Battling Skewed Perceptions

By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

One of the most revealing scenes in "Thin," an unflinching new documentary that chronicles the experiences of four young women being treated at a Florida center for eating disorders, occurs when a patient named Alisa Williams draws her shape on a white wall for her art therapist. The result is a fun-house distortion: hulking and masculine, nothing like the real Alisa, the therapist notes, tracing the actual contours of her slim, petite body well inside the line she has drawn.

But articulate, engaging Williams, the veteran of multiple hospitalizations for bulimia, apparently does not recognize how skewed her perceptions have become. After 23 years of struggling with her weight -- she was put on her first diet as a chubby 7-year-old -- she tells filmmaker Lauren Greenfield with chilling calm, "This is what I really want: to be thin. So if it takes dying to get here -- so be it."

Those twin pillars of severely disordered eating -- obsessive determination and distorted perception -- are at the heart of Greenfield's intimate but never intrusive 100-minute film, scheduled to air Nov. 14 on HBO. Greenfield, a photographer, has also published a companion book based on the six months she spent following the quartet through the 40-bed Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Fla., one of the nation's best-known inpatient eating disorders centers. Although the four, who range in age from 15 to 30, all gain weight (some as much as 20 pounds) by the time they leave, none is cured of the self-starvation of anorexia or the compulsive binging and purging of bulimia.

Despite their differences, the subjects of the film share a characteristic that is common among women with eating disorders: an immaturity and childlike dependence that seem appropriate in 15-year-old Brittany Robinson but are deeply unsettling in 25-year-old Shelly Guillory.

"I'm really scared of being independent and being responsible and being on my own," admits Guillory, a psychiatric nurse who arrived from Salt Lake City with a feeding tube implanted in her stomach to counter her anorexia.

Greenfield deftly portrays the strange amalgam of women's prison and summer camp that is Renfrew. Patients stay a month or two -- or until their insurance or their parents' money runs out.

Viewers see the sometimes confrontational therapy sessions, the fraught visits by relatives and the mandatory daily 5:30 a.m. weigh-ins, where skeletal patients swathed in blankets huddle in an effort to stay warm. One contrast that is never mentioned but is impossible to ignore: Some of the staff who work most closely with patients are obese.

Yet it is the patients' tortured encounters with food that best illustrate the lonely realities of their lives. "I wanted a bran muffin," said Polly Williams, looking queasy as she stabs her fork into the frosted vanilla cupcake decorated with a lone candle that marks her 29th birthday. Later we see her doubled up as if in pain and whispering to a staff member trying to comfort her, "I just want to throw up so bad."

Although she and the others achieve some successes during their weeks in treatment, "Thin" makes it clear that recovery is, for many, an elusive goal. ยท

© 2006 The Washington Post Company