NOTE: This post was originally published on my previous blog, Body Image Rehab.
There have been many books written on the topics of eating issues and body image, and I have read a number of them. When a new book in that genre is released these days, it has to be very special in order to catch my attention, if only for the reason that I must have read at least a hundred such books in my lifetime. One book which I can wholeheartedly recommend is “Unbearable Lightness” by Portia de Rossi. Although I have only read half of this book thus far, I have no hesitation in recommending it for the readers of “Body Image Rehab.”
Portia de Rossi is best known for her role on “Ally McBeal” and for being the wife of comedienne and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. Although she looks healthy and vibrant today, what many people didn’t know until recently was that she suffered from severe anorexia and bulimia for many years. She details her struggle in highly open, honest, and poignant terms in her new book.
Portia’s Words, My Feelings…
I first learned of Portia’s book in a People Magazine article, but the book really captured my attention during her recent appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. As I listened to Portia speak about her eating disorders experience and read passages from her book, I felt as if I were hearing my own thoughts. Like me, Portia de Rossi spent years thinking she wasn’t thin enough, beautiful enough, or capable enough. She suffered from serious body image and self-image issues and her eating disorders represented a way, albeit maladaptive, for her to cope with those challenges.
I was a fan of Portia’s before reading her book, as I steadfastly followed every episode of “Ally McBeal.” I remember being mesmerized by the breathtaking beauty and vibrant talent of Portia de Rossi when watching the show. Little did I know that she was highly insecure and felt undeserving of her fame and the attention that she was receiving. She was also hiding a devastating secret, her homosexuality, and she was terrified of being discovered and losing everything for which she’d worked so hard – her job, her fame, her career. That, coupled with the tremendous pressure to be thin in Hollywood, drove her to the depths of despair and the harrowingly low weight of 82 pounds (at 5’6”).
In this post, I will share a few quotes from “Unbearable Lightness” and provide my thoughts and insights on Portia’s compelling words. This first quote brought me to tears when reading the book, as it brought back vivid memories of my own intense self-hatred:
“…I say, ‘You’re nothing. You’re average. You’re an ordinary, average, fat piece of shit. You have no self-control! You’re a stupid, fat, disgusting dyke. You ugly, stupid, bitch!’ As I reach the bathroom and wipe away the last of my tears, I’m alarmed by the silence; the voice has stopped. When it’s quiet in my head like this, that’s when the voice doesn’t need to tell me how pathetic I am. I know it in the deepest part of me. When it’s quiet like this, that’s when I truly hate myself.”
With the exception of the “dyke” comment, I could have written the above. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought or verbalized such vehement self-recrimination, especially when I was deep in the throes of anorexia. It is a harsh and punishing disease and Portia captures the thought patterns that anorexics experience so accurately and vividly. If nothing else, Portia’s book can serve to help eating disorder sufferers feel less alone and like someone “gets” them. Reading Portia’s words not only led me to feel that she understands my struggles (mostly past, thankfully), I also felt that I came to know and understand her. She is no longer just the beautiful woman on the television screen; she is a real and authentic person whose caring and generous spirit comes through in her words.
Shopping and Body Criticism
In any early chapter of the book, Portia describes a shopping trip she made just after she had been given the role of Nelle Porter on “Ally McBeal.” The familiarity I felt when reading her words had my eyes welling up with tears. It is painful to recall years and years of self-criticism and feelings of not being good enough. Portia’s words again could be mine, and I don’t have to reach very far back to remember feeling that I was at war with my body much like Portia was:
“…I looked at my body. I looked at my big thighs, the fat around my knees. I looked at my hips and how they formed a triangle where my butt hit the top of my legs. It wasn’t the first time I was critical of my body. I’d spent my life trying to change it, but I was overcome with the feeling that it would continue to beat me – that I could never win the game of successfully changing its shape.”
Portia goes on to describe her humiliating experiences with the “Ally McBeal” wardrobe department and the costumers for a Loreal ad campaign, as her weight fluctuations frequently led to clothing being too tight or not fitting her at all. The Loreal experience, during which she was chided for being a size 8, ultimately led to the dangerous diet that almost killed her.
A Happy Ending
Fortunately, Portia de Rossi’s story has a happy ending. She is now happily married to Ellen DeGeneres, has recovered from anorexia, and is gradually learning to accept both herself and her body as they are. Her story is one of hope and inspiration. She has emerged from the abyss and is living a healthy and happy life. The last quote which I will share is one which I am proud to say echoes my own current feelings:
“Look, I don’t think I’m perfect. I still don’t like my thighs. But I’m not going to do anything to compromise my health or my sanity to change them. I don’t want to have secrets anymore. I don’t want to have a darkness that I feel that I should have to be ashamed of. And going forward now, without having anything to hide, the future looks pretty bright.”
For those of you who are still in the throes of anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive overeating, recovery is possible! Portia de Rossi is a living testament to that fact, as am I. Both Portia and I have emerged from Death’s Door and are now living empowered and happy lives. This is possible for everyone who struggles with an eating disorder or any other type of personal battle.
A Story of Inspiration
I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of “Unbearable Lightness” and read it, especially if you have ever suffered with anorexia or any other type of eating or image disorder. I look forward to reading the rest of the book and learning how Portia de Rossi managed to pull herself up from the depths of despair. I hope that her story will inspire readers and show them that recovery can and does happen; that there is light at the end of the tunnel that is anorexia. At one point, I never would have believed complete recovery was possible, but I am happy to say that I am almost there myself. I hope to be able to call myself “recovered” instead of just “recovering” very soon!