“Thin” by Lauren Greenfield Shines Light on Anorexia and Its (Mis)treatment

Acclaimed photographer Lauren Greenfield’s movie Thin was shown this week at Smith College, in connection with an exhibit of her photographs at the college art museum (now through April 26). This cinema-verite documentary, which first aired on HBO in 2006, tells the stories of four young women with severe anorexia/bulimia who are in-patients at the Renfrew Center, an eating-disorders clinic in Florida. Greenfield writes on her website:

Every girl is affected by the desire to be thin. In the United States, we grow up feeling like our bodies are an expression of our inner selves. To be thin is to be beautiful, disciplined, and even moral. Fat is equated with laziness, slovenliness, a lack of regard for oneself, and a deficiency of self-control….

The making of Thin was a continuation of my decade-long exploration of body image and the way the female body has become a primary expression of identity for girls and women. I spent five years photographing and interviewing girls and women around the country for a book and exhibition called Girl Culture. In that work, I explored the way the body is a medium for girls to express their identities, ambitions, insecurities, and struggles. I was interested in the fact that girls learn from an early age that a woman’s power comes from her body and its display. The way girls present, decorate, reveal, and manipulate their bodies is a reflection of society’s conflicting messages and expectations of women. The female body has become a tabula rasa on which one can view the interplay between society’s imprint and the individual’s voice and psychology.

In this context, the pathology of eating disorders is compelling, symbolic, and important to understand. It is extreme and atypical, but unlike most other mental illness, it has a visible relationship to the values of mainstream culture.

Thin is an excellent, important, heartbreaking film that raises more questions than it answers. For me, and the Buddhist friends with whom I saw the movie, the issue of anorexia was actually overshadowed by what we perceived as the abusive tactics of the clinic staff. In a strange way, the treatment program mirrored back the patients’ obsessively narrow focus on food and weight, setting up a contest of wills centered on starving versus force-feeding. Staff members constantly accused the women of lying, and worked to break up friendships between them, for fear that they would conspire to break the rules. Doublespeak abounded, as when the counselors used the word “support” to describe searching the patients’ rooms, and said that a patient (Polly, one of the four main characters) lacked “integrity” because she had covered for friends who violated house rules about smoking in the bathroom.

It was almost unbearable to watch the scene where the counselors browbeat Polly’s friends into turning her in. After paying thousands of dollars, she was kicked out, still not cured, because she had given another girl some antidepressants and gotten an illicit tattoo. Polly committed suicide in 2008.

Another of the film’s main characters had to leave because her insurance ran out (a not uncommon occurrence at the clinic, it appeared), and others reverted to purging and food restriction almost immediately after treatment ended. To what end, then, were all these violations of trust?

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that women with eating disorders need to be given a collective framework for their experience–a political and/or spiritual analysis to help them understand that the culture is sick, so that they can channel that immense willpower into social change instead of self-destruction. Where are the radical feminist anorexia clinics?