Documentary reveals the real horrors of eating disorders

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 29, 2006

You know those lazy weekends when you don’t have anything scheduled, so you sleep in and then slowly make your way into the day? You turn on the television and find a good afternoon movie to become absorbed in n usually a Molly Ringwald ’80s classic like “The Breakfast Club” or “Sixteen Candles.”

Two weeks ago I had a rare Sunday (mostly) free, and as I ate breakfast I turned on the TV, expecting to channel surface until I came across one of those movies. My husband had been watching HBO the night before, so the television was still set to that channel. Before I knew it, I was absorbed in one of the most disturbing films I had ever seen.

It wasn’t some gory thriller, but a gory documentary about young women and girls who went to unbelievable means to be thin n sickeningly, unhealthily thin.

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It was like a car accident on the highway n I didn’t want to watch it but I couldn’t turn my eyes away. The film, aptly named “THIN,” followed four females, ages 15-30, as they sought and fought recovery in the 40-bed Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Fla. All of the individuals featured suffered from anorexia nervosa. They denied themselves food and purged what they did eat to keep their weight dangerously low.

Brittany is a 15- year-old striving to be thin to gain acceptance among her peers; her struggle with eating disorders originated when she was eight, first as an over-eater, then as an anorexic and bulimic. Shelly, 25, battled anorexia for six years, and enters Renfrew with a feeding tube surgically implanted in her stomach. Alisa, 30, is a divorced mother of two who arrives at Renfrew following five hospital stays in three months and claims she doesn’t want to recover. Polly, 29, has spent years in and out of treatment and often challenges the center’s policies and procedures.

Photographer Lauren Greenfield, in an attempt to put a human face to the statistics of eating disorders, lived at the center for six months, earned the patients’ trust and received unprecedented access to the meetings, therapy sessions and meals.

For me, the documentary proved just how sick n mentally and emotionally n people with anorexia are. It’s not just about the cosmetic need to be skinny. If it were, the women wouldn’t let their bodies waste away until their spines poked from their skin, their hip bones jutted out and their eyes were sunken in their faces. They were a far, far cry from the lithe beauties they seemed to want to be.

The girl with the feeding tube could flex her stomach so that bits of partially digested food could escape out of it. She and all the others also could

puke on command – no gagging necessary. Not only was it digusting to watch, it was disturbing to know just how normal purging was to them. Really, the disease is much more complex, even if the women themselves could not see that. The film delves further into the world of eating disorders, encompassing not just issues of food, body image or self-esteem, but also personal, familial, cultural and mental health concerns.

Eating disorders affect five million people in the United States, and more than 10 percent of those diagnosed with anorexia nervosa will die from the disease, according to the film’s Web site. I was heartened to learn that the documentary was meant for more than just “entertainment.”

It is the centerpiece of a multi-faceted campaign designed to explore issues surrounding eating disorders, including a companion book, traveling exhibition of Greenfield’s work and a Web site. An educational resource guide for the documentary has also been developed for educators nationwide, including high school students and college professors.

I hope the film can truly shed more light on the disease, so that those who need help can get it.

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