I didn’t watch Ally McBeal growing up; I was only 13 when it premiered, and I’m sure its sexual repertoire meant it was something I wasn’t allowed to watch. Still, that didn’t mean I didn’t know about it. Since I consumed media news regularly at a young age (most notably in the form of reading TV Guide and the movie information fillers that come in the newspaper), I knew about the show’s popularity and the fact that it was cutting-edge; even then I’d seen clips featuring the law firm’s unisex bathroom and the dancing baby that personified Ally’s biological clock. And when I saw Portia de Rossi‘s beautiful blonde hair or perfectly shaped lips on the red carpet or on a magazine cover, I thought she was one of the most gorgeous actresses in Hollywood. In later years, I enjoyed watching her on Arrested Development, as I thought she made a comedic addition to a brilliant ensemble cast. And, of course, I still thought she was stunning.
So, when I first heard about her memoir, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, I was surprised to learn that it chronicled her struggle with eating disorders. Even this woman, who I thought of as the epitome of glamour and beauty, struggled with her self-image. As is all too often the tragic case, Hollywood actresses, despite the fact that they are some of the most physically beautiful creatures on earth, have to struggle in an industry where the perfect face and body mean survival and being fat, old, or imperfect mean the death of a career. De Rossi’s memoir painfully details the rituals she subjected herself to to control her calorie intake and output. She is completely honest and open about the insecurities about her body and looks that led to her disorder, as well as her struggle to hide her homosexual identity out of fear that revealing it would halt her career advancement. As she describes her feelings of inadequacy, she gives a voice to her disorder, a male voice in her head that constantly tells her she is not good enough, that she is fat, that she never will be good enough. Her book tells of a life controlled by binge eating and purging, then extreme exercise, then anorexia that allowed her to eat only 300 calories a day. Along with explaining this painful regimen, de Rossi also describes the heartbreak of living as a closeted actress in Hollywood. It isn’t until she experiences a near-death wake-up call that she gives herself the freedom to accept her body for the shape it was meant to be.
This book is a raw and honest look at the damage an eating disorder can do and how all-consuming it can become. It addresses the control issues that can trigger the disease and the difficulty of recovery, detailing how her weight ranged from 82 to 168 pounds throughout her life. Her writing is descriptive and open; if she had not allowed her struggles to fully show through the writing, it would not be the powerful book that it is. By the end I was in tears after reading the difficulty of her struggle, yet I took comfort in the hopeful ending that shows how she was able to find happiness in herself and in her marriage. De Rossi is a capable writer who provides an account of how the disease affected her relationships and the way her interpretations of what people said to her throughout her career stimulated her disease. It’s a powerful story of disease, hope, and healing; most importantly, it’s a story of how self-acceptance is the best way to live and love.
My rating: Really liked it (4 of 5 stars)
Acknowledgements: I read the Atria Books (division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.) edition of Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi, copyright 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-7778-5