Louis Theroux on anorexia: shattering misconceptions?

Of all the mental illnesses, anorexia has to be one of the most merciless, deadly and incomprehensible. With the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder and statistics suggesting that less than half of sufferers ever make a full recovery, anorexia shows just how destructive the mind can be. Characterized by a fear of food and weight gain, an entirely skewed sense of self and a desperation to stay in control, it is almost impossible to relate to the rules of anorexia. Perhaps it is for this reason that recently there has been an influx in depictions of anorexia in the media, with To The Bone and Overshadowed both being released earlier this year, and now Louis Theroux’s latest documentary, Talking to Anorexia.

In this 60 minute production, Louis visits patients of the Phoenix Wing at St Ann’s Hospital, an inpatient unit for those diagnosed with an eating disorder. The hour is spent speaking to just a few of the patients, and as Louis asks the questions and attempts to understand the cognitive processes of anorexia, it is clear to see he is both distressed and incredulous, and appears more emotionally invested than in any previous documentary.

Talking to Anorexia is incredibly hard to watch. Most previous depictions of eating disorders utilise made up characters, making them much harder to relate to. These portrayals can be nonsensical and cringey, with fictional people “talking to their anorexia”, but here there is none of that. These are real people, not characters. This is no plot line that ends when the camera cuts out. In its honesty lies its power, and it is an incredibly powerful portrayal.

Talking to Anorexia is perhaps unique in the way it speaks of the experiences of the sufferers themselves. It gives an extraordinary insight into their minds by doing what Louis Theroux does best – simply asking them. In one hour the documentary shatters multiple common misconceptions about the condition, making the viewer see that “it’s not about attractiveness”, or being a size zero, as one patient explains, but rather about control. This shouldn’t come as a surprise though – after all, how could an actual sufferer get it wrong? Where Netflix’s To The Bone seemed to portray the illness as the soppy problem of a teenage girl, this is a victory in communicating the actual mental complexities of living with anorexia.

Disappointingly however, Talking to Anorexia still hits the common stumbling block of concentrating too much on the physical side, with too many shots of fragile arms, thigh gaps, and protruding collar bones. It’s true that, being a psychosomatic illness, many sufferers are critically underweight. But anorexia is defined by the mental processes, and you don’t have to be stick thin to still be in its clutches. The documentary takes place inside hospitals, therefore focusing on extreme cases. Talking to sufferers who looked well on the outside might have allowed for a more comprehensive understanding of the issue.

Additionally, the documentary fails to exhibit any success stories, with Rosie being the only featured person to show any kind of progress. Whilst it is true that recovering from anorexia can be incredibly arduous, it must be recognised that it is not impossible and that people can, and do, recover from anorexia.

Despite these flaws, Talking to Anorexia is a triumph. Elevating the voices of real-life sufferers and putting an end to dangerous stereotypes, it serves all its viewers, whether they have personal experience of the condition or no prior knowledge whatsoever. Unlike so very many that came before him, Theroux has managed to produce a programme worthy of the gravity and complexity of the problem it tackles.

Image: Nordiske Mediedager @ Wikimedia Commons

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