BONE FILM UNETHICAL PORTRAYAL OF EATING DISORDERs. Eating disorders coverage on mass media has often been criticized for portraying subjects in a negative way. Several films, shows, videos and published articles have received a backlash in the last few years. Scholars argue that mass media coverage around mental illness takes a negative tone (McGinty, Kennedy-Hendricks, Choksy, & Barry 2016). McGinty et al (2016) argue that 55 percent of the stories surrounding mental health focus on self-directed violence or interpersonal violence. These negative depictions of eating disorders can cause more harm to individuals already suffering from the disorders and increase social stigma. One of the most controversial films in recent times is Netflix’s To the Bone.  

Introducing the Artefact

The film, to the Bone follows a young woman who suffers from anorexia nervosa. The drama film was written and directed by Marti Noxon and was distributed by Netflix. The movie was released on January 22, 2017.  The film follows a 20 year old Ellen who had just dropped out of college (Noxon 2017). Ellen returns home to her father and step mother after going through a rehabilitation program where she failed to make any progress. The young woman constantly counts the calories on her plate before eating. Also, Ellen often assesses her weight fearing that she is overweight despite the fact that she is underweight. Susan, Ellen’s stepmother, encourages her to see Dr. Beckham, a specialist who runs a patient program to assist people suffering from eating disorders. At first, Ellen refuses to join the program but later does so after being convinced by her younger sister, Kelly. Ellen joins the program and moves in with six other young people battling eating disorders. The group comprises of five young women and a gentleman named Luke.


While on Dr. Beckham’s program, Ellen strives to live a better life but continues to lose weight. Nonetheless, she bonds with other members of the program including Luke who admits that he is in love with her. One member of Dr. Beckham’s program suffers a miscarriage because of purging. This incidence affects Ellen negatively and makes her to run away from the house. Her condition worsens and she goes to her biological mother’s home who had abandoned her. While she was there, her mother tells her that she had suffered from postpartum depression after giving birth to her. Ellen’s mother suggests that she feeds her with a bottle to solve her problem (Noxon 2017). At first, Ellen is reluctant but soon agrees to be bottle fed while her mother rocks her like a baby. That night, Ellen decides to go for a walk where she passes out and starts hallucinating that Luke was standing next to her. After waking up from the dream, Ellen decides to return home to her stepmother’s house and returns to Dr. Beckham’s program.

Ethical issues

The film received mixed reviews and was criticized for romanticizing eating disorders. Critics argue that the film portrayed eating disorders irresponsibly by constantly showing images of the underweight girl (CBC News 2017). The song used as a sound tract made the film look like a drama that underestimates eating disorders. While the film attempted to raise awareness on mental illness and eating disorders, the film romanticized anorexia nervosa while downplaying the effects of eating disorders. The film director and stars attempted to educate the audience who know little about eating disorders. Netflix distributed the film hoping that it will raise awareness on an issue that many media outlets shy aware from airing. The media companies have a responsibility to raise awareness and educate the public about issues such as eating disorders. Unfortunately, the film has been criticized for being unethical.

The unsettling images of the underweight woman could trigger at risk viewers. At the beginning, the film points out that the film was created by and casts individuals who have battled with eating disorders and that the film can be challenging to some viewers (Noxon 2017). However, even with the disclaimer, the film still showed graphic content that might make persons at risk to remember their past traumatic experiences. Such incidences can cause more damage to individuals who suffer from eating disorders. The video by CBC News (2017) expresses the views of clients of Toronto eating disorder treatment center. The individuals argue that the film is disturbing and encourages people not to watch the film alone. From the discussion, it is evident that patients who have made progress could be encouraged to purge as depicted in the film.

Additionally, the content of the film reinforced unhealthy ideas. In the film, Ellen is seen to be counting the number of calories in her food to make sure that she does not add weight. Also, Ellen is seen measuring her weight because of the constant fear of adding weight. While people who suffer from mental health and eating disorders are discouraged from such acts, the content shown in the film could encourage other people to do that. Again, the movie shows a pregnant women who also suffer from an eating disorder start purging assuming that her pregnancy is no longer at risk (Noxon 2017). The purging makes the woman have a miscarriage. Displaying such content is unethical because it can encourage other pregnant women to try purging during the second trimester believing that they are no longer at risk.

Ethical Guidelines

BONE FILM AND ITS UNETHICAL PORTRAYAL OF EATING DISORDERS .The film violated the provisions of the Motion Picture Production Code Of 1930 and the provisions of the Society for Professional Journalists. The Motion Picture Production Code Of 1930 provides that no image portrayed by the media should lower the moral standards of the audience. The code provides that no evil should be made to appear attractive (University of North Dakota n.d). In the film, the idea of being thin is made to look attractive although the young woman suffers from serious health complications. The portrayal of an extremely thin woman in a dramatic way violates the provisions of the Motion Picture Production Code Of 1930. Also, the code provides that pictures should show sympathy of the audience. Showing the thin woman and illustrating how a pregnant woman suffers a miscarriage does not show sympathy to the audience. This act violates the code that was set to protect viewers from graphic content.

BONE FILM AND ITS UNETHICAL PORTRAYAL OF EATING DISORDERS . Further, the film violates the provisions of the Society for Professional Journalists. The Society for Professional Journalists requires that journalists focus on minimizing harm when creating content. The society requires journalists to treat their subjects, sources of information and colleagues as human beings who deserve respect (Collins n.d). In the film, the patients attending Dr. Beckham’s program were not treated in a humane manner. Their struggles were dramatized in the film while underestimating the impact of the eating disorders. The Society for Professional Journalists also requires that the media shows compassion to those suffering. The film did not show compassion to the audience because it could trigger the people at risk to start purging. CBC news (2017) agrees arguing that the film was inconsiderate to people suffering from mental illness and eating disorders. As a result, critics argue that the film was unethical. 


BONE FILM AND ITS UNETHICAL PORTRAYAL OF EATING DISORDERS. Moreover, analyzing the To the Bone (Noxon 2017) film using the consequentialism theory demonstrates that the content of the film is an example of unethical professional practice. The concepts of ethical professional practice are subjective, therefore, theories are useful in determining whether a certain media action is ethical or not. One such theory is the consequentialist theory. The theory argues that the media should consider the consequences of an action to determine whether the action is ethical or unethical (Shodh Ganga n.d). The consequentialist theory only focuses on the outcome of an action without considering how the consequences came about. The theory suggests that the possible outcomes of media actions be considered before execution.


Considering the consequentialist theory, an action is considered unethical if it causes harm to others. Therefore, according to the consequentialist theory, the To the Bone (Noxon 2017) film was unethical. O’Boyle and Sandona (2014) argue that the consequentialist theory determines whether a practice is ethical or unethical by considering the consequences of such a practice. The film writer, director, producer and distributor did not consider the consequences of the film before releasing it to the public. The content of the film could cause harm to people at risk of mental illness and those recovering from eating disorders. Also, the film encouraged unhealthy behavior such as purging, calorie counting and refusing to get help. Therefore, showing the content could cause more harm than good to the audience. The distributor of the film, Netflix could be accessed by many people internationally including people who are at risk of inflicting harm on themselves. Therefore, considering the possible outcomes of the film, the film is an example of an unethical professional practice.

Issues that Should Have Been AddressedBONE FILM AND ITS UNETHICAL PORTRAYAL OF EATING DISORDERS Several issues should have been addressed to avoid the ethical issues discussed. Firstly, the film makers should have considered the film’s audience. The film was accessed by people of all ages all over the world. Some of the people who watched the film struggle with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. By considering the audience, the film makers could have found a way to minimize harm to the audience. Secondly, the film makers should have considered the possible outcomes of the movie. Consequentialism suggests that the media should consider the possible consequences of an action before executing a project. By doing this, the film could have protected the viewers from the disturbing images of an anorexic woman. Lastly, the film makers should have considered using several models and not just one thin young woman. Like the women in the CBC News (2017) discussion pointed out, people who suffer from anorexia are of different sizes and racial backgrounds. The women were disappointed that the film makers used a stereotypical image of a young and thin Caucasian woman. The film makers should have considered this before executing their project.

An Alternative Approach to Avoid Ethical Problems

BONE FILM AND ITS UNETHICAL PORTRAYAL OF EATING DISORDERS. The film makers should have used an alternative approach to avoid the ethical issues. For instance, the film makers could have portrayed anorexia nervosa in a way that does not trigger vulnerable viewers. Some people who watched the movie claim that the movie was disturbing and urged others not to watch the movie alone (CBC News 2017). Individuals struggling with eating disorders often have an extreme desire to have an unrealistic body image. Therefore, airing content that depicts the eating disorders could make the individuals starve themselves to achieve their desirable body image. Uses images of very thin models that focus on counting the number of calories could trigger such behavior. To avoid that, the film makers could have used models that have a healthy body size. Another way to avoid triggering vulnerable viewers would be by safeguarding the content from people at risk. Bykov, Georgieva, Danilova and Baychik (2015) recognize the importance of providing information to the audience to help them understand the events taking place. The film makers could have done this by putting adequate information and warnings before releasing the film. The only warning sign available is the one at the beginning of the film that states that the content could be harmful to the vulnerable viewers (Noxon 2017.  Putting adequate warnings beforehand could prevent people at risk from watching the film.



BONE FILM AND ITS UNETHICAL PORTRAYAL OF EATING DISORDERS .To the Bone, a film following a young woman as she battles with anorexia nervosa has attracted criticism from the public, eating disorders patients and mental health professionals. Critics argue that the film could cause eating disorders among the viewers or worsen the symptoms of the disorder. Although the film makers argue that they created the film to dismiss myths surrounding eating disorders and not to do harm, some aspects of the film cause harm to the audience. The film is unethical because it portrays images of people suffering from eating disorders in a way that is distressing. From the film, one can see the women purging which can encourage the vulnerable viewers to do the same. Considering the consequentialist theory, the filmmakers acted unethically because they did not consider the outcomes of the film because releasing it. To avoid causing harm to the audience, the film makers could have used an alternative approach such as putting warning signs before releasing the film and avoiding scenes that could trigger vulnerable viewers.    

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