It’s taken me a long time to write this review, likely because photojournalist Lauren Greenfield’s Thin (Raincoast) is such a powerful and moving publication that I was paralyzed to properly do it justice. Greenfield’s previous publication (her second,) Girl Culture, had a similar effect on me when it was released in 2002. In Greenfield’s decade long exploration of female body image via photography and narrative, she has revealed an uncanny ability to expose the devastating effect American Pop Culture has on girls and their self-image, while still maintaining a sensitive and honest approach in her depictions. Her photography allows her subjects, primarily teenage girls, to speak for themselves, without external judgment, while still viciously critiquing the larger systems that attempt to trap them.
With Thin, both a book and an award winning HBO documentary of the same name, her subjects are patients at the Renfrew Center in South Florida, one of the best-known residential facilities for the treatment of eating disorders. In her introduction, Greenfield states that “the stories of the women were incredible and the atmosphere raw and honest.” It is also clear that this project, unlike Girl Culture and Fast Forward, is less about the destructive effects of American media and values (although the connection is evident,) and more about the very personal effects of mental illness on the individual.
The book, which Greenfield describes as a “companion” to the movie, is an attempt to “tell a broader story about the diversity of the population affected.” It includes not only intimate depictions of many of the women she met at the Renfrew Center in the decade she has visited it, but also their own narratives and journal entries. The overall voice is not Greenfield’s, but rather the voices of the women who so generously and candidly let her into their lives, women whose “modus operandi is (as part of their illness) is trafficking in secrets, lies and manipulation.”
At times reading Thin is a difficult, infuriating and frustrating experience. It refuses to edit out any of the self-destructive facets of having an eating disorder, nor does it choose to take a clinical or what Greenfield calls a “talking heads” approach to explaining the disease. Instead she simply and beautifully tells the story of individual women dealing with their own trauma, pain, confusion and healing.
Greenfield does not choose to tell the story of how culture and media and our value systems are to blame for this illness. These women, despite their often misunderstood battles with a misunderstood illness, are so thoughtfully depicted by Greenfield that they are revealed not as freaks or victims, but rather as the strong survivors they are.
A recent study found that 4.8 % of women in Ontario currently have full or partial eating disorders. For more information about eating disorders, go here.