THIN directed by Lauren Greenfield (USA, 2006)

Brittany struggles to find reasons to be cheerful.

Brittany struggles to find reasons to be cheerful.

There’s never been a better time to have an eating disorder. As long as you have access to the Internet, and who doesn’t these days?, you don’t need to feel you’re alone anymore.

The fasting, bingeing and purging are still sad, solitary activities but at least now you get the chance to share techniques and strategies online or read and watch others engaged in similar practices.

Pro Ana and Pro Mia websites promoting and discussing anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa respectively are on the rise. So-called ‘thinspiration’ photos circulate as motivational body images.

Many of the blogs, forums and articles pitch these conditions as lifestyle choices rather than as problems, a dangerous trend in my view given that the negative effects on health and happiness have been so well documented.

I have more than a passing interest in this subject because my teenage daughter has an eating disorder that swings unpredictably between ‘ana’ and ‘mia’. Fortunately, she doesn’t see this as anything to be proud of and would like to change. She’s the one who recommended ‘Thin’, saying that she liked the way it shows the reality of the conditions in a non-preachy or judgemental style.

Lauren Greenfield’s film is a fly on the wall documentary set in Renfrew Center, Florida. The staff at this institution are clearly not chosen as models of fitness; a high percentage are clearly overweight or even obese which probably makes many sufferers even more determined to maintain their crash diets. Also, the food served up this institution looks so fatty, stodgy and generally disgusting that I think I’d be half inclined to join them.

The women suffer from a range of disorders and are treated more like prisoners than patients. Their rooms are subjected to regular searches by staff wearing white plastic gloves, like investigators at a crime scene, who confiscate sharp objects, pills and any secret food supplies.

The patients don’t gain weight by eating healthy balanced meals but by being forced to consume a flavored ‘Resource’ drink to sustain energy and maintain muscle mass. One 8 oz. serving contains 9 grams of protein and 250 calories.

The film follows the progress, or lack of, in four young women who, in the parlance of the centre, are members of the ‘community’.

An attempt is made to foster a ‘we’re all in this together’ team spirit and a lot of psychobabble is spoken about trust and integrity but this is only a sharing, caring environment while you are able to afford the hefty fees ($1,500 a day).

Rather than helping, the regime seems to produce a vicious cycle whereby lack of individual self-control leads to an eating disorder which prompts the imposition of institutionalised controls; the individuals then feel even more restricted and frustrated, which leads to further lack of self-control ……… and the beat goes on.

The wasted looking Brittany, aged 15, is the most desperate case who ends up being accused by other sufferers of being a drama queen to appear sicker than anyone else. This kind of bizarre competitiveness is an inevitable consequence of the center’s policies.

Shelly is a trained nurse who has been force-fed for five years and wants to get ‘normal’ again. Alisa is a mother of two, who looks the fittest of the four but her philosophy is equally screwed up : “I am going to get thin even if it takes dying to get there”, she vows. Her account of a fast food binge-tour she made of fast food eateries (Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Burger King and MacDonald’s) is the stuff of nightmares. A sad footnote is that Polly, who seems the strongest, though most rebellious, character in the documentary committed suicide four years after the film was made.

It seems to me that the issue of nutrition is only part of the multi-faceted problem for those with food disorders. The solution lies in the slow process of building a sense of  self worth that cannot be achieved within a fake ‘community’ of fellow sufferers.

In Greenfields’s film none of the ‘Frew Crew’ recover.  Most can only afford three weeks of treatment at treatment centers like this one. The insurance money runs out long before they are cured. It is estimated that it takes 4-7 years to get over these ‘illnesses’ and even longer (or never)  if sufferers are not sufficiently motivated to change their lifestyles.

Psychologists, therapists and nutritionists have a part to play but problems that originated in the real’ world must ultimately be cured there. A way has to be found to achieve a level of control that doesn’t involve compulsive digestion and evacuation of foodstuffs.

Watch ‘Thin’ free online.
Polly Ann Williams in Memorium website