perhaps, more to do with issues of self-control -- not a lack of it but an abundance of it in overreaction to other matters that render them powerless, like parental domination -- than they do with the unrealistic expectations of female beauty that all women confront on a daily basis. That’s at work too, but obviously these women are unable to ever see what they really look like -- it hurts to see how pathetically fragile they are, especially when you know that that dictum about the camera adding five pounds is wrong, that it’s more like 20 pounds. They don’t look like fashionably slender Hollywood celebrities (who themselves look awful when you see them in person, off-camera): they look like death warmed over.
For the most part, Greenfield shot at an in-patient facility in Florida, where the women are in treatment, so we witness their daily weigh-ins (87 pounds? yikes) and see how the faculty must actively work to counter the tricks anorexics use to hide the fact that they’re not eating, or that they’re purging after meals. It’s all very low-key, with little editorializing, but it comes as a kick in the gut when we learn that one girl -- at 15, yes, she’s still a child -- must leave because her insurance has run out, or that another woman is being kicked out for breaking the rules, when that is itself a symptom of the mental illness at the core of her problems. Greenfield doesn’t need to editorialize -- simply meeting these women and hearing them talk about their problems is enough to demonstrate that, sadly, there may be no real help for them, that they will live their entire -- and shortened -- lives in misery. Thin leaves you feeling, well, thin, emotionally, which perhaps begins to approximate how anorexics feel, too.