Thin skinned

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Image credit: HBO Documentary Films

“So be it. This is what I really want. This is the one thing I want. I want to be thin.” – Alisa

It’s pizza day at Renfrew, a Florida-based inpatient eating disorder clinic, and no one is happy. A group of women sit around a table silently, eyeing the greasy slices and picking at their salads. A therapist, clearly marked as an outsider with her pen and notepad, is monitoring this lunch. “Is there any way you can look at that just as bread with cheese on top?” she asks. The table shifts uncomfortably; nothing happens. Cut to the next scene.

Appearing in the first half of Lauren Greenfield’s Thin (2006), this moment is a remarkable representation of disordered eating. It is neither sensational nor aspirational—it is boring. And when it comes to narratives about eating disorders, the tedious approach is rarely taken. Instead, mainstream media gives us images of shrunken bodies or endless discussions of self-regulation (widely accepted in the form of diet trends and cleanses); eating disorders are either foreign and grotesque (who would ever want to look like that?) or normalized (who doesn’t want to be thin, really?). With no representations of the grey area between these two extremes, this complex mental disease becomes an easily digestible story of shock and awe, sickness and health, and exteriority over interiority. Then there is Greenfield’s documentary. Rejecting these frameworks, she aims for a depiction of something closer to the isolating experience of addiction, emphasizing the mundane, the dull, the routine.

The HBO-produced documentary follows four women at Renfrew: Shelley, Polly, Brittany, and Alisa. For most of their lives, these women have binged, purged, and restricted, which has led to incidences of self-harm and attempted suicide. Renfrew, they all say, is their last hope for recovery. As this brief plot synopsis suggests, the potential for sensationalism lies at every turn. But rather than indulge in theatrics, Thin, like its subjects, restricts its worldview to the present moment. A moment that, for the four women the camera is following, is consumed by and structured around one thing: food.

Greenfield’s emphasis on this myopia of the moment is what writer Alice Gregory would call “radical.” Writing in The New York Times, Gregory says: “When it comes to writing about anorexia, the only truly radical move, as far as I can tell, would be to show clearly just how profoundly boring it is—not sad or prurient or overdetermined.” For Gregory, discussing EDs should not be centred around idealized tales of tortured geniuses or brave survivors who have found self-acceptance—these are normalizing, unchallenging narratives. As Gregory bluntly puts it: “a voluntarily isolated person choosing not to eat until she’s addicted to not eating doesn’t make for a very good story.” Because of this, Gregory says, “I don’t know what a deliberately boring book about anorexia would look like.” The film version might look like Greenfield’s documentary.

Thin begins as the women at Renfrew do: with a pre-dawn reading of their weight and vital signs. The patients drop the duvets, sweaters, and layers they’ve pulled around their frames, allowing the nurses to check their arms and legs for marks of self-harm. “Are you feeling safe, Atta?” a nurse asks a young woman. It’s an earnest inquiry, but also a method of suicide prevention. “Yes,” she replies too quickly, pulling a blanket back over her body. The next woman enters and undergoes the same process. As Greenfield films it, Renfew is a world of habituated actions.

Greenfield’s radical approach can be better understood by examining Thin in contrast to another, immensely popular representation of addiction: A&E’s Intervention. Premiering on television the year before Thin made the rounds on the festival circuit, Intervention “examined,” in 43 minutes, humans on the edge of losing their humanity to any number of addictions, including both anorexia and bulimia. That the show lasted 13 seasons, and saw a spin-off in Canada, is indicative of the profitability of gawking. Intervention marketed misery porn at its finest. But Thin, unlike Intervention, avoids heavy scoring (with the exception of the opening and closing sequences), on-screen text, and, most pertinently, climactic moments. The danger of shows like Intervention is that they rely on the dramatic for ratings—the harder someone falls, the “better” it is. Through such representations, addiction is reduced to an emotionally overwrought issue, which creates a hierarchy of suffering whereby only the worst-case scenarios merit discussion. These become the stories that fit into the narratives of addiction—the triumphant overcoming or the tragic failure. Greenfield, by contrast, does not impose any structure on her subjects’ stories. Instead, she opts for the trajectory that many eating disorders, and indeed addictions, tend to take: the perpetual. Greenfield does not focus on her subjects’ past, offering in their introductions only briefly sketched-out biographies and medical facts and stats, accompanied by old photos. The future also remains ambiguous, as each woman struggles to define what she thinks recovery might (literally) look like and whether or not she can live with that. Stuck between these two temporal stages, Greenfield captures the stunted process of recovery, marked by backslides and frustrations.

That said, Thin is far from experimental in form. Greenfield structures her film around the interpersonal conflicts that arise at Renfrew, but what transpires is not all that intriguing. Greenfield focuses on the daily drama: Polly sneaking a smoke or having a breakdown over eating a cupcake; the painful quiet that sets in throughout Renfrew’s cafeteria during lunch hour; Brittany’s plaintive calls home to her mother. This is not to diminish the women’s struggles—their panic attacks over being told to eat “resources” (mandatory high-calorie supplements) are not petty, but real, complex, and emotionally devastating experiences. However, they are also not grand, Intervention-style moments—like Gregory says, not eating doesn’t make for great storytelling. Or, as Alisa herself aptly comments during a therapy session: “I used to have a personality.” As far as subjects in documentaries go, this is hardly ideal, but Greenfield fixates on it. Rather than fabricate an arc of redemption or failure, her camera stays with the women as they merely (and sometimes barely) live on.

Thin is also remarkable for what it leaves out: diagnosis. It is a bold move, given the tendency to reductively pathologize eating disorders as a by-product of media consumption, be it ads, magazines, or movies. Of course, pointing to the role of externalized pressures can be good, as it champions media literacy and body diversity campaigns. But this also shifts the emphasis of an eating disorder from the internal, a mental disorder, to the external, a disease that is “caught” from exposure, like a common cold. This type of pop-psychologizing oversimplifies a complex mental disorder, and can even be used to reductively dismiss those suffering from eating disorders as being merely weak or vain. By not addressing causality, Greenfield offers up a far more difficult addiction narrative: one with no beginning or end.

This is perhaps why Thin’s weakest moment is the conclusion. How do you bring a never-ending story to a close? Here, Greenfield chooses to structure the end of the doc around Alisa and Shelley’s release from Renfrew. Though it is one of the few moments recorded outside the clinic’s walls, food remains central: the pair, along with Alisa’s two children, go to a restaurant to celebrate. (“We’re going to do this like real people do this,” Alisa gamely states while ordering nachos.) But it is clear this newfound freedom is no liberation, as each woman is still coping with her ED. It is following this scene that we see Alisa purge for the first time, vomiting after her meal as the camera films. With no resolution by way of recovery in sight, there is a sense that Thin could continue interminably, stuck in the same patterns as its subjects. This feeling of circularity is reinforced by the use of the same music as the opening credits. This time, the score is played over photographs of the four women, with text recapping their current status: all still struggle with their eating disorders. The plaintive piano score is heavy-handed, if not didactic, but it also creates an eerie echo. It brings us back to Thin’s opening moments, back to the beginning, trapping us in a cycle of craving.

Kiva Reardon is the founding editor of cléo.

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Kiva Reardon is the founding editor of cléo.