Thin is a book of photographs of women and girls with eating disorders at the Renfrew Center, old snapshots of them, their journals and other writings, their therapeutic art works, and their families. The book includes three essays by experts on eating disorders, David Herzog, Michael Strober, and Joan Jacob Brumberg. It is a companion to the documentary Thin directed by Lauren Greenfield, and shows most of the same young women. Having seen them in the documentary affects one's perception of them in the book, in the images of them and their personal diaries. The main figures are the same ones as in the documentary: we see the progression of Brittany, Shelly, Alisa, and Polly, as they go through their treatment. However, in addition to these four, the book shows several other people too. We get a few pages devoted to each. For example, for Melissa, who is 23 and comes from Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is one page of text transcribing her own words, and on the facing page there is a full page photograph of her sitting on couch or futon. She wears a "Little Mermaid" tee shirt and the covering is also in bright colors with a Disney theme. In the background sits a forlorn stuffed panda bear. Melissa's expression matches the panda bear more than it does the smiling Little Mermaid. A few pages later, we see Shantell, 28, from Delray Beach, Florida. She has a page of text transcribing her talk about herself, and on the facing page she stands in a room at the window shade, looking at the camera. She is skinny, and topless, with her arms clasped in front of her, so show the scars on her side from her self-cutting. On the next two pages is a spread of her torso, as she holds her arms behind her, so her scars are highlighted even more. They are prominent, several inches long, and catch the eye first. Looking more carefully, one notices there are many of them, possibly hundreds, including a couple on one of her breasts. It's a shocking image.
Some of the pictures show the changes as women change. For example, we see Aiva on the first day of her treatment, looking gaunt and worried, and then ten weeks later, on the last day of her treatment, looking healthy and uncomfortable. That's characteristic of the book and eating disorders: it is clear that these are very deep seated problems, and the women are not cured by their treatment: rather, they are helped enough to start a road to a better life style and healthier habits. From their journals and their statements, as well as their frequent relapses, we see how difficult it is for them to put their disorders behind them and give up on their desire to be very thin.
Reading through the journals of the women, seeing their artwork that expresses their feelings, seeing how they dress and hold themselves, one gets a strong sense of them struggling with maturity: many of the women in their twenties and thirties seem childlike. One picture, of thirty-one-year-old Cara shows her standing in front of a Christmas Tree: she has a pre-adolescent body and she smiles at the camera as if in a daze; round her neck she wears a silver garland for decoration. She looks more like an 8-year-old.
Greenfield's photography is deceptively powerful. She spent a substantial portion of time at the Renfrew Center, and so she managed to gain the trust of her subjects. So they look at the camera with familiarity, letting their emotions play on their faces. Their journals tell us what thoughts are passing through their heads. Greenfield frames her pictures straightforwardly, and she often selects vibrant colors. Sometimes the suffering she shows seems almost comical because it is so absurd: in one image, two girls hold hands to comfort each other in their ordeal of having to eat desert at the end of dinner; in another, at a therapy session, the residence sit around a table eying an opened box of Pop-tarts with fear and suspicion. Yet in other pictures, we see self-mutilation and pain and learn about their fears that can lead to such self-destructive behavior as to threaten their lives.
There have been many clinical accounts of eating disorders and a few memoirs of anorexia, but Thin is exceptional in how it conveys the feelings and preoccupations of the residents at Renfrew. It is a remarkable book.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.