Thin, a documentary film produced, aired and distributed by HBO, is the centerpiece of a multi-faceted project that explores the complex issues of body images and eating disorders in young women. Photographer and journalist Lauren Greenfield began documenting eating disorders in 1997, eventually publishing an article for Time Magazine and a book entitled Girl Culture, as well as producing a traveling photographic exhibit. Returning to one of the facilities featured in the exhibit, Greenfield took up residence at the Renfrew Center, an in-patient facility for eating disorders in Florida, to film the day-to-day suffering of four young women struggling with anorexia over the course of six months.

The youngest is Brittany, a sad and troubled fifteen-year old, whose bulimia and anorexia began when she was only eight (her weight bounced from 185 to 95 pounds in one year) and whose mother has her own very unhealthy relationship to food. Brittany is eventually returned to her weight-obsessed mother because of the loss of insurance. Shelly, a twenty-five year-old, psychiatric nurse, has been anorexic for six years and enters Renfrew at 84 pounds with a surgically-implanted feeding tube. Her identical twin visits to plead with Shelly to refrain from slowly killing herself and ultimately destroying their family. Polly is a twenty-nine year old, charming troublemaker whose health is returning but whose defiance of rules eventually gets her kicked out of the facility. The oldest patient is Alisa, a thirty-year old, divorced mother of two whose eating disorder ostensibly developed at age seven when a pediatrician persuaded her mother to put her plump daughter on a severe diet. Alisa's graphic account of a single day of binging and purging is shocking, and her forced release from Renfrew because of problems with health insurance precipitates a return to this pattern after she tucks her children into bed.



Thin is an unflinching and unforgettable look at the devastating and frustrating disease of anorexia which takes the life of 10% of those given the diagnosis. Greenfield captures the regimentation of early morning weight checks and blood pressure readings, the emotional trauma of mealtimes, the mean-spirited gossip sessions on the smoking porch, and the shameful confessions to therapists and nurses. The institutional and medical challenges of treating eating disorders overwhelm the viewer who is left to question whether the constant surveillance and determined restraint of patients by staff (many of whom are, ironically, overweight) is effective in managing a disease that is characterized by fears of losing control and of developing mature bodies. For instance, the regression of adult residents in the facility is evident in the way in which they decorate their rooms with stuffed animals and childish drawings of one another or in the way in which they act out by jumping on their beds or sneaking cigarettes in their bathrooms.

However, the patients' cunning manipulation of situations and individuals as well as their gross distortions of their bodies and their food intakes are equally challenging for a viewer. What might be the most helpful therapeutic response to one young woman whose crayoned outline of her own body is twice its actual size or another who attempts suicide over two slices of pizza?

Perhaps, the most troubling issue for the viewer is the recognition that while these young women are dangerously and seriously ill, they, nevertheless, look like the models and actresses who are most admired and emulated in our culture. Greenfield herself gained a greater understanding of the complexity of eating disorders as a serious mental illness; she noted that the making of the film for her became like discovering the heart of darkness.


An educational resource guide for the documentary has been developed for use by individuals, educators and community groups. It is available online at and can be downloaded.

Primary Source

HBO Films