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Thin documentary film at the Snite: The eating disorder paradox

Adriana Pratt | Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Are eating disorder clinics healthy solutions for men and women suffering from anorexia nervosa, bulimia and chronic over-eating?  Clearly clinics are full of mentally and physically ill patients and therefore cannot be deemed “healthy” in most senses of the word, but can they even be successful in their mission to heal eating disorder victims? 

On Monday evening, the HBO documentary “Thin” based on Lauren Greenfield’s photo exhibit of patients from The Renfrew Center Eating Disorder Clinic, aired in the Annenberg Auditorium in the Snite Museum for a packed audience that rode the emotional highs and lows of life with an eating disorder.

After watching the film it is hard to believe that communities of that nature can truly cure a patient of his or her disease. This view might be skewed by the director’s choice to choose the most dramatic characters for the film, but the subjects chosen may really be accurate examples of eating disorder victims.

Alisa, 30, Brittany, 15, Polly, 29, and Shelly, 25, live harder lives than most. Every day is spent denying their bodies of healthy sustenance and their minds of peace and order by purging and obsessing over the unreachable goal of being thin enough.

Alisa, a divorced mother of two, spent 16 years suffering from eating disorders after she was put on a diet at the age of seven for being chubby. She was rewarded for losing weight as a child, but her awareness of food shifted into overdrive and she eventually tried to keep herself to less than 200 calories a day. She said, “I just want to be thin. So if it takes dying to get there, so be it.”

Brittany said eating disorders had been a part of her life since the age of eight when she was told she was overweight.  Her parents’ divorce and her mom’s eating disorder influenced her own personal body image and insecurity and she recalled memories of time spent with her mom “chewing and spitting.” She said, “I want to purge, not because I don’t want the food in me, but because I want to purge my feelings.”

Polly was the Renfrew Center’s wildcard. She made the best progress of the four but did so to the detriment of the community by constantly bending the rules and enticing others to do so with her. She admitted she came to Renfrew after attempting suicide because she ate two pieces of pizza. She was eventually forced to leave Renfrew for her bad influence on others but was by far one of Renfrew’s most lively characters.

Shelly’s poor self image came in part from years of comparing herself to her twin and constantly trying to be thinner than her and also from other unnamed events that happened in her past. She spent five years being force-fed through a feeding tube and came to Renfrew after ten hospitalizations.  Her stay at Renfrew was followed from beginning to end and though she seemed to be making progress, like the other three patients she fell back into her old ways once released.

The failed attempts of each of these women lead to questions about the effectiveness of an eating disorder clinic. One of the driving forces behind an eating disorder is a sense of competition and a desire to be better than those around you. In an especially poignant moment during a group therapy session, Polly carefully acknowledged this problem by directly addressing Brittany for trying to be the thinnest. Also, with a constant influx of new patients who start at ground zero and are horrified by the thought of food, it’s hard not to wonder how older patients can make progress. Yes, the community is supposed to be one of support and encouragement, but that seems too utopian for reality.

Eating disorders are paradoxical in that people strive for the unachievable goal of being satisfyingly thin, which they can never be because they cannot be satisfied. An eating disorder is also paradoxical in that if you finally win and are somehow satisfied, in reality you lose. You lose years of happiness, peace, adventure, fun, love and even potentially your life. May Alisa, Brittany, Polly and Shelly’s stories be enough to show that the only way to win is to love yourself.

Adriana Pratt may be reached at apratt@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.