52 Books: Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

I wouldn’t normally choose to read an anorexia memoir – I once pitched an article about pro-ana websites, started to do some research and actually emailed the editor to “retract” my pitch since I couldn’t bear to read any more – but I’ve read a few interviews with Portia de Rossi and thought this book would be interesting. And it was.

De Rossi’s issues with food started after she became a model, aged 12, but were really compounded when she got a part on Ally McBeal and became internationally famous pretty quickly. Her marriage had ended, and as well as coming to terms with fame, she was also trying to come to terms with her sexuality – she was utterly convinced that coming out would mean the end of her career (and she may have been right – this was not long after de Rossi’s future wife, Ellen Degeneres, had seen her career all but killed off after she came out).

De Rossi basically believed her looks were the most important thing about her, that they would never be good enough and she could never be thin enough. Of course, the culture of Hollywood only encouraged this idea – even when she was eating 300 calories a day, her manager told her she’d struggled to fit into the clothes at a photoshoot because she had “big legs”. At her lowest point, de Rossi weighed 82lbs, five and a half stone (she’s 5’6″), but she was still being photographed for magazine articles and even got a part in a major film. It was during the making of this film that her body started to fail and she collapsed and was hospitalised, which started the process that led to her eventual recovery.

I found this book honest, shocking and – I know this sounds awful – fascinating. It’s hard to read and I sometimes found myself almost scanning to get past an episode of disordered eating and on to something less brutal. De Rossi writes compellingly, with very little self-pity. Her recovery, however, is rather glossed over. I read a review that said the bulk of the book could be used as a ‘how to’ for potential anorexics and I did find that aspect worrying. The other thing that bothered me was that, after her recovery, she writes of her shock that Ellen was interested in her even though she was overweight – she never seems to question her belief that being overweight is shameful or unattractive. I understand that may be down to her history, but I would have thought an editor would have picked up on it.


5 thoughts on “52 Books: Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

  1. wow, I dont usually read any kind of memoirs/autobiographies but this one sounds like it needs to be read! Thank you for bringing it to my attention

  2. It sounds like a brave book and I admire her for writing and publishing it. I have to say, though, that every time anyone writes about anorexia it seems that their right to do so is questioned (under the guise of suggesting it could be used as a ‘how to’). Let me just state for the record that nobody will become anorexic by reading about it (just as they wouldn’t ‘catch’ any other mental illness) and that if you have anorexia you don’t need anybody to tell you how to starve yourself – the voice in your head does that for you.

    1. Of course I’m not suggesting that anyone would become anorexic by reading it, nor do I question her right to write it – what I mean is that there are practical tips on how to do it to the ‘best’ effect. There are even ‘recipes’. And there must be a call for that because there are websites dedicated to it, as I discovered when I started researching the article I mentioned.

      1. Oh, I know *you* weren’t suggesting that – sorry! I just meant that there always seems to be that response and I worry that it adds more shame to an illness that is already cloaked in it. Practical tips on a pro-ana website are bad and irresponsible – I am not defending them – but I would be incredibly surprised if they could turn a well person into an unwell one. And an honest portrayal of the disease (and you can’t be honest if you don’t include the nuts and bolts) is not going to encourage anybody who isn’t already anorexic to try it as a lifestyle choice. If you are not already mentally ill you will not consider (or manage to only eat) any of the ‘recipes’ in the book. I think the ‘call for it’ that you mention is what needs to be tackled ie. treatment of women in society, body image in the media, obsession with thiness as equal to Godliness, the pressure to be perfect in every area of our lives… Easy-peasy 😉

  3. Oh I completely agree with that. I just think perhaps it could be ‘triggering’ and could have maybe been treated in a slightly more responsible way. (I’ll tell you the things that bothered me particularly when I see you ON SATURDAY! Yay!)

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