The Student Life: Scripps College

The Student Life: Scripps College

THIN: Feminist Film Offers Harrowing Glimpse Into Anorexia
March 9, 2007
by Kyle Delbyk

A woman uses her feeding tube to purge. The birthday girl struggles to take a bite of her cake. Dressing is meticulously scraped off a lettuce leaf. These are the images that fill Lauren Greenfield's shocking documentary of life inside Renfrew, a treatment facility for women with eating disorders. In the eyes of these women, surpassing 100 pounds makes a person a “big fat ass.” In THIN, shown last Thursday night as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Greenfield focuses her attention on four Renfrew patients, each emotionally affecting in their own way. Shelly, a 25-year-old psychiatric nurse, has been hospitalized numerous times, and now must live with a feeding tube in her stomach. Fifteen-year-old Brittany was always the fat kid in school and has taken extreme measures to ensure she is never labeled as such again. Polly, 29, is the rebel leader in the small world of Renfrew, slowly beginning to recover from a suicide attempt over “two slices of pizza.” Alisa, a mother of two, has been unable to find fulfillment in anything besides her rail-thin frame, commenting that even if she dies for her body, at least she'll be thin.

Greenfield, never judging, follows these women's every move as they navigate their rehabilitation. Renfrew imposes a strict set of rules; patients must participate in daily weigh-ins, psychiatric counseling, community meetings, and nutrition sessions. Meals are strictly regulated, as are bathroom breaks, smoking, and even the possession of napkins, often used to hide uneaten food. At times, the entire operation resembles a prison; at other times, a dorm. The women inside the center form fast friendships, and, similar to high school, gossip, rivalries, and cliques take center stage. As if in a scene from a high school movie, Shelly and Polly furtively smoke in the bathroom, laughing and comparing their bodies. Later, Polly and another patient escape the scrutiny of the staff to get tattoos. This excited mischievousness is something we have all experienced, whether sneaking out to a party or taking the family car without permission. Likewise, how many of us have complained about our bodies or foregone a meal to compensate for overeating? How many of us have criticized and compared our figures to those of others? Greenfield comments that THIN “takes away the otherness quality of eating disorders,” as these womens' humanity shines through the severity of the disease. THIN makes it clear that Renfrew patients are living, breathing, and feeling human beings. Although they are slaves to their eating disorders, they are still women.

This humanity engenders countless heartbreaking moments that remind the viewer just how deep this disorder runs. In one scene, Shelly's father looks at his daughter, teary at the realization that he is unable to come to her rescue and tell her everything's going to be okay. After Polly gets thrown out of the clinic, viewers experience this same helplessness as she bends over the toilet and begins to throw up. During a community meeting, an older patient desperately pleas with Brittany to end her disorder, crying about how at 28, she is still a “little girl” without a period, forced to bring prepackaged, calorie calibrated meals to family Thanksgiving dinners. These scenes slice through viewer ambivalence; Greenfield is able to achieve a rare level of intimacy with her subjects, all the while exposing the degree to which an eating disorder devours and consumes a person's life.

In the course of one of Shelly's counseling sessions, her psychiatrist comments that she seems to “carry unspeakable things,” and is never able to free herself from this burden. Greenfield makes it her mission to film these “unspeakable things,” and the images, and our reactions to them, speak for themselves. What does it say that at first glance, Shelly, at 87 pounds, didn't look unhealthily thin to me? What does it say that my friend, upon seeing an image of a model who Greenfield described as sickly anorexic, immediately leaned over to me and whispered, “She's really pretty”? What does it say that a girl behind me jokingly remarked, “I'm too fat, I only wish I could be anorexic.”? THIN is a movie that denies viewers the luxury of detachment and compels us to examine our own lives.