Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review - Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

Title: Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain 
Author: Portia de Rossi 
Year: 2010
Page: 272
Genre: Non-Fiction - Memoir

FTC Disclosure: Borrowed from the library

Summary (from
"I didn't decide to become anorexic. It snuck up on me disguised as a healthy diet, a professional attitude. Being as thin as possible was a way to make the job of being an actress easier . . ."

Portia de Rossi weighed only 82 pounds when she collapsed on the set of the Hollywood film in which she was playing her first leading role. This should have been the culmination of all her years of hard work—first as a child model in Australia, then as a cast member of one of the hottest shows on American television. On the outside she was thin and blond, glamorous and successful. On the inside, she was literally dying.

In this searing, unflinchingly honest book, Portia de Rossi captures the complex emotional truth of what it is like when food, weight, and body image take priority over every other human impulse or action. She recounts the elaborate rituals around eating that came to dominate hours of every day, from keeping her daily calorie intake below 300 to eating precisely measured amounts of food out of specific bowls and only with certain utensils. When this wasn't enough, she resorted to purging and compulsive physical exercise, driving her body and spirit to the breaking point.

Even as she rose to fame as a cast member of the hit television shows Ally McBeal and Arrested Development, Portia alternately starved herself and binged, all the while terrified that the truth of her sexuality would be exposed in the tabloids. She reveals the heartache and fear that accompany a life lived in the closet, a sense of isolation that was only magnified by her unrelenting desire to be ever thinner. With the storytelling skills of a great novelist and the eye for detail of a poet, Portia makes transparent as never before the behaviors and emotions of someone living with an eating disorder.

From her lowest point, Portia began the painful climb back to a life of health and honesty, falling in love with and eventually marrying Ellen DeGeneres, and emerging as an outspoken and articulate advocate for gay rights and women's health issues.

In this remarkable and beautifully written work, Portia shines a bright light on a dark subject. A crucial book for all those who might sometimes feel at war with themselves or their bodies, Unbearable Lightness is a story that inspires hope and nourishes the spirit.

First Sentence:
He doesn't wait until I'm awake.

My Thoughts:

  • I have read good reviews of this book, but was on the fence to read it until I read Book Addiction's review. I am indifferent about Portia de Rossi - I haven't watched any shows she was in. I knew she was in Ally McBeal and is married to Ellen, and is Australian, but that's about all I know. 
  • This is a very honest memoir. So raw that sometimes I felt like reaching inside the book to shake some sense into her. Some people who had Eating Disorder before mentioned that this book was like a self-help manual, so if you are going through or are recovering from Eating Disordering, it may be best not to read this book as the story may act as a trigger. For someone like me who do not know very much about Eating Disorder but am interested in the psychological aspect of it, this is quite an eye opener about what goes on in their mind and why they act the way they do, along with the different emotions that may go along with it - control, anxiety, depression, self-worth and approval from others
  • It was quite interesting to read that in their mind, "losing weight / dieting = hard work = achievement", and that they felt a sense of accomplishment when they heard the words "too thin" (even though it was meant as a negative comment). One really has to be careful of what to say to people who has Eating Disorder because some words could become a trigger to them
  • I felt bad for Portia - her mother's influence probably played a big role, and then of course being on Ally McBeal probably didn't help since at least 2 other actresses from that show had Eating Disorders. Due to the nature of her profession, the photographers and stylists and anyone else in the industry probably contributed a little too (imagine the pressure of not fitting into the clothes your stylists brought you.) That definitely makes me be more mindful about what I say when I photograph my subjects
  • I enjoyed Portia's writing, though sometimes the story got a bit repetitive - but I guess it just showed what went through the mind of someone with an Eating Disorder EVERY SINGLE DAY.  
  • The epilogue was a bit long and got a bit preachy (e.g. about being vegan). She didn't elaborate a lot on how she recovered, but I think it'd be a different recovery path for everyone as that's no one solution that fits all, or it'd be an easy disorder to cure.
  • There were a few photos in the book, and they made you heart ached seeing how brutal she was with her body. I wish it also included some photos of her younger days though.
  • I like the title - especially the double meaning of the sub-title: A Story of Gain and Loss. 
  • I was particularly touched by her relationship with her brother, and later on, Ellen. She did not bad-mouth anybody in the book, and admitted that she was unreasonable at time in retrospect. This memoir reminded me of Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography (my review here). I appreciate their honesty and showed us that being famous wasn't all that glamorous. I sincerely hope that Portia won't go back to her unhealthy lifestyle.

I was officially a hypocrite. I wanted to blend in and disappear yet be noticed doing it. (p70)

I didn't decide to become anorexic. It snuck up on me disguised as a healthy diet, a professional attitude. (p277)

It would have been very easy for me to start losing weight again to get the attention and the concern that felt like love. (p279)

I made the mistake of thinking that what I look like is more important than who I am.

Overall Rating:

3.5 Stars. Honest and raw. Not the best memoir I had read but I learned something insight on Eating Disorders.

All reviews and posts are copyrighted by Christa @ Mental Foodie. Please do not use or reprint them without written permission.


  1. This sounds amazing. I love Ellen and want to read one of her books.

    I went to an art school with dancers but have to say I wasn't friends with any that I thought or knew were anorexic. A dancers life doesn't really involve real friends though.

    Portia seems so genuine and lovely. I haven't thought of reading a celebrities memoir before.

  2. @Marce - I chose to read this because of Eating Disorder (since I am working on a project dealing with behavioral health) rather than that it's a celebrity memoir. I heard Tina Fey's one is funny though if you know who she is. I do know someone who had Eating Disorders... but it's one of those diseases where the person suffering it needs to want to get helped in order to get better :(