If you think “Thin is in,” this intense documentary about eating disorders might change your mind.
The Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Florida, is America’s first residential healthcare facility specializing in the treatment of women with eating disorders. The Renfrew Center Foundation has since branched out into other locations around the U.S., with a mission to help those suffering from these disorders, as well as promoting education and awareness about them.
It took photographer turned director Laura Greenfield two years to earn the trust of patients and staff of the Renfrew Center before they opened their doors and gave her full access for this documentary. It was time well spent, because the result is Thin, a nothing-held-back look at all the suffering caused by eating disorders, and how difficult it is to overcome them.
Thin follows the treatment of four young women who are resident patients at the Renfrew Center:
• Shelly, 25, is a newcomer at the center, just checking herself in. For five years, she has force-fed herself through a tube surgically attached to her stomach. Secretly, she’s trained herself to purge food from the tube as well.
• Polly, 29, has been at the center for several weeks, and appears to be on the road to recovery. She’s also found ways to circumvent the rules, such as sneaking cigarettes into the bathrooms and swapping prescription medicines with other patients.
• Alisa, 30, a mother of two and an Air Force veteran, admits herself after being hospitalized five times for her eating disorder. She admits that the only reason she joined the Air Force was because she thought it would help her lose weight.
• Brittany, 15, has had an eating disorder since she was 8. In a single year, she lost half her body weight, causing a low heart rate, liver damage, and hair loss. She’s the quiet one.
Disclaimer time: I am not now or ever have been a young woman, much less a young woman with an eating disorder. Therefore, my perspective in watching Thin is that of the outsider looking in. In this context, Thin is almost like a science fiction movie. It’s a whole other world, with established rules and a set vocabulary I can barely fathom. The Renfrew Center is an environment unlike any other I’ve seen or experienced, and what these women are thinking and feeling is outside my understanding. But that doesn’t mean Thin is abstract or confusing. I watched absolutely fascinated with what I saw. I cheered the patients on in their successes, and my heart broke during their struggles.
The movie begins with a daily morning ritual at the center. Each patient is rousted out of bed at around 5:30 a.m. With their blankets and comforters still wrapped around them, the women all stand in line while a nurse takes them one by one into a room to weigh them. The patients’ weights are so in flux that the nurse can tell each morning if one of them has been hoarding food, or purging it. One girl has to step onto the scale backwards, because if she learns how much she weighs, it will upset her. During this process, each patient is also inspected for any self-inflicted wounds. I can’t imagine doing this every single morning, but they do it, and often without complaint.
Meal times at the Renfrew Center also seem otherworldly. The patients often eat meager-looking bowls of lettuce in silence, with the many dining rules and regulations posted up on the walls all around them. When Polly celebrates her birthday with a cupcake, she’s excited at first, describing how delicious it is. But, after another bite or two, suddenly she’s struggling to finish the entire thing. After she does, we see her sitting in anguish outside the cafeteria on a hallway bench, with her face in her hands. I can’t begin to understand what’s going through her mind at this moment, but I do understand that she’s suffering.
As noted above, life at the center has its own vocabulary. The words “anorexia” and “bulimia” aren’t used in this documentary, except for one text note at the beginning. Instead, “eating disorder” seems to be the preferred descriptor. Similarly, the patients are instructed not to discuss weight numbers and calorie numbers with each other, presumably to avoid unnecessary comparisons with one another. “Purge,” meanwhile, is one of the most-used words in the film. The women casually talk about purging like most folks might talk about walking or shopping, revealing it to be a common, everyday occurrence among them. Finally, whenever the women get upset about how “fat” they are, no one ever does the expected and tells them, “But you’re not fat.” I’m guessing that this would do more harm than good, as it’s probably something they’re sick of hearing.
Another mind-boggler is how often the patients break the rules, and even that they would do so. These young women are in this place voluntarily; they obviously want help and want to get better. But then we see them sneaking in cigarettes, swapping medicines, hoarding food, and, yes, purging. When a staff member discovers a partially-digested cheeseburger on the floor of one room, the entire center gets wrapped up in suspicion and paranoia over who it might have come from. This eventually leads to Orwellian room searches, in which gloved staff rifle through each patient’s belongings in the most impersonal, privacy-disrespecting way imaginable. At these times, the center appears less like a healthcare facility and more like a prison, with constant worries about the women hiding “contraband” in their rooms. What does this say about these women? To me, it shows just how tenacious these eating disorders are. The desires they cause, no matter how painful or unhealthy, are so strong that the women find it hard to resist, even when sacrificing enormous amounts of money and months of their lives living at the center for treatment.
As strange as this world appeared to me, what wasn’t foreign about it was the emotion displayed on screen. Each of the women has at least one moment where she breaks down in tears, and each time, it’s a painful thing to watch. You want to sit down next to her, put your arms around her, and tell her it’ll be OK. Even if you don’t completely understand the agony she’s feeling, you know it’s agony and that it’s real, and that’s enough to make you want to care. Thin will hit you right in your heart, not because of trite sentimentalism, but because of genuine, honest emotion. It can be shocking, disturbing and hard to watch at times, but I’m sure you’ll find it as fascinating as I did because of how real it is.
The picture quality here is good, despite the occasional appearance of grain in some darkly-lit scenes. The audio is slightly lacking, as it’s sometimes hard to understand what people are saying. I get that this was all filmed as it happened, so there was no such thing as second takes for better audio. This is where subtitles would have made all the difference, but, unfortunately, there are none. There are also no extras, and that’s just as unfortunate, since it would have been nice to learn more about director Lauren Greenfield and about the Renfrew Center Foundation’s many programs.
On the Renfrew Center’s official Web site, there’s a lengthy official statement about Thin, which provides an overall favorable view of the movie, especially in the hopes that it will educate more people about the realities of eating disorders. It makes one point, though, that the movie doesn’t make—that eating disorders can be successfully treated, even extreme cases like the ones seen in the movie. The site states that many success stories have come out of the center, and many patients have gone on to live their lives free of their disorders.
A few days after watching Thin, I watched another movie, a big Hollywood action blockbuster. The female lead in the movie gave a fine performance, and she also showed a lot of skin in some revealing outfits. Being a testosterone-dipped heterosexual male, I didn’t mind this at all, except I started thinking that maybe she looked a little too boney. Later, while out shopping, I saw a lot of girls around who were pretty and skinny. Again, as a guy, I tend to zero in on pretty girls. But this time I wondered: is that pretty girl just petite, does she eat healthy and exercise, or is she willingly hurting herself for the sake of looking attractive?
That’s the thing about Thin—after watching it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’d be hard to find higher praise for a movie than that.