I knew almost nothing about Portia De Rossi before reading her gripping biography. Sure I’d seen her years ago on Ally McBeal. I knew she was beautiful, I knew she was married to Ellen DeGeneres and I had just assumed she was another perfect movie star living the dream with a life to be envious of. This is so not the case here.
Unbearable Lightness is brutal, scary, well written and shocking in its honesty, chronicling Portia’s almost lifelong struggle with an eating disorder. We bare witness as she yo-yo diets through the ages of 12-25 binging and purging, basing her happiness on the number on the scale. Then finally (through the help of a nutritionist) we watch as Portia becomes successful at “dieting.” Starving and excessively excising her way down to 82 lbs. Sad, frightening, tortuous and just plain crazy, this was engrossing yet at times painful to read.
We are given some insight into Portia’s life however this does not read like your standard memoir, focusing almost exclusively on her eating disorder and shying away from any real understanding of her career or personal relationships. In a vague sense we learn of Portia’s childhood in Australia, her early modeling days, first marriage in Los Angeles and almost invisible, worthless feelings associated with Ally McBeal. The only behind the scenes we get there are regarding her fittings and the size of her powers suits. Portia’s sexuality is discussed but again vaguely, mainly it’s as a fear of being exposed and her confusion living life as a closeted gay woman.
Throughout we get the feeling that Portia doesn’t feel she deserves anything, to say she has low self esteem would be an understatement, she has no self esteem. She is lonely obsessed with food and calorie counting and her only real relationship is with her treadmill, basing any happiness on losing weight, because everything will be perfect if she can just lose 5-10-15 lbs. As a warning; during the height of her disease this begins to read a bit like a how-to-guide for the anorexic and I would bare this in mind if you’re at all going to be using this book as a form of recovery tool.
During one Christmas Portia hits her lowest weight. At 82 lbs she’s consuming just 300 calories a day. She knows she’s too thin, she’s hiding her bony arms and her family is crying at the sight of her however she no longer knows how to eat, food scares her and she’s afraid of going back to the binging/purging and self hatred.
Eventually on a movie set DeRossi’s body can longer take the abuse; she’s sick, exhausted and her bones ache. She has also developed osteoporosis and lupus and has to start eating. Portia’s recovery process here is insightful, uplifting and beautifully done and I really wish her the best.
This was the scariest passage for me:
“I hadn’t eaten for many hours and my calorie count was fairly low that day, I would allow myself to have a piece of Extra chewing gum. I always allowed myself to have gum, but at 5 calories a stick, I had to add it to my daily calorie allowance because it was these kinds of unrecorded calories that could build up and cause you to gain weight.”
Portia proceeds to “pig out” in a self described “frenzied feeding.” Consuming the entire pack of gum in a matter of minutes. Then filled with guilt over what she’s done and terrified she’ll gain weight again she begins running sprints (in high heels) across the mall parking lot, in a desperate attempt to rid her body of the calories from the gum! and maintain control.