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Bare-Bones Drama

December 21, 2006 By:
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Shelly, as pictured in HBO's "Thin"
Fashionistas as femme fatale role models? Slim chance: Those waifs walking down the catwalk with their whisker-wobbly, wafer-thin poses look like they haven't come up against a roll in ages.

The fashion industry's thin obsession is perfumed with emetics and emergency rooms; "the look" has become a lethal weapon exploding in its own scrawny face -- a fatal attraction, as evidenced by the recent death by starvation of Ana Carolina Reston just as Madrid fashion trendsetters declared that emaciated is oh-so "out."

Nicole Richie, eat your heart out; but, at least, eat.

In a country clamoring over the perils of obesity, are those suffering from eating disorders that lead to pursuits of skeletal skinniness being pushed out onto thin ice?

In Lauren Greenfield's frightfully compelling "Thin," airing next on HBO Dec. 30 -- a teledocumented accompaniment to her same-titled book just published -- she applies a CAT scan to the catwalk industry mentality pervasive beyond haute couture confines, following four girls/women as they try to walk down a hospital hallway without teetering on their thin and emaciated bones.

If being Vogue-like thin is in vogue, then these "Thin" stars are in trouble.

It would be fashionable to pin all the blame on the babblings that come from a design-centric bubbleworld, where unrealistic body images are fraught with unhealthy eating patterns, and air-kissing is just another example of models' fears of having anything touch their lips.

But this obsession with thin is beyond skin deep, a reflection of brain chemistry gone awry. And "Thin" puts its weight behind the scientific statistics that bear this out.

Dabbing at desserts, slicing their tiny bits of beef with scalpel precision, staring at their plates -- bone china with a better chance of surviving a crash than these bone-thin victims -- as if they're filled with rations of rat poison, Brittany, 15; Shelly, 25; Alisa, 30; and Polly, 29, regale, report -- but don't rejoice -- in their obscenely harmful dietary skinny-dipping.

Buffeted by bulimia, purged of hope by insurance policies that run out at the wrong time, self-deluded and self-destructive, these four are a Jewish mother's worst nightmare: all skin and bones.

What's a mother to do? What's a family to do? Does it take a village -- or a nation -- to nurse this menacing mindset back to health?

An acclaimed photographer named one of the top 25 of influence by American Photo magazine, Greenfield may be making her directorial debut with "Thin," but she is far from green in the field.

Her photography of "Girl Culture," an exhibit and book, was the beginning of a body of work that would focus on women's self-body images. Among her shoots was one at the Renfrew Center in South Florida, where Greenfield later returned, camera in hand, to reel in the impact that anorexia, bulimia and other illnesses born of mental self-doubts serve to purge young women of their self-worth.

If there is a disturbing atonal soundtrack to this documentary, it is the dirge of self-destruction as patients face the bottom of the toilet bowl to inner screams only they can hear.

What Greenfield is hearing for her fine film work is applause and acclaim, from Sundance to sunny reviews its sobering focus is receiving.

All the while, eating disorders are eating away at the American fabric. "It affects one in seven young women under the age of 25," she relates. "You'd have a hard time meeting anyone not touched by this illness."

As touching as the film is, you may have a hard time facing the screen as the quartet of women battle with their disorder.

"There is a perception that this is a disorder of choice," says the photographer/filmmaker. "That it's an illness of vanity."

It is not -- not that it's not fueled in a philosophical way by the media. "They play a role, yes," admits Greenfield, "especially in triggering" a response in someone already hovering over the edge. In a horribly halacious way, is there some sort of concentration-camp chic about this bareboned look? A perverse attachment to a convex mirror view of the world?

"We do have to be careful," says Greenfield. "We do live in a culture where beauty is defined by thin. But those with the actual disorders do not think of themselves as beautiful; they're using it as a way to numb out."

It is all so benumbing, this barely-there existence, dealing with a disease that serves as food for thought, but unaccepting of nourishment in a corporal way.

While one of the women trailed by the camera -- Alisa -- is Jewish, there are no studies available to earmark ethnicity as a fear factor for getting the disease. And yet ... "Sam told me the disease was common in the Orthodox community."

Sam is Sam Menaged, the spark who spurred on the founding of the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia more than 20 years ago, giving birth to the Renfrew Center Foundation. His Jewish concerns extend to his assurance that kosher meals be available at the center. Indeed, filmmaker Greenfield extends major kuved to the captivating Menaged, whose life work has managed to serve the needs and feed the futures of more than 20,000 women worldwide.

Among them is a proportional number of Jewish victims. "Food has a lot of power in Jewish families, which makes it a powerful tool for restriction," says Greenfield. But, she emphasizes, such power plays are not restricted to Jewish environments, but to "anything where food takes on an importance."

It is important work she is doing -- including the establishment of a Web site that serves as a cyberspace sounding board for bloggers and others bemoaning not being heard or understood by the "normal" world. A traveling exhibit of Greenfield's photos is also on the calendar, starting in February in Dallas.

From start to end, "Thin" isn't about the thinning of the herd of those suffering from the disorders; if anything, more are bedeviled by it daily.

"The truth is, about the illness, that it's not easy; it's a long haul. There's no easy fix."

There is really no "The End" of thin; just a continuation.

For a positive conclusion to the stories, viewers should look elsewhere. Alisa, alone among the women onscreen, is the only one getting substantially better.

"It's hard to make a film that doesn't have a happy ending," says Greenfield. But better yet, she notes, sometimes a downbeat fade-out can upend misunderstandings, and keep alive and breathing the help for those who need its lifeline most. 

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