Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Review: Unbearable Lightness

It's been a little under a year since William Morris Endeavor announced the sale of Portia de Rossi's memoir to a at-the-time-discreet publisher. But now, de Rossi's book, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, sits on the shelves, touting the Atria Publishing logo on its spine. It also happens to be sitting on my bookshelf at home, its binding happily cracked and pages fully read--and autographed by the author to some girl named Christine, might I add (it was a leftover copy from a signing courtesy of my dear friend, Rachel).

If you recall, when the book deal went public last year, I was surprised. I didn't know much about de Rossi, hadn't seen her in anything, but was inexplicably intrigued. Since then, I've watched her in "Arrested Development" and "Better Off Ted," her comedic acting chops--and her phenomenal beauty--glaringly evident. Naturally, my desire to read her memoir increased exponentially.

And I've gotta say, I was not disappointed.

Unbearable Lightness is a powerful, no-holds-barred story of de Rossi's struggle with body image, eating disorders, societal expectations, and her sexuality. With beautifully constructed prose written by de Rossi herself--a refreshing change for the celebrity publication--she transports the reader into her mind and her body.

At times, the things running through de Rossi's head--the fears, the voices demanding more of her, the justifications--seem excessive and unrealistic, but it's immediately apparent that that's kind of the point. The distorted views of a scared, sick, and sensitive soul aren't reasonable or sensible. They just are. And when you can't understand them, when you know they are wrong but can't seem to fight back, that's when it's the most palpable and traumatic. It's also when it's the hardest to overcome.

De Rossi, however, fought her demons and won. It took a trip to the hospital and diagnoses of lupus, osteoporosis, and more, to get her on the road to recovery but she made the journey. Her struggle and success is inspiring and hopeful for any who have ever experienced any of the thoughts de Rossi so craftily expresses. I had a few issues with some of the narrative drive, at times feeling like the multiple themes de Rossi tackled weren't coming together quite cohesively enough. I also wasn't a fan of the lengthy epilogue, wishing it had been written as part of the story itself and having her recovery process fleshed out in more detail. But I understand why it was structured the way it was, and really, there are more significant aspects of this book. Its impressive conveyance of de Rossi's hardships, for one.

Though I haven't personally experienced any of de Rossi's specific situations, I have--like most women of my generation--dealt with issues of body image, weight, and self-hate. And I will admit, that de Rossi hits the nail on the head, to be cliched. I too have heard that voice in my head telling me I'm too fat, that I'm too ugly to succeed in my career, to find love, to be worthy of, well, anything.

It's such a logically ridiculous concept, but society has burned it into our brains and, as much as I wish it hadn't affected me, I can't lie and say it hasn't. The thoughts still happen on a weekly basis, but I've learned to listen to them less and to tell them to scram when they start to take hold.

In college I had a particularly difficult time with it though. (Yes, I'm going into personal-story mode now...). I had gained about 25 pounds my first year of college--freshman 15 my big butt!--and when I was home for the summer and put on a bathing suit, I was distraught. I decided that I was going to turn things around, that I was going to loss all the weight I gained through exercise and eating better. I was also in a long-distance relationship and terrified that my boyfriend at the time was going to cheat on me since I was so far away and had gained so much weight. There were much thinner, prettier girls at his disposal and I was crazy if I thought he wouldn't jump at the chance if it arose--or so the voice in my head told me. So, I had to get in shape. I had to.

So, I started eating much less--I never counted calories, but I certainly restricted my diet, limiting my sugar intake (a particularly difficult feat for someone with the biggest sweet tooth in the, umm, world) and eating loads of salad, rice cakes with peanut butter, and such, and ignoring my stomach's grumbles when I was still hungry after my meal. I also started working out regularly--going to the gym to alternate cardio to shed fat with weight lifting to tone 4-5 days a week.

It wasn't too excessive, but my mindset shifted. If I missed a day at the gym or ate an extra cookie when I hadn't allotted it, I beat myself up psychologically. I would get angry and feel disgusting, often resorting to measuring myself in various spots and keeping a record to stare at when I was failing. I became obsessed with looking in the mirror to pick apart my body, to point out every teeny tiny flaw and make myself feel like crap until I left my dorm and went to the gym. I never thought of myself as having a disorder--and maybe I didn't, who knows--but my then boyfriend certainly commented, expressing his concern that I was obsessing over my weight and appearance when he thought I was the most beautiful, sexist girl he'd ever seen. I was furious when he said those things, thinking he was lying to me just to humor me. I'd get irritable and we'd argue. I'd be upset and he'd be frustrated. At the time, I didn't understand--I didn't get why he was so annoyed that I was trying to look better for him. But I see it now: the thoughts I was having, the obsessions, were simply unhealthy.

We broke up a year later, despite the fact that I shed all the weight I'd wanted. I'd gone from 150 back to 125. The break up devastated me though and my appetite disappeared completely. I went from 125 to 110 in about a week and a half. I'm not sure how that's even possible, but it happened. Then I dropped two more pounds to 108. That's when the comments about my being "too thin" began. I denied it for a while, happy to fit into clothes I hadn't worn in ages, but one day, I looked in the mirror as I was getting in the shower and saw what everyone else saw--bones jutting out, once-strong hips looking weak, the small amount of fat I did have sagged off my bones. It was time to eat again, to snap out of my stupor. This is also when I started drinking for the first time. The combo shot me back up to about 135, and the partying I was experiencing for the first time (and my exercise regime going by the wayside) pushed me back to 140. I was now not caring. With my knee injury occurring shortly thereafter, I cared even less, justifying my lack of activity.

About a year after I hit 108 though, I was back to about 130--a weight that I'm learning is my "healthy weight," the same in fact, as Portia de Rossi's. I focused on eating healthier, silencing the voices, letting myself slack once and a while without giving myself a lecture for it, and doing what I could to exercise without overdoing it and hurting myself. All in all, a much, MUCH healthier routine.

I still struggle with it on a regular basis, as I don't think these kinds of things ever really completely go away (not to mention the fact that I still have a bad knee so my activity is limited), but as de Rossi shares in her pretty incredible memoir, you learn to control it, to be the one in charge of the voice and not the other way around. You just learn to be better.

The Last Word: A moving, relatable, and superbly crafted memoir that any girl who's had even a speck of low self-confidence will find inspiring in one way or another.


  1. although 20 lbs can never be too thin or have too many my little ponies......maybe i need to ready her book. thanks for the thoughts!

  2. Great review - you sold me. I totally want to read this now!