Unbearable Lightness

A review of Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain
By Portia de Rossi

I didn’t actually buy this book for myself, which is surprising considering the content: Portia de Rossi and mental health. Ever since my teenage years, I’ve loved Portia de Rossi because of her role in Arrested Development, which is (and always will be) one of my favorite TV shows. Outside of that, all I really knew about de Rossi was that she’s married to Ellen Degeneres, who I also love (really though, how could you not?!). On top of that, I’ve always been really interested in eating disorders and mental health, so you’d think I would have read this by now!

This book was given to me by my sister, who read it long ago and was cleaning off her bookshelf; instead of discarding it, she offered it to me, so of course I graciously accepted it and put it on one of my many to-read shelves. Fast-forward to a few years later when I finally dust it off, crack it open, and find myself pleasantly surprised with how much this book draws me in. With Unbearable Lightness, you head into the world of mental health and memoirs, specifically delving into the rather messed-up mind of Portia de Rossi in her younger years. This book details her struggle with her weight, body image, sexuality, career choice, and the resulting eating disorders–yes, the “s” here was intentional. She went through multiple of them.

For those of you that don’t know, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness by far [1]. They are characterized by a number of different things, but the most notable eating disordered behaviors being self-starvation, bingeing on food, and purging food through vomiting or the use of laxatives [2]. In this book, we watch de Rossi struggle with all of these behaviors as she goes through the As, the Bs, and the Cs of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and compulsive overeating (a.k.a. Binge Eating Disorder). Read more about the diagnostic criteria for these disorders here.

“I didn’t decide to become anorexic. It suck up on me disguised as a healthy diet, a professional attitude… Just as I didn’t decide to become anorexic, I didn’t decide to not be anorexic. I didn’t decide to become healthy. I decided not to die.” 

At the start of the book, we see de Rossi’s struggle with her weight and body image begin as she enters the modeling scene at only 12 years old. Stemming from a place of self-consciousness about not standing out against the crowd, she crash diets before her big shoot to fit in more with the modeling world and distance herself from anything and everything considered ordinary. This crash diet is the beginning of a host of compensatory behaviors in weight control that spiral into a vicious cycle of dieting, bingeing, and purging, which we see as a major theme throughout the entire book. Eventually, de Rossi seeks help for her weight fluctuations with a nutritionist, who unwittingly give her tools and permission to begin a diet that is viciously low in calories and veiled as healthy. She begins progressively losing weight without realizing the severity of her weight loss and how it affects her health. Through this time, we experience her self-hate, her shame and fear regarding her sexuality, her depression, and her struggles as her body changes and her obsession intensifies. As the book progresses, we se more and more people in her life expressing concern, to no avail. At this point, de Rossi‘s starved mind and body are not accepting of their love, and she remains in denial that there is anything wrong until her body can literally go no further. During the epilogue, we travel with de Rossi through her recovery process to where she is now–a much more healthy, balanced, loving place. 

De Rossi quite abruptly ends her story at her diagnoses, which come at the lowest point of her disorder.  A brief epilogue recounts a bit about her recovery and current life, and quite honestly, I found the epilogue to be the most interesting part of the whole book. It talks about her struggles with recovery and self-acceptance with such pinpoint accuracy that you can’t help but empathize. It’s also written very differently than the rest of the book; you spend your time reading about de Rossi’s reflections of what she went through, rather than inside her eating disordered brain whose main focus was the development and maintenance of her disorder. Here, she also recounts the struggles regarding other people’s perceptions of her recovery, and how they thought that as soon as she put back on some weight her disorder was gone. Little did they know, that this part was the hardest for her out of any other time in her disorder–instead of battling her body, she was battling her mind.

“Gaining weight is a critical time. The anorexic mind doesn’t just go away when weight is gained–it gets more active. Anorexia becomes bigger and stronger as it struggles to hold on, as it fights for its life.” (p. 279)

In the second half of the epilogue, de Rossi discusses her life now after recovery, and how her eating habits have improved since her brush with death. She discusses her views on what is considered a “healthy” diet, which consists of everything in moderation. While she does not give diet advice during this section (she’s not an RD, so that’s a good thing!), her discussion of her healed relationship with food in addition to her stable, loving, coveted relationship with Ellen Degeneres leaves the story on a high note.

My recommendations: This book is great, and accurately depicts what it’s like to have an eating disorder or struggle with body image. Although it is not the easiest to read due to the frankness and detail in which de Rossi recounts her thoughts, actions, and obsessions, it is very effective in transporting you into her head, which helps portray the gravity of her situation. There are times in which you’ll wish she had left just a little detail out, although the detailed descriptions add value and interest to the story. Eating disorders are not pretty or fun, and this book accurately depicts that concept. This book would be great for anyone who wants to get into the mind of someone struggling with (and recovering from) shame, body image issues, eating issues, and sexuality acceptance.

I do, however,trigger-warning-1 believe this book should have a huge *TRIGGER WARNING* sign slapped across the front; for people who are currently struggling with an eating disorder or their body image (or are in the early stages of recovery) this book is likely to be triggering.  While I would not consider it pro-ana in any way (considering de Rossi’s intent was quite the opposite), de Rossi’s account of her struggles is full of shocking statements, body shaming, and strategies for how to have an even more effective eating disorder–not exactly things that would be good for people currently struggling to hear or experience.

 

If you, or someone you know, is suffering from an eating disorder or other mental health issue, please know that you’re not alone. Here are some resources that may help you find light amongst the darkness:
– Emergency Medical Services (call 911)
– National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255)
– National Suicide Prevention Live Online Chat
– Nation Eating Disorder Association: Anonymous Eating Disorder Screening
– National Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237
– National Eating Disorder Association Online Chat

References:
[1] National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
[2] National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

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