On New Year’s Eve 2011, I was frantically trying to finish reading this memoir. Since I worked until after 9 p.m. on the 31st, I wasn’t finishing it before midnight Atlantic Standard Time but I definitely did before midnight in the Pacific time zone! And then, as you can see, blogging about it took even longer….
Unbearable Lightness is Porta de Rossi’s 2010 memoir of the dark and difficult events of 1998 and 1999 when she joined the cast of Ally McBeal. It has been sitting on my e-reader (i.e., iPhone) for a while and I cracked into it in the fall as a stimulating activity to stave off falling asleep during my commuter train ride to and from work.
I watched my fair share of Ally McBeal because my sister watched it but I did not really enjoy it. As one who takes things way too literally, I did not enjoy the fantasy sequences that dominated the narrative and I only paid more attention when Lucy Liu became a regular and this brilliant man-eating ice queen character with beautiful blonde hair also joined the cast. I paid more attention to the tabloids wherein Calista Flockhart was regularly flogged in the press for her ultra-slight figure and then we heard that other people on set (Courtney Thorne-Smith and Portia) were getting really thin, speculated because they had to “keep up”. Next thing I knew, Portia de Rossi came out and stepped out with Ellen DeGeneres and that brings us to today! Apparently Portia had really great gigs on Arrested Development and Better Off Ted.
Unbearable Lightness starts with the end of Portia’s marriage and the beginning of her time on Ally McBeal. An Australian model-turned-actress with a slim acting reel at that time, she’s insecure about joining a hot show and constantly questions why they would want her. Years of being in the modeling world resulted in her self-worth being tied to standing out, being considered special, and that always seemed to include being thin. She goes back to her days in high school and modeling days when her glamorous modeling did the job of setting her apart but also instilled in her the habits of eating, purging, and crash dieting. When she joined Ally McBeal, she was not yet ready to come out, partly because she was joining as a hot sex symbol. Meanwhile, Ellen was out, Portia read Betty DeGeneres’ memoir Love, Ellen, and Portia sees Ellen a role model. Her publicist and marketing people spin a different story, projecting Portia as naive-come-icon who had it all together. For example, the press made it out as if Portia gave up a career in law to act (which fit well with her role on a legal dramedy) while in reality she wasn’t that directional in her life choices. While the novel is about her long journey to self-acceptance, you also get a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the hit show and the beginning of Portia and Ellen’s relationship. For someone who doesn’t devour tabloids, it was a refreshing point of view into things otherwise so public.
Apparently I didn’t watch Ally much and did not know that Portia de Rossia stands at the height of 5’7″ (170 cm); rather I thought she was around 5’3″. So when she moaned about hitting 130 lbs, I naively nodded in agreement that she needed to shed some weight to be in line with her industry perhaps; afterall, aren’t those 6-foot tall models who look like sticks just 110 lbs? At first, Portia’s obsession about food was cute and quirky and someone who sticks so steadfast to discipline and deprivation is admirable as a “perfectionist” with the ultimate self-control. It is, for a moment, more comfortable for her deprive herself than hear about what she at during a binge. As the obsession grew, her writing voice changed to one irrational and sounding very much like petulant adolescent. Ultimately, in the final chapter, it was really sad because she had reach a goal weight of under 100 lbs (as low as 82 lbs) and she was still miserable and, by then, very sick. The road to recovery is slow and painful because the ego needs to be mended and it can make you do funny things to protect itself until you fully trust in the recovery, i.e., binging again. I was a little disappointed with her dissection about being a recovered anorexic, how she broke through, but happy in all that there was no lasting physical damage.
All the while I was reading the memoir, I was thinking about how a multimedia supplement would have been interesting (and sensational, which did not jive with the book)–that is, when she was really nervous and feeling unworthy on her first day on the Ally set and delivering her first lines, how did it actually look to the rest of us? When she was upset about her Rolling Stone and Shape covers, feeling like an imposter and/or having crash dieted and not felt adequate, how did she really look? How did she look at 130 lbs, really? At which weight did she look healthiest and strike the balance with her industry’s demands? How does she look today?
Like every other woman in this country, I’m constantly “watching what I eat” and have resigned myself, as if it was some lofty goal, that I could never be anorexic. It is really ugly in there and, bottom line, the issues at the root do not disappear with the weight.