Some remarks, like radioactive elements, have a lingering half-life that allows them to poison one generation after another. One that still contaminates our body-obsessed popular culture is the Duchess of Windsor's notorious admonition that no woman can ever be "too rich or too thin."
As the age of anorexia has succeeded the age of anxiety — or perhaps simply compounded it — we've learned just how wrong the duchess really was. The actress Portia de Rossi came perilously close to being a casualty of that delusion, and her compellingly honest memoir, "Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain," is a candid account of the toll a tyrannical body image can exact. It's also a wonderfully fresh meditation on the daily pressures of a successful Hollywood career and what it means for an intelligent, but conflicted young woman to work out her identity in the unforgiving glare of celebrity.
De Rossi, who was born Amanda Lee Rogers in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, began modeling at age 12. By 15, she had been taught by her older colleagues the trick of vomiting up most of what she ate to maintain the rail-thin figures art directors favored and the unforgiving camera seemed to love. She dropped out of the University of Melbourne's prestigious law school to pursue her acting career in Hollywood, where the pressure to look as if you hadn't eaten solid food in the last decade pushed her eating disorder to a new level of intensity. The desire to appear perfect at every moment was overwhelming, particularly for a sensitive young woman also struggling to come to terms with her sexual orientation.
In prose as simply elegant — and as powerful — as a little black dress, De Rossi weaves together three themes — the impact of a loving, but lonely girlhood as the child of a single mother, the corrosive effect of constant doubts about her appearance and the internal struggle over her sexuality. Many of the most chilling passages involve an inner voice she calls "the drill sergeant," which continually and sadistically berated her over everything she ate. It was the first thing she would hear when she woke up in the morning: "What did you eat last night?"
The pressures of a successful acting career created all sorts of opportunities for the drill sergeant, particularly when De Rossi was a regular on the hit TV show "Ally McBeal" — which in retrospect seems as much a visual compendium of eating disorders as it does a television series. Costume fittings were a particular torment, and the actress recalls one morning in particular when she had beaten herself up all the way to the set because she imagined she'd found a wrinkle of fat on her stomach. Upon arrival, she discovered the day's episode would require her to wear revealing lingerie and perform a striptease.
"I would've done anything to run out of the makeup trailer, to my car, and out of this ugly studio with its square buildings and its one-way windows," she writes. "I would go home and pack my suitcases and take my car to the airport, get on a plane, go back to Melbourne, Australia, and just start the whole damn thing over. Start the whole damn life over."
Because De Rossi's story is told without self-pity, her uplifting conclusion — acceptance of her natural beauty, peace with her sexual identity and a happy marriage to comedian Ellen DeGeneres — is all the more welcome. This is an unusually fresh and engrossing memoir of both Hollywood and modern womanhood.
Daunt is a former Times writer based in Los Angeles. Her blog is the English Muse.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times