As I stretched out in the sunshine last week on a sandy beach in Cabo San Lucas, I didn’t have my usual easy, breezy, vacay style beach read in my hands. My choice instead was Portia de Rossi’s book, Unbearable Lightness. The gripping memoir detailing her battle with anorexia and bulimia is written with painstaking thoroughness – the writing is simple, yet infused with brutal honesty, and Portia is a very compelling storyteller.
Before she found love and happiness with the woman of her dreams, Portia spent years living a secret life. A closeted lesbian, she says she was terrified of being outed. She was also waging a vicious battle with an eating disorder. At rock bottom, she starved herself down to 82 pounds. Her book lays everything bare, and this from a woman who, though she had achieved fame, fought so fiercely to achieve perfect privacy that she lied about almost every aspect of her life not only to the press and her co-workers, but to her family and friends as well. Already emotionally fragile, with her self-esteem rigidly tied to her body weight and the size of her thighs, she increased the stakes by convincing herself that in order to maintain her career in Hollywood and escape a brutal life of mediocrity, she had to both stay in the closet and shrink down in size. This idea that she had to keep up the facade isolated her, consumed her every waking moment, and made her extremely ill.
I’ve poured over the pages of many books about eating disorders and body image throughout the years, but I found this one to be a particularly emotional read for me. Body image is something that I ferociously struggle with. I’ve allowed my body to be the target of some of my harshest judgments and at times, even the barometer by which I have measured my self worth. I wish I didn’t do this. I especially wish that at 30 years old, I wasn’t still hung up on it to some degree. I am well aware that my body does not define me and shouldn’t, yet in my own head I have often let it.
Portia’s voice in Unbearable Lightness shares the most honest, candid account of the toll a tyrannical body image can exact. She articulates the thoughts and behaviours of someone battling an eating disorder in a raw and insightful way. Portia has said that she did not want to write the book from the perspective of a healthy person talking about their eating disorder in the past tense. Brutally honest and at times graphic, she says the book is written from the perspective of the sick person.
“I thought it was so important to be honest and to go so deeply…into the crazy part,” says Portia. “Even though I was kind of afraid to do it because I thought maybe everyone would think that I’m nuts. But I think it’s really valuable because there is a point where a diet becomes a disorder.”
I cried through many parts of this book, both because my heart broke for Portia and because it frightened me how much I could relate to some of her disordered patterns. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time in my life obsessing over food, eating, weight loss and my body. I have engaged in problematic food and weight behaviour off and on since I was about 12 years old. I’ve been on both ends of the weight spectrum- a size 16 at my heaviest and down to sickly, skin and bones at my thinnest. I know what it is to get into that mindset where you want to be thin more than anything else to the point where it’s all you can think about. I have gotten myself so thin that my face is drawn, my bones are showing and my family and friends are worried; but all I can focus on are the areas I don’t think are small enough . I have congratulated myself for being able to get through days of eating next to nothing and given myself pats on the back for putting in excruciating overtime at the gym.
Given my propensity to see my body in a critical light, I think that Unbearable Lightness was an important read for me because it reminded me of how damaging that kind of close scrutiny can be if you don’t get a handle on it. Portia wrote this book without holding back. It came from a very real place and she puts out some of her most devastating moments for everyone to see. It’s a brave move, and it will help a great many people who struggle with food, image, sexuality, self esteem, or feeling like an outsider. In other words, if you are human, you’ll be deeply impacted by this book.
This is Portia’s first book but I really hope she continues to write, because she definitely has an incredible gift.