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Missing the point: Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness

March 20th, 2011     by Julia Horel     Comments

Portia de Rossi (best known from her role as Nelle Porter on Ally McBeal, as well as a couple of movie roles, and of course for being the famous wife of Ellen DeGeneres, recently released a memoir chronicling her battle with anorexia entitled Unbearable Lightness: A story of loss and gain.

In talking to a few others who have read the book and reading reviews on Goodreads, I found that some people were put off by the writing style and lack of polish. In fact, I was mostly with this book until the epilogue. I found the writing to be honest and straightforward, if not completely polished. The book is likely to be very triggering to anyone recovering from an eating disorder, as she is extremely candid about her daily activities and obsessive habits. I’m glad Portia de Rossi went public with her eating disorder to remove stigma and give insight into the pressures of Hollywood and the tragedy of having to hide one’s sexual orientation because of fears of the public’s reaction.

But Portia de Rossi fell short of what could have been an inspirational “you’re perfect the way you are” message. The fatphobia inherent in the narrative seems reasonable to her story, if disturbing, at first, given her obsession with thinness and her belief that it’s necessary for her career. But in the epilogue of the book, she repeatedly makes reference to her fatness during recovery at her top weight of 168 lbs, refers to gaining that much weight as “the other end of the same situation” (as if being 168 lbs. is the fat extreme as 82 lbs. was the thin extreme) and reacts with horror to her highest size of 14.

Her assertions that diets don’t work, and that learning one’s own hunger and fullness cues and eliminating the good/bad food dichotomy are better alternatives are absolutely true. What isn’t true is her strong implication that eating this way will make everyone’s weight settle into a thin (but not TOO thin) setpoint. In fact, she more than implies this false conclusion with fatphobic comments like “I’ve never seen an overweight person walking their dog, but I’ve seen plenty running on treadmills at the gym.” If she’s never seen a fat person enjoying pleasurable movement rather than punishing themselves for their perceived flaws at the gym, she isn’t looking very hard, and she utterly fails in respecting the diversity of people’s bodies.

I’m left with the impression that while Portia de Rossi believes eating disorders are terrible and deadly, being fat (defined by de Rossi as 168 lbs, which at her stated height of 5’8” is precisely three pounds overweight according to the flawed body mass index) is no better an alternative—is in fact the opposite “extreme.” This is incredibly dangerous and damaging, and there is no way I can recommend this book, no matter how compelling de Rossi’s personal story is.

Tags: bibliothèque, body politics

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