Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

Unbearable Lightness is de Rossi’s story of her eating disorder (she suffered both bulimia and anorexia). Much of the book is focused on the ‘physical’ elements of her experience – dieting to fit into the modelling world that she became a part of from age 12, constantly under the scrutiny of a camera, the stress of wardrobe fittings. She goes into great detail about her exercise regime and what she ate (and vomited). The details are horrifying –

As I sit in bed staring into the darkness, my feet making small circles to start my daily calorie burn…”

I had eaten my 60-calorie portion of tuna normally, using chopsticks and allowing each bite of canned fish to be only the height and width of the tips of the chopsticks…

I start sobbing now as I lunge my way across the floor and I wonder how many calories I’m burning by sobbing. Sobbing and lunging – it’s got to be at least 30 calories.

I got in the car to drive home… If I waited too long to finish burning off the calories consumed by chewing the gum, the calories might turn into fat. At the red lights, I took my hands off the steering wheel and pumped my arms…

Running that fast up stairs is tricky, especially in platform wedges. I liked wearing the shoes for these tasks, though. I felt as though they burned more calories because I was forced to be aware of protecting my ankles from spraining.

I washed all the dishes before I ate from them to make sure they were clean. Occasionally the dishes felt greasy when I took them out of the dishwasher and I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t ingesting any residual grease or oil…

And also exhausting – de Rossi acknowledges just how time-consuming an eating disorder is, regardless of whether you’re in recovery or not.

Just because I’d stopped starving didn’t mean I didn’t still have an eating disorder. My eating disorder felt the same to me. It took up the same space in my head, and driving around the city to find the perfect comfort foods took up as much time as driving around the city to find the tuna with the lowest sodium content.

It is generally acknowledged that eating disorders are psychological disorders that have a physical manifestation. Eating disorders often fall under the banner of ‘self-harm’ in terms of psychological and personality disorders, and while the treatment includes gaining weight, the focus is on a person’s sense of self and how that effects their relationships and their need for control.

It’s relevant because for the most part, while de Rossi details what is going on with her body, she says little about what is going on in her head. Although she clearly struggled with her sexuality (believing that her ambitions and ideals weren’t compatible with being a lesbian) the way that she came to terms with it and her recovery from anorexia and bulimia is discussed in the broadest of terms.

‘There’s a reason they call it a private life,’ I’d often say to interviewers. But there’s a fine line between being private and being ashamed.

Which is disappointing because I would have liked to know what was going on in her head rather than on her plate when she went from this (37kg):

To this (76kg):

Instead, the details about her weight fluctuations, calorie intake and measurements are so carefully documented that I couldn’t help but think that in the wrong hands, the memoir could almost be read as a ‘how-to’ guide to eating disorders. I don’t say that glibly. Anyone who has strayed into the dark corner of Instagram where teenage girls and the #thinspiration hashtag live, know that some would take de Rossi’s 300 calorie-per-day regime as a good idea.

The publishers hoped that this book would “inspire hope and nourish the spirit” and that it was a “…crucial book for all those who might sometimes feel at war with themselves or their bodies.” I’m afraid it didn’t inspire hope in me or nourish my spirit. Instead, I felt exhausted reading about de Rossi’s regime, despair that people get to the point that she was at, afraid for young girls who get sucked into the body-image vortex… I guess I’m not entirely convinced that de Rossi has slayed her demons, despite the fairy tale ending of her memoir.

3.5/5 She’s brave for sharing the horrifying details and the book is well-written but I wanted more heart. As de Rossi says, ‘Shame weighs a lot more than flesh and bone.’

8 responses

    • As Portia describes, it’s a disease that ironically as you ‘get better’ or start recovery you actually feel a lot worse. Some programs treat patients now without even tackling the food intake/ exercise regime to start – the focus is on the psychological stuff. Either way, a very difficult thing to experience and also witness.

    • Coincidentally, I saw on the cover of some trashy mag recently, something like ‘Has Portia relapsed?’ – couldn’t find anything similar online though. I’m not sure if people ever truly ‘recover’ from eating disorders – I imagine the potential is always there, like addiction problems.

  1. Fascinating review. I think I’d be more interested in the psychological aspects so I don’t think I’ll read it if there’s less focus on these. The photos are extraordinary – I really hope she hasn’t relapsed.

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