A Pop Health Book Review of “Unbearable Lightness”

Welcome back readers! After a holiday, bronchitis, and work travel hiatus- Pop Health is back with a new feature- reviews of books which examine public health and popular culture issues.

Over the weekend I finished reading “Unbearable Lightness- A Story of Loss and Gain”, by Portia De Rossi. I actually mentioned this book back in a November post when it first came out. The story chronicles Portia’s struggle with both Anorexia and Bulimia from approximately age 12 to the present. The strength of the book is in its ability to portray the absolute complexity of an eating disorder. Sometimes these disorders (and other mental or physical health issues) are over simplified. For example, the commonly held belief that someone is Anorexic simply because she/he needs to “have control over something”. However, in Portia’s case, she wove an incredible story that examined causes at multiple levels. And in public health, this multilevel thinking is essential for the development of effective interventions. I have decided to begin with the causes most closely associated with Portia herself and work my way out.

Portia endured a complete lack of healthy coping mechanisms. She dealt with a lot of sorrow and changes in a short amount of time as an adolescent growing up in Australia. Her father passed away and she changed to a more affluent school district. She worked to cope with these challenges by identifying a way to be “special” and “stand out”. She chose modeling because models are special. She also changed her name when she was 15. There was another girl her age with the same name (Amanda Rogers), so she changed it to Portia De Rossi to be more unique.

Portia also felt intense guilt and shame over being gay. Although she realized her sexual orientation early on, she kept this secret until her late 20s. Much of her self hatred focused on feeling as if she was disappointing her family and would ultimately ruin her chances to have a successful career and “normal” life.

Portia’s relationship with her mother is examined in quite a bit of detail. Throughout her modeling career as a teenager, her mother was definitely her accomplice in yo-yo dieting. Her mother taught her “dieting tricks” to lose the weight quickly for jobs, but also rewarded her with McDonald's after auditions. However, her mother’s strongest influence seemed to be over the guilt and shame she felt over being gay. After she came out to her mother, the response was “let’s just keep this to ourselves”. Portia was told to keep it from the family and from employers/co-workers.

Besides 1-2 friends and her brother, Portia is very isolated. In addition, her relationships with co-workers on Ally McBeal and other colleagues in the industry seem to have contributed to her eating disorder as well. For example, two of her co-stars (Calista Flockhart and Courtney Thorne-Smith) were famously accused of being Anorexic and underweight throughout the show’s run. So Portia was constantly working with and compared to an unrealistic ideal. In addition, many people who could have and should have recognized the problem and intervened- stayed silent. For example, as Portia dropped from a healthy 130 lbs to sub-100s, her costume designer told her she looked fantastic and asked for her secrets to weight loss. Portia also sought the help of a professional nutritionist. Even though she confided to binging and purging on the first visit, she was still given a food scale and a diet to help her lose weight. The nutritionist did not try to intervene until Portia was almost down to 82 lbs.

Portia’s existence in several “communities” contributed to her struggle with eating disorders. Her first professional affiliation in the modeling community in Australia is where she developed a strong knowledge of dieting, purging, and excessive exercise. The “older girls” taught her this. It was the norm in that group to be unhealthy in order to get ready for a job.

From Australia, Portia traveled to the United States and the “Hollywood Industry”. Unfortunately, it was a smooth transition from the unrealistic expectations of the modeling to the acting industry. She describes a particularly gut-wrenching fitting that she endured when a photo shoot had to be rescheduled after the client realized that she was in fact a size 8- so no selected clothes would fit her.

In addition to body size, she also felt Hollywood was not accepting of a homosexual lead actress. Several times she spoke of the paralyzing fear she felt after seeing how quickly Ellen DeGeneres’ show was canceled after she came out in the late 1990s.

This is just a brief overview of these complex contributors to Portia’s eating disorder- I could easily go on for many more pages. Overall, I think the book is a fascinating read…for those of us interested in public health, eating disorders, and/or Hollywood. It portrays Portia’s struggle, self hatred, and self destruction with brutal honesty- so be prepared.

A closing word of caution: this book may not be appropriate for someone with a current or recently recovered eating disorder, since it outlines her eating, binging, and exercise rituals in incredible detail.


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