Friday, 17 February 2012

Portia de Rossi's Unbearable Lightness and how disordered eating is accepted and expected

Portia de Rossi’s memoir of having anorexia during the period of filming Ally McBeal is brutally and searingly honest, and offers a damning indictment on a society that not only accepts, but expects, disordered eating in women.

I have some personal experience of eating disorders. I’ve never had one but a close relative has had an eating disorder and disordered eating for most of my life. Like many women, I also had schoolfriends who suffered from anorexia. I just mention this as it influenced the way I read the book.

De Rossi explains how her eating disorder was partly caused by her fear that her sexuality would be exposed and impact negatively on her career. She also explains that she felt her mum was disappointed that she was gay, and so she strove to be perfect in order to make up for that. She started working as a model when she was 12, where perfection was of course synonymous with being thin. It was as a teen model where she developed unhealthy eating patterns (supported in many ways by her mother who was also a dieter) and her arrival in Hollywood to join the hottest show around resulted in more and more severe disordered eating.

I’m not going to go into detail here about how her eating disorder manifested itself or her journey from bulimia into anorexia, back again and into recovery. Instead I want to focus on the two key issues that her book realised for me. The first, that Hollywood colluded in and encouraged de Rossi’s eating disorder. And the second is that a disordered approach to food is encouraged in women.

Portia de Rossi describes how she felt under intense pressure to be an American size 6 when she joins the cast of Ally McBeal. That was the sample size designers used at the time, and she wanted to be ‘good’ for wardrobe, making it easy for them to find clothes to fit her. However, thanks to her disordered eating that involved a starve and binge cycle, her weight would go up and down. This led to her feeling that she didn’t fit the clothes in the show. She described assistants struggling to do up zips and having to adjust seams, and the sense of guilt and disgust she felt about this. The fact that sample sizes are stupidly tiny, or that the clothes should be ordered to fit the woman, don’t really matter or occur. She just knows that every day she is made to feel that her body is wrong.

This is exacerbated by a photo shoot for L’Oreal. With her lovely long, blonde hair, de Rossi is an obvious pick to be the face of the shampoo giant. But when she arrives on the shoot, none of the clothes the stylist has picked fit her. She tries on suit after suit, with assistants unable to do up zips and complaining that they can’t release the seams any more. Frustrated, the stylist eventually says in disgusted tone that ‘no-one told me she was a size eight’.

What we have here is a very slim woman with disordered eating being told over and over again in lots of different ways by the Hollywood system that her body is not good enough. At 130 lbs, she is told she is simply not the right size. Everyone was telling de Rossi she needed to lose weight, and so she did it the only way she knew how. She broke out of one cycle of disordered eating and went straight into another, effectively starving herself to fit the clothes.

As the weight started to drop off, the system that had told her she was too big, now fell over themselves to tell her she was looking good. Despite becoming obviously underweight, de Rossi was constantly rewarded for her weight loss. She was told how ‘good’ she was being, how she was a ‘skinny Minnie’ who looked great. She was asked ‘what her secret’ was to her ‘gorgeous’ figure. Wardrobe said she was their favourite actress to dress. Everything was telling de Rossi to carry on, because she was doing so well. Rather than being the woman who couldn’t fit into a sample size, she was now praised for her thinness. No-one would say she looked the dreaded ‘healthy and normal’ again.

I feel that de Rossi’s story shows us how her industry, i.e. Hollywood, encouraged her eating disorder, if not directly caused it (there were, as mentioned above, various causes such as the guilt she felt over her sexuality). By accusing her of, and framing her as, being wrong, they created a situation where her only option was to change herself to ‘fit’. And then as she lost the weight, her eating disorder was validated by the compliments and accolades she received. She was made to feel a success, and her success was defined by her weight loss (as opposed to being an amazing actress in my favourite TV show as a teen, and a great comic actress in Arrested Development).

This is reflected outside of Hollywood as well of course. But I think it is magnified in that kind of industry where your size and your ability to ‘fit’ is under such scrutiny. De Rossi’s insecurity about her sexuality meant that she sought to find control and perfection through food and her size. This was allowed because by industry standards, she was being so ‘good’, doing ‘so well’.

At the end of the book, de Rossi shares some fashion images taken of her when she was ill, finishing with a shocking image of her at her thinnest. But what is perhaps most shocking of all is that these images where her upper-arms are thinner than her elbows aren’t a world away from fashion images we see every day. The fact that she was being photographed for fashion shots at all shows very clearly that her weight loss was normal in the world she was living in, that she was acceptable.

The second point that the book brought home was how de Rossi’s eating disorder showed just how common and expected disordered eating is in women in general. Pick up a magazine and you’ll be approached with a new diet or a new guide of how to eat, with fashion editors or beauty editors or actresses or nutritionists or members of the public listing what they eat in a week, and then being told what they should be eating, or being rewarded for doing it right. De Rossi explains how eating with chopsticks meant she ate less – I have read diet tips that say use baby cutlery for the same ends (like Liz Hurley! they cry). Counting calories, reducing calories, talking about food, obsessing about food – this is what we are told to do as women. Women in workplaces bond over diets and food – praising each other for being ‘good’ if they don’t eat the chocolate cake shared around the office. Special K ads make food the ultimate sin, Weightwatchers ads tell you ‘no-one wants a stripy wedding dress’ – i.e. that if you don’t lose weight, you won’t find love. Magazines obsess over skinny celebs and curvy celebs and "too big" celebs. Men on comments boards under articles about anorexia or body image tell women that ‘they love curves and don’t like skinny girls’ – as if anorexia had anything to do with what men like and don’t like.

Imagine how much time, how much energy, how much confidence women as a group would have if we weren’t constantly being told as a group to think about, and not eat, food.

De Rossi weighs and counts and cuts down on calories. Magazines inform us that 12 tablespoons of brown pasta is a meal. She exercises obsessively to balance out the few calories that she eats. Magazines tell us enthusiastically how many calories you can burn having sex (the best reason to have sex obviously!).

Obviously I am not saying that magazines push eating disorder or cause them. What de Rossi describes in her book is a serious illness caused by many different factors. But I think we can recognise and argue that disorderd eating to a lesser effect is more and more normal for women than we think or like to admit. And the way the media focuses women's energies on food and dieting creates an atmosphere where disordered eating becomes normal and acceptable. Women are taught from a young age to be conscious of food, their weight and their diet. The rhetoric around dieting is powerful. It's a multi-billion industry because it's very good at what it does.

We know the end of her story, and it is a happy one. Doctors tell her she is on the brink and she embarks on recovery. It isn’t easy. She relapses and binges and her weight goes up and down. However, after being outed by the press she starts to find peace. She’s not hiding any more and she’s not afraid any more. She realises that healthy eating is eating when you are hungry, and not eating when you’re not. She meets Ellen and you want to punch the air in triumph at that moment.

De Rossi learns in recovery that food isn’t a punishment or a reward or something to feel guilty or ashamed over, or a measure of perfection. Unfortunately this isn’t the reality or solution for a lot of women. Magazines and advertising and Hollywood are still sending this message our way – loud and clear. So many women have disordered eating. Some have eating disorders. And nearly all of us are told all the time that food is a battleground, not something to enjoy, something that enables us to live.

Imagine how much time, how much energy, how much confidence women would have if we weren’t constantly being told to think about, and not eat, food.

You can buy her book here:

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