Thursday, July 26, 2012

Unbearable Lightness

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

Here's the thing. I kinda liked this book. No, the writing isn't going to win any awards. Still, three stars. But while writing this review, I seemed to focus more on the negative. I don't want to give the wrong impression, so I'm putting this upfront :-)

You may recognize Portia de Rossi from Ally McBeal or Arrested Development or some other show, or from being married to Ellen Degeneres. I always thought she was incredibly beautiful and poised. In Unbearable Lightness, she lets the public into her very private, very scary struggle with an eating disorder and her dehabilitating self doubt. She is revealed as that girl that may come across cool and standoffish, but it's really because she's terrified that if people see her true self that her reputation and career will be destroyed.

As this is a book about a woman with an eating disorder, there are some very graphic passages. I felt physically ill at certain points, imagining the suffering that de Rossi was going through, denying her body the fuel it needed to exist.

It is so shocking to realize how far we've come in a relatively short time when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance. Of course, there is still a long way to go. De Rossi is very matter of fact about her career being stopped before it really would have started should anyone have found out she was gay. I am sure this still happens, probably pretty often, but it does seem like less of a big deal when a star comes out. Of course, there's a big difference between coming out on your own terms after building a successful career and being forcefully outed as a young Hollywood hopeful. Maybe that's changing?

The most powerful part of the book is when she juxtaposes her health diagnosis with pictures of herself when she was at her most sick. And truly, in most of them, she looks like any typical starlet. It's a shock to realize how many people must be starving themselves like she was.

I do wish there had been more focus on the "gain" part of the subtitle. De Rossi rather glosses over her struggle to recovery, and the stability and happiness she's found. It's clear there was a struggle, but it's only hinted at. She was so forthright in sharing her experience in the depths of her condition, I was surprised that she didn't detail how she got better. I feel it would have been a better aid to those that she says she wants to help. It was a bit simplistic - I found out I was sick, so I got better. I had an eating disorder because I was afraid of not being accepted as gay. I don't know - it just was a bit too pat.

Additionally, there were things in the "recovery" section that made me uncomfortable. She makes some rather judgmental pronouncements on eating habits in general, and she still seems to think that there is an acceptable weight range, or an acceptable way for weight to be distributed on one's body. There's a comment about people on treadmills vs. people who are "naturally" active, focusing on doing things like walking their dogs. While it seems that she's made progress, there are still some pretty damaging. For some thoughts bout what it's truly like to accept bodies, including fat bodies, I recommend checking out the Shapely Prose archives or Shakesville's Fatsronauts series. Also, for a great (and quick) summary about how not to talk about food and bodies around people with eating disorders, check out this post from a human story. It would be awesome to eliminate discussions about "good" and "bad" foods - you never know who's around to be hurt by these well accepted, seemingly harmless words.

Want more like this? Try:
  • Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. A non-celebrity take on the topic. Very interesting to see the similarities and the differences in how the eating disorders were manifested in the two women. 
  • Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. I haven't read this one yet, but I do have a copy (thanks to the lovely Marilyn). De Rossi mentions this book frequently as opening her eyes to the impossible standards of beauty that women are expected to meet. Warning: Although this book is supposedly excellent, Naomi Wolf has been advancing more troublesome ideas in recent years.
  • Jessica Yee, Feminism, for REAL. To further the idea of accepting ourselves and those around us, regardless of appearance or anything else! This book is awesome, btw. Everyone should read it.


jesspoole said...

I reviewed this book a little while ago ( if you're interested) and I had a lot of the same thoughts as you did. I wish that there had been more feelings and more aftermath rather than just being so much of a food diary. But I did like the book!

MJ said...

@jesspoole: Yes, it did read a bit like a food diary. I thought that might be an accuarate reflection of what her thoughts were at the time - she couldn't focus on anything except food, to the detriment of the rest of her life.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the link!

MJ said...

@gaayathri: Thanks for the post!