About the Support Group & the Bristol Girl
In Sisters, the older sister, Ming, comes across a poster for a Support Group for Eating Disorders and suggested that Ping reach out to them for help. However, the group turns out to be a pro-anorexia cult. They call themselves Anorexia Beauty and pray to a skeleton girl named Bristol for courage and strength.
The plot device of the Support Group was inspired by pro-eating disorder websites.
While conducting research on this topic, I was stunned to discover many online communities that are pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia. They promoted eating disorders as a lifestyle and proudly preach the gospel of starvation. The tone varies from site to site, but the most common component is a series of “thinspiration” photos of waif-like models and actresses. Some sites even feature anorexia prayers and sacrifice rituals.
The existence of pro-eating disorder websites was eye-opening. It gave me a deeper understanding of the modern manifestation of this mental illness and inspired me to create a pseudo-religious cult in the film that finally pushes Ping to the brink of death.
The Bristol Girl to which the cult prays is a historical figure from the book Fasting Girls: the History of Anorexia Nervosa by American social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Her groundbreaking study offered me important historical insights into this disease. According to the book, in 1895, British medical journal The Lancet reported the case of a sixteen year old Bristol schoolgirl who was 5-foot-4 inch tall and died of anorexia at 49 pounds. It was the first reported death from this modern disorder in English-language medicine. Bringing her into the film created a bridge between this modern tale and its historical predecessors.
My feelings towards the pro-ED websites and those pro-anorexia girls are ambivalent. Eating disorders are fatal illnesses. Witnessing the extreme pain my sister went through and the damage it wreaked upon her body and life, I am strongly opposed to these sites affirming eating disorders as an acceptable lifestyle. There is no question that these sites have the potential to be harmful to many vulnerable young people.
On the other hand, eating disorders are characteristically private and secretive illness. The victim of an isolating disease winds up feeling alone, often consumed by feelings of disgust and guilt. In the film, Ping cries out: “I have nothing but anorexia left. All these years, it’s been the only thing that gives me security. It’s like my companion. Without it, I wouldn’t know how to go on living.” This is an actual statement frequently expressed by my sister Jie when she was struggling and couldn’t find a way out. These websites are the only places where these girls can go to find sympathetic sufferers and feel accepted and secure. Who amongst us does not desire this sense of belonging in everyday life?
While I fully oppose the philosophy of this so called “pro-eating disorder movement”, I don’t think the girls who created the sites should be blamed. As one of the girls justly wrote: “Isn’t our culture pro-anorexia?”
In his article Pro-Anorexia Websites, Thomas S. Roche pointed out: “In a culture where most women — and many men — are at some point in their lives grudgingly shamed into dieting, anorexia is terrifying to most of us and threatening to the status quo. But the celebration of anorexia is hazardous not because it encourages a set of behaviours that has associated health risks — but because, if you look closely enough, you can recognize those behaviours in our average, everyday person. Pro-ana websites are not just hazardous to your health — they’re hazardous to a worldview that celebrates eating disorders in its own not-so-subtle way.”
This, in a nutshell, encapsulates the tender, painful and complex point of view that our film tries to express.
Ying Wang (2005)
Over a decade has passed since we made Sisters. Back then, it was the first film of such topic created by ethnic Chinese filmmakers. Watching it now, I’m proud of Jie’s courage; I’m proud of her honesty.
The film is raw, provocative, and bold. It attempts to go beyond the apparent suffering, digging deep into the universal causes of mental illness: the invisible mechanisms of suppression in our modern society, the loneliness and vulnerability of our human soul, and the restless craving for acceptance and belonging. With the little money we could put together and the extremely limited filmmaking experience I had then, I’m proud of what it achieved.
The film feels more relevant now than 10 years ago. Eating Disorders is no longer a Western phenomenon. For the past decade, we’ve received more and more inquiries about the film. That is why we are planning to re-release the film in 2019. Our hope is that Sisters can connect with more people who are suffering and struggling in silence and loneliness, whilst longing for companionship.
Ying Wang (2018)