A Story of Loss and Gain |Book Review of “Unbearable Lightness” By Portia De Rossi
At the age of fifteen, Amanda Rogers was asked her name. She had illegally snuck into a downtown Los Angeles nightclub, and the owner was offering her a VIP pass and a potential hostess job. All he needed was her name.
Anxious that he’d discover her real age and worried that her real name didn’t sound special enough, Rogers invented a name on the spot: Portia de Rossi. Portia, from The Merchant of Venice, and de Rossi from watching the credits of an old Hollywood movie. The name stuck, and with it, an identity that Rogers would nearly kill herself to embody.
The identity was that of a celebrity, something Rogers could never fathom she could be. In her eyes, models and actresses were beautiful, waif-thin, charming, and definitely not gay, which seemed to her at the time the opposite of what she was: “a fat dyke” in her own words.
Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness tells “a story of loss and gain,” a story of one model and actress’ life-long battle with food, weight, and bodily occupation. De Rossi divulges to readers about her binge-purge dieting habits to her near-death experiences struggling with anorexia and bulimia.
From a young age, de Rossi’s mother encouraged her to closet her love for women and suppress her bodily appetites in order to succeed as a model and actress. De Rossi complied, never imagining her friends, family, and the public could accept her just as she was.
Over the 307-page memoir, de Rossi tells of growing up in the 90s, that decade just freshly inspired by Madonna’s sexual revolution. Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell hadn’t yet publicly come out, and the term “gay” wasn’t a palatable topic of conversation amongst social circles, let alone in the media. De Rossi unravels her story in a series of first-person vignettes that illustrate poignant landmarks along the path towards sickness, including a damaging season as a sex symbol on the set of Ally McBeal.
The memoir is divided into two parts organized around de Rossi’s sickness followed by an epilogue which hints at recovery. In part one, de Rossi recounts her early years as an aspiring model, laying out the groundwork on which an eating disorder breeds: she reveals how she was always rewarded with food, and that her whole life, she was either bingeing or purging, never able to comfortably occupy her body or normally incorporate food into her daily life. As a young model, de Rossi learned to measure her self-worth in inches and pounds. When her fame accelerated, so did her concern for her public image as she became paranoid at the surveillance of the paparazzi.
Part Two captures the worst of the worst, a less-than ninety pound de Rossi going through all the stages of mental illness from denial to acceptance, to the first stages of recovery. At her worst stages, de Rossi tells of refusing food on fourteen-hour long flights, her compulsive exercise routines, and her obsession over counting calories and fat content.
Wedged in the middle of this heartbreaking and honest testament, de Rossi includes four photographs that capture her at her worst stages. Her face appears collapsed in on itself, her collarbone protrudes, and she looks exhausted. These photos are strategically placed toward the end of the memoir, juxtaposed with de Rossi’s medical prognosis that she received after collapsing on set. Alongside images of a barely-there actress, the text reads “Your liver enzymes are extremely elevated which are actually at the level of cirrhosis,” “You have an autoimmune disease called lupus.” The photos and the text evidence for the reader the disparity between the imagery and the reality of “beauty,” rhetorically summarizing the aim of the memoir.
What the memoir lacks in colour and setting it makes up for in story, as de Rossi’s story alone is enough to sustain interest. The narrative shows evidence of a concern for form and metaphor, though it’s not a ground-breaking exposé in the genre of anorexia memoirs.
What is new about this text, however, is the way de Rossi demonstrates how issues of beauty and the body intersect with issues surrounding sexuality; the text highlights the extent to which an eating disorder masks much deeper, much suppressed sexual desire to love and live openly.
De Rossi’s memoir successfully narrates the story her body struggled to tell in it’s metamorphosis from Amanda Rogers to Portia de Rossi; it’s a story of survival, of deep-seated shame and of frustrated appetites. A great read for all who seek to understand the relationship between food, eating, and power.