Posted On April 25, 2014 By In Buzzworthy, The Scene

The Reality of Thinspiration: The Story Behind ‘Starving in Suburbia’

 
 

Tara Miele’s Thinspiration movie premiering this Saturday on Lifetime, Starving in Suburbia, follows a young dancer as she is slowly sucked into the world of anorexia and an online community run by the devastatingly mysterious ButterflyAna.

Some of you may be wondering what thinspiration is (if you don’t know about it, consider yourself lucky!). The literal definition is “Photographs or other material intended to provide inspiration for anorexia nervosa as a lifestyle choice.” What this really means is there are thousands of images, websites, hashtags, twitter handles all dedicated to supporting and promoting eating disorders. Thinspo idols include girls like Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, whose pictures you will find plastered on sites like Thinspiration Nation. Every image with #thinspo serves to perpetuate and create desire to be as thin as the girl with sunken hips. Another popular hashtag is #skinnystalking, where some girls suffering ED take pictures of people they see on the street, who quickly become their thin idols. 

While there are sites that seem relatively harmless, with a mixture of exercise promotion and potentially healthy lifestyles, the majority of them are vicious, demeaning platforms that prey on young girls, run by people who call themselves Ana (for anorexia).       images     Letters from Anna

I first met writer/director Tara Miele at a screenwriting workshop at UC Santa Barbara, where I was studying film theory. She was there to talk and I was there to listen.This is what I can tell you about my reaction to her: She was stunning! She was tall! And had beautiful hair! And spoke with big hand gestures! Tara was confident. Her voice was strong and I felt she knew what she wanted out of life. As an aspiring female writer sitting to the left of her, I wanted her to like me.

At the time, Tara was writing and directing television and her independent film The Lake Effect was having its local premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.  Cut to two years later, I was out of college and working as Tara’s assistant from script to post on her latest feature film, the above mentioned, Thinspiration (So it worked! Tara likes me! I think!).

Tara Miele

When she explained the script to me over Skype while cradling her newborn daughter, I had the immediatw reaction I’m sure every girl (if not boy) has whenever eating disorders are mentioned. The anxiety, the guilt. I’ve had those thoughts before. I’ve acted on those thoughts. But no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to casually admit they’ve taken appetite suppressants or laxatives or forced themselves to purge or chew ice for two out of three meals a day, or maybe had joined a thinspiration community. Despite the number of thinspo sites online, the general consensus is not that ED is “cool.” The mention of such behavior draws shame and embarrassment. We often throw up a defense mechanism. It’s ridiculous to have an eating disorder! I would never do that, I’m not an idiot!

But with denial lurking around every corner only to be met with a massive American Apparel billboard, how could one not have ED? (I’m pretty sure those girls aren’t real, right?).

“No one is immune to body image issues,” said Tara regarding choosing to do this project.  She was wary at first, thinking the genre might be a little taboo, “a punchline.”

“But then I started looking at thinspiration, and I realized I hadn’t seen anything that represented the inner turmoil, drama, and darkness that I was seeing come from the people in these online communities. I started having nightmares about this wrath-like half-dead girl, Ana, just hovering like the Ring in my room at night and I knew I had to do something about it.”

When I started to think about it, I couldn’t come up with a good anorexia film I’d seen. I had to google it. There’s mostly documentaries available, and the occasional TV movie, but Tara was going to be one of the first to tackle the issue, and not lightly.

And so I joined Tara and dove into the dark world of thinspiration, searching for every website, blog post, and Instagram that promoted the pro-ana lifestyle. Before my research I didn’t even know what pro-ana meant (pro-ana: pro-anorexia/pro-mia: pro-bulimia) though of course I’d heard of the sought after “thigh gap.” (You can figure that one out on your own). Every day we uncovered a new site—blogs like Doing It Any Way We Can! (2 moms losing weight together). All of us can find fans-of-Ana with just a few clicks. Images of sunken collarbones soon cluttered my desktop. It made me feel terrible about the thighs sitting under my macbook and the burger by my side. These girls were thin! They could wear literally everything from Urban Outfitters!

Kayden (Dumont) & Hanna (Wiggins) viewing a Thinspiration site

Kayden (Dumont) & Hanna (Wiggins) viewing a Thinspiration site

Cue the opening of Starving in Suburbia: Hanna doesn’t want to be anorexic, just fashion-friendly anorexic! It may sound ridiculous, but it’s these types of so called innocent comments that lead you into the mental state, the illness, of ED. And it’s these so-called innocent websites that continue the problem.

So what can we do to change this? How can we stop thinspiration?

Many sites like Pinterest and Tumblr have recognized the issue of pro-ana posts and have banned the use of some hashtags, but that doesn’t eliminate the issue. The blogs still exist.

“We have to change the dialogue,” Tara told me over margaritas and tacos. “If thinspiration is going to exist, we must replace the hashtag with image of happy, healthy bodies; we  must dilute the pro-ana’s “sacred” world.

@ThinspoMovie is doing just that, so when a 13-year-old girl is having a crappy day because someone skinnier than her got asked to the dance and goes she goes home to Google “thinspiration,”  a waify body doesn’t generate, but a film portraying the terrible world behind the smoke and mirrors.

The “Online World” in Starving in Suburbia

Tara crafted a story that uncovered the disturbing and yes disgusting, reality behind thinspiration of ED. It denied it the glam and glitter pro-ana’s claim the lifestyle to be.

After locking script, Tara and I moved on to the casting room in the search for the right women to bring this screenplay to life. And something amazing happened in there. This script gave women courage to discuss the social taboo that is ED. Girl after girl confessed how close this story was to either their own, or someone they knew. One woman brought us to tears as she recalled her strict ballet training as a child–how her diet was watched by teachers and the girls collectively worked together to stay thin. That woman was Izabella Miko and she was cast as the head of the thinspiration site, ButterflyAna.

Of course I’m not saying everyone has an eating disorder, that’s an absurd generalization, but most of us have at least thought about it. Tara really was starting a conversation and people were responding.

“Casting wasn’t easy,” Tara will happily admit to you. “Finding Laura Slade Wiggins was the key and we didn’t have her locked in until very late in the game.  There was no shortage of talented actresses that we auditioned for this project but Laura had gone through so much of this and she has this very dark side to her that she was able to explore and let go of in this project which was key to it being what it is.”

Though production dates creeped up on us faster than we could imagine, Tara along with her producer Sharon Bordas, MarVista, and Indy Entertainment were able to pull together a powerful female cast:  Laura Wiggins (Shameless), Izabella Miko (Coyote Ugly), Callie Thorne (Rescue Me) and Emma Dumont (Bunheads). And now I’ve disregarded the tremendous work done by the male actors of Thinspo, Marcus Giamatti (Judging Amy) and Brendan Meyer (Mr. Young), whose importance in the script is more than you might think! (No spoilers here).

I don’t know if this was on purpose (doubtful), or just the fate of the universe (maybe?), but the Thinspo Crew (as we liked to call ourselves) was predominately female. “Not something you normally see!” remarked supporting actress Emma Dumont over the phone last Friday, as we recalled how many great women surrounded us on set. Leading lady Laura Wiggins added that this crew “cared about what we were making.” There was never the “just here to do my job” notion. Instead, everyone was trying to make sure they were doing everything to properly tell this important story.

And when I say everything, I mean they were feeding each other. Not just the crafty girl or the breakfast omelette man (whom we all equally adored!). Tara, her actors, the producers, everyone, was always making sure the cast and crew had a stomach filled with healthy food. One day Izabella brought in homemade vegan food she shared with everyone as she ran through set in costume (on screen this Saturday, she’ll scare the shit out of you, standing next to her, she’s an angel).

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Izabella Miko, Tara Miele, Laura Wiggins

We were conscious that this issue wasn’t one we were fully removed from. It could be happening before our eyes.

“I’ve actually had several women throughout post production approach me about how they were affected by the film. There were women who were not into thinpsiration and were not necessarily struggling with ED but found something here that they hadn’t seen expressed about themselves before-that negative inner monologue that Anna represents. It can be very powerful and dangerous and no one talks about it,” continued Tara.

Like I said, no one wants to admit they’re bulimic and half the time, you won’t even notice (a key theme in the film). ED doesn’t equate to skin and bones, it can be masked in many different forms. The online thinspiration community in Starving in Suburbia Hanna (Wiggins) falls into is comprised of teenagers near and far dealing with personal issues through controlling, or not controlling their diet. You may find yourself wanting to grab the TV and shake these people. You look great! Stop doing this to yourself! But it’s not as simple as telling your daughter, “Love your body! You’re beautiful!” Of course you should do that (please go do that) but that doesn’t stop her, or anyone, from doubting herself. This doubt originates in our culture; in our body representation, in our value system.

So, instead, let’s make it okay to discuss the self-hate we sometimes slip into. Let’s turn to the community and acknowledge that we’re human. Let’s fight fire with fire. These communities are how ED and thinspiration form in the first place. Wiggins’ disorder began at a young age when she was feeling uncomfortable with herself. During one summer camp, she joined the lunch table of the “cool” girls who were sharing tips on how to trick your parents into believing you’re eating. So Wiggins learned how to always look like you’re finishing a meal and she made some friends along the way. “I was aware of what I was doing,” but because Wiggins felt like she could control it, it seemed harmless… until it wasn’t. She wasn’t in control, “Ana” was.

This is the type of story you hear over and over again, how someone sort-of-accidentally-slipped-in-to-anorexia. It really can happen that quickly. Wiggins noticed changes in her behavior, especially toward her parents. She didn’t like the way she was acting, but she didn’t know how to fight Ana back. It’s not something you can do on your own. Luckily, her parents became aware of her ED and got her into treatment. Wiggins had fallen so deep, she wasn’t getting the roles of the pretty girl, she was the sick girl. Ana wasn’t delivering a perfect life.

When Wiggins (now 26) first read Tara’s script, it was almost too real. “Not your mother’s anorexia movie” is a headline you might see thrown around online, but they really mean it. Starving in Suburbia tackles the truly dark world of ED. It is not a magical place that makes you pretty, it’s a glorified world that can and will kill you. The thinspiration sites I found during my research resembled a cult. Often, they are a place where people in pain find each other for a support system (even if they are in no way supporting each other).

“If we just talked about it, instead of hiding it, it might not be such a problem!” Wiggins exclaimed. It’s hard to not raise your voice while discussing the issues of female body representation. It’s a heated topic! But Wiggins is right, if we taught ourselves and our children to open up about our insecurities, they may not disappear, but we could help each other deal with them.

“And it isn’t just in the media industry,” added Dumont. We often focus on women in the media suffering from ED, but it is a global issue (though, yes, perpetuated by the media).

Wiggins was nervous about returning to such a dark place in her life with Thinspiration. The script was so personal for her, she wondered whether it was a good decision to take the role. But if she didn’t do it, maybe the story wouldn’t have been told and another teenager might be mystified by the powers of ED.

“The funny thing about eating disorders are that a big part of them is hiding them,” Tara responded to my question regarding the prominence of ED in the film and media industry. “I have no real answer for how many people I’ve known.”

“I hope it scares them!” said Wiggins, when I asked what she thought the reaction will be to people who, maybe, have considered anorexia. Tara stated that beyond the film being socially relevant and important, “it’s entertaining! An edge of your seat movie…scary, suspenseful and heartbreaking.” And to that, I can agree.

Last night, the cast and crew joined together to see the film premiere at the Downtown Independent. It is undoubtedly Tara’s best work to date. When I look back on this project, proud does not even begin to express my emotions toward this being the first feature film I was able to truly be a part of. I hope Tara Miele and her film are able to inspire, enlighten, and empower young girls across the country, the way it did me.

Starving in Suburbia premieres this Saturday April 26 on Lifetime at 8PM. Follow the movie on Twitter @ThinspoMovie and help us change the #thinspiration hashtag!

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Hilary Fitzgerald is a writer for Writtalin. Hilary is a writer/filmmaker living in a brown box in Silver Lake. She tries to divide her time between her three loves--Diet Coke, Guacamole, and the Slamdance Film Festival, where they like to call her "crazy," but she is officially known as the Festival Coordinator. Ms. Fitzgerald once had a web series named Corilary, but now entertains herself with what her Uncle Jim calls "a great YouTube effort," otherwise known as Talkies with Hilary's Mom. If you like short 16mm black and white documentaries, she made This is Not the End, but you might not be into that sort of thing.

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