By now, you’ve probably seen actress Portia de Rossi on Ellen, Oprah, and the cover of People magazine talking about her new book, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, which chronicles her eating disorder and how she recovered. Because I steer the About-Face ship, I figured I should know what all the fuss was about.
What I found was complicated. Unbearable Lightness is an accessible and difficult story that will be informative and helpful for friends and families of people with eating disorders who need to understand their loved one. But for those recovering from or in the throes of an eating disorder (or even for people with “those thoughts”), I thoroughly recommend staying away from it.
Reading de Rossi’s testimony, it was easy for me to recognize myself (overachiever, perfectionist, self-pressured, sensitive) and alternately to be horrified by Ms. de Rossi’s actions and thoughts as she sunk further and further down the drain of her eating disorder. While reading Unbearable Lightness, I said “That is messed UP!” aloud more times than I can count, while also feeling some intense compassion.
… I had barely any furniture. I had no chairs and no sofa, no coffee table. The only indication that someone lived there was my large collection of antique mannequins that were propped up around the living room. While I had always enjoyed them as an expression of the female form, the mannequins became useful as sometimes I measured them and compared my body measurements. I had just started measuring my body parts as a more accurate indication of my weight loss. Mannequins represented the ideal form. By comparing myself to the mannequins, I could take an honest look at how I measured up to that ideal. But mostly I just liked to look at their thin, hard limbs. (p. 159)
This is the story of a smart woman who still ends up falling for all the garbage we’re fed about being thin (which she admits to on page 286).
And then it was easy for me to see the widespread effects – to be reminded again of what the white, female culture of thinness does to so many of us every day. We’re fighting a misogynistic culture and media system, sisters, and you’d better believe that eating disorders and body image obsession are symptoms of that disease.
Here’s the very brief summary of Unbearable Lightness: At age 12, little Portia begins modeling, and starving herself (“dieting”) just before shoots to take off extra weight. Her mother reluctantly gives her some dieting tips. She binges after each shoot. The shoots get closer together, and she never learns to eat normally. She realizes she’s gay, and hides it for fear of losing her career. Years later she is an actress on a show full of thin women (Ally McBeal), she’s reducing calorie intake lower and lower, having an unhealthy relationship with her treadmill, and eventually being unable to move or bend her joints. Once she finds out she has major medical problems due to starving herself, de Rossi begins recovering – also a long, slow road.
Her story is special because of her successful TV and modeling career. But at the same time, everything de Rossi describes is a classic eating disorder symptom. The self-absorption. The competitive nature. The obsession with numbers. Blocking out the most prized people in your life to eat secretly, exercise secretly. The self-congratulation and superiority, the self-hatred and self-doubt. And obviously, the starving, bingeing, and purging.
The beauty in this book is the confident honesty that de Rossi uses to bring us through her story. Ms. de Rossi was like a frog being slowly boiled in her own thoughts and her culture’s expectations for her, and reading it feels the same way. But she never overdramatizes to pander to the reader. She tells it straight, tells you what she was feeling at the moment, never looking back to criticize herself. And somehow, emotion comes through as well:
The scale confirmed what I suspected. It read [###]. … It reminded me that no matter what I did, I could never win – that my body with its bones and its guts and its blood weighed in at what it felt comfortable being as a living organism with its own needs. It hated me and thought I was stupid for attempting to change it with my tortuous rituals of forcing regurgitation and starving it of food. It always had the upper hand, the last word. And the last word was [###]. (p. 128)
The most poignant, beautiful moment of Unbearable Lightness is when de Rossi is having a conversation with a doctor after she collapses on a movie set. We see four two-page spreads: on the left side of the page, there’s a quote such as “Okay. Your liver enzymes were extremely elevated, which are actually at the levels of cirrhosis,” and on the right side, a modeling shot of Ms. de Rossi looking glamorous and thin.
The juxtaposition will catch all readers by surprise. My heart skipped a beat and got caught in my throat.
Luckily for Portia, she realizes that when her body stops functioning, she has “lost” the game. She gives up, and begins the also-tortuous road to getting better and living a new life.
The Caveat: Trigger Central
I’ve said a lot of nice things about Unbearable Lightness, but it’s also hugely important to issue a big warning for this book: May be highly triggering for those with eating disorders or disordered eating habits – you know who you are. (A psychotherapist who works with About-Face tells us that many of her clients have been triggered by de Rossi’s story.)
Other memoirs like this one have been big (i.e. the wrong kind of information) in pro-ED communities, and I would hate to see this one added to the list.
“But it must be so uplifting, because she gets better!” Right? Well, sort of. Ninety percent (272 pages) of Unbearable Lightness details de Rossi’s eating disorder, and ten percent (30 pages) is about her own, personal recovery. I certainly didn’t expect a full-on recovery book, and this certainly is not.
Everyone has a right to tell her story, and Ms. de Rossi, being an intelligent person, may have even thought about the possibility that she’d trigger others before publishing the book.
I have some questions I’d like to ask Portia that Oprah and Ellen didn’t ask. For example, whether de Rossi thinks the true root cause of her eating disorder was a media/modeling culture of thinness. And whether she still has days when she feels the old demons coming back to get her. (Maybe I’ll give her a ring.)
Metaphorically speaking, de Rossi’s story is one of a person who played limbo with her body until her back almost broke. Thank goodness that Ms. de Rossi is alive (very alive) to tell the tale.
— Jennifer B.