Literary Excerpt: Portia de Rossi on Eating and Exercise

Written by 

book cover of Unbearable LightnessUnbearable Lightness - Portia de Rossi's autobiographical account of her plunges into the depths of anorexia and bulimia, is fascinating, moving reading. She recounts her experiences from her point of view at the time she was in the midst of her struggles, recapturing her psychology and denial. Only in the conclusion does she speak from the present day:


The disorders have left me unscathed both physically and mentally. However, having anorexia has left me with an intense resistance to exercise. As well as being resistant to exercise, I have an intense resistance to counting calories. And reading labels on the backs of jars and cans. And weighing myself.

I hate the word exercise. I am allergic to gyms. But I don't think that "formal" exercise in a gym is the only way to achieve a healthy, toned body. I have discovered that enjoyable daily activities that are easy, like walking, can be equally beneficial. I have noticed on my daily walk with Portia de Rossi walking her dogmy dogs that I rarely see an overweight person walking a dog, whereas I see many overweight people walking on treadmills in a gym. I attribute this not only to the frequency of having to walk your dog, but also the good feeling one has when doing something good for another being. Seeing my dogs' excitement as I walk them around my neighbourhood every day makes me happy, and when I'm happy I walk a little taller and little more briskly. I can only imagine the enjoyment parents must experience when seeing the joy on their kids' faces as they play tag football or shoot hoops with them. I also enjoy being outdoors. I like breathing the cold night air deeply into my lungs as I walk on hiking trails after a morning rain. Another way for me to stay fit is to do activities where I can learn a skill, like horse riding or tennis or dancing. I find that if I can concentrate on getting better at something, rather than getting fitter or looking better, I accomplish all three things - the latter two being happy by-products of the original goal. Doing an activity to relax is also important for me. I swim to clear my head rather than count laps and burn calories. Swimming slowly is a form of meditation for me.

I have found ways to increase my heart rate, stretch my muscles, and breathe deeply every day in an enjoyable way that I would never label as exercise. I eat every kind of food I like, moderating the portions using my appetite and not a calorie counter. I love fat and I love carbohydrates. Nothing fills you up and feels more satisfying than a mashed potato or pasta and olive oil. There are days when I eat a large bag of potato chips for lunch and I feel too full and greasy to eat anything else until dinner. It may not be the healthiest, most balanced day in a lifetime of days, but I more than likely won't repeat it the following day. 

To say that you can stay at your natural body weight and be healthy by eating what you want and not working out sounds extremely controversial, and yet people have lived this way for hundreds of years. It seems to me that it's only since around 1970 that the concept of diet and exercise has existed in the way it does now, which is based on exertion and restriction being the key to weight loss, and yet since then, we have seen an increase in obesity in countries that have adopted it. (These are also the non fat puddingcountries where the fast-food industry boomed during that time.) The diet industry is making a lot of money selling us fad diets, nonfat foods full of chemicals, gym memberships, and pills while we lose a little of our self-esteem every time we fail another diet or neglect to use the gym membership we could barely afford. Restriction generates yearning. You want what you can't have. There are many ways to explain why the pendulum swing occurs and why restriction almost always leads to bingeing. I was forced to understand this in order to recover from a life-threatening disorder. And in a way, I wrote this memoir to help myself understand how I came to have an eating disorder and how I recovered from it. I really hope that my self-exploration can help not only people who are suffering from anorexia and bulimia, but also the perpetual dieters. You don't have to be emaciated or vomiting to be suffering. All people who live their lives on a diet are suffering.

If you can accept your natural body-weight - the weight that is easy for you to maintain, or your "set point" - and not force it to beneath your body's natural, healthy weight, then you can live your life free of dieting, of retriction, of feeling guilty every time you eat a slice of your kid's birthday cake. But the key is to accept your body just as it is. Just as I have had to learn to accept that I have thighs that are a little bigger than I'd like, you may have to learn to accept that your arms are naturally a little thicker or your hips are a little wider. In other words, accept yourself. Love your body the way it is and feel grateful toward it. Most important, in order to find real happiness, you must learn to love yourself for the totality of who you are and not just what you look like. 

Portia and Ellen on TVI made the mistake of thinking that what I look like is more important than who I am - that what I weigh is more important than what I think or what I do. I was ashamed of being gay, and so I only heard the voices that said that being gay is shameful. As I changed, I no longer heard the condemning voices. When my relationship with Ellen became public, I was amazed by how well the news was received. I was still very scared, but I was also very much in love, and love outweighed the fear. I wanted to celebrate our love. I was so proud to call myself her girlfriend that whatever people might have thought about my sexuality wasn't important anymore. I simply didn't hear a single negative comment. I began to see myself as someone who can help others understand diversity rather than feeling like a social outcast. Ellen taught me to not care about other people's opinions. She taught me to be truthful. She taught me to be free. I began to live my life in love and complete acceptance. For the first time I had truly accepted myself. 

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


  • Comment Link Michael Milano Tuesday, 04 September 2012 16:07 posted by Michael Milano

    After reading this excerpt I decided I’m going to read this book. I found most of it very enlightened. I love the concept of accepting who you are naturally. As a man that works out 6-8 times a week, I can relate. The only issue I have is Portia mentions the diet industry but doesn’t take the fashion industry to task. After all, it was only in the last year or two that Vogue stated they would no longer feature super skinny models.

    There is a reason there are no “supermodels” today. To be a supermodel you need to have longevity in your career. Look at Cindy Crawford from the 80’s into the early 90’s as an example of a long career. She was fuller figured and was able to maintain her look throughout her career in fashion, TV ads, House of Style on MTV, etc.

    In recent years, with the skinny model phase, models cannot sustain their size for long periods of time. They can’t take years of the strict dieting and exercise. As a result they have shortened careers. Or at least less time on top of the industry. Less time to become part of the social lexicon (ala Cindy). Hence no super model status.

    It’s hard to accept your natural body when you are bombarded with images of a standard of beauty that is not you. Being reminded again and again, if you want to be considered beautiful you have to look like this or that.

    I realize that this was just a small piece of the book and she very well may mention the fashion industry’s culpability in the issue of body image.

  • Comment Link Matthew Lewis Tuesday, 04 September 2012 17:00 posted by Matthew Lewis

    I've read a book recently which challenges the official nutritional/health paradigm of North America since 1970, which is echoed here in Portia's observation around diet and exercise. In my own personal experience I have also struggled with weight and body image since prior to being a teenager, and this book has radically altered my perceptions and ideas on the subject.

    The book is titled, "Why We Get Fat" and is written by Gary Taubes. He asks the question, 'are we fat because we eat too much or do we eat too much because we are fat?' and then goes about exploring how the low fat/heart healthy ideas around nutrition have contributed to the obesity epidemic.

    His basic thesis is that being overweight or obese is an hormone regulation problem caused by eating too many carbohydrates. He also argues that the calorie in/calorie out (which exercise is a part of) method of weight loss is inherently flawed because it ignores how the body responds to hormones. For example, you wouldn't say a child has a growth problem because they eat too much. Correctly you would say the child is eating a lot because their body is secreting growth hormone and is growing. In a similar fashion, saying someone is overweight because they eat too much/exercise too little is a rather useless observation. A more correct observation is that a person eats too much because their body is secreting insulin which short circuits the natural fat regulation system of the body. And when does the body secrete insulin? In response to consuming carbohydrates.

    I am in the 4th week of an extremely low carb diet, I feel great, I never feel like I am dieting or starving myself. The pounds are melting off and I finally feel like I've recruited my body to help me in losing weight rather than my body being something I have to fight against in order to lose weight. Importantly, this process feels right and is promoting within me a greater acceptance of my body as it is currently.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 05 September 2012 18:31 posted by TJ Dawe

    Michael - Vogue stated they wouldn't feature super skinny models anymore? That's news to me. Also strange to hear Cindy Crawford described as "full-figured." She seems pretty skinny, but in relation to skinnier models, I suppose she does seem fuller. She's also admitted to having plastic surgery, multiple times.

    It's true, the fashion industry has a lot to answer for, as does the media. But their message has found fertile soil in the rampant insecurity that forms the core of most of our personalities. So where does that come from?

    Matt - similarly, the point you raise the effect of carbs brings up a similar question: why is our diet so heavy on carbs? And fatty food in general? The jolt of fatty, salty, greasy, carby food is an ever-present temptation, and yet again, it finds a populace jumping on it, again and again. Why? Because that kind of food can fill a certain kind of hole inside, and not one that's simply from needing nutrients.

    So where does the hole come from? Here's Gabor Mate's take on it, from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts:

    Invariably, people who eat too much have not only suffered emotional loss in the past, but are also psychically deprived or highly stressed in the present. A woman might leave an unsatisfactory relationship, shed weight and gain confidence, only to become heavy again after going back to her partner.

    If children today are at greater risk for obesity than those of previous generations, it’s not simply because they’re less psychically active as a result of being absorbed in TV or computers. It’s primarily because under ordinary peacetime conditions there has never before been a generation so stressed and so starved of nurturing adult relationships. Of course, TV and computers have also become substitutes for the more constant real contact that parents used to provide when they worked near home or on the farm. These sources of entertainment are also used as substitutes for the sense of community formerly provided by large extended families or the clan, tribe or village. Children whose emotionally nourishing relationship with adults gives them a strong sense of themselves do no need to sooth themselves by passively taking in either food or entertainment. - pg 233

  • Comment Link Matthew Lewis Wednesday, 05 September 2012 20:01 posted by Matthew Lewis

    Totally agree with what Mate is saying here. I haven't read his book, but does Mate explore any of the physical causes of addiction? Taubes does explore this area when it comes to food and carbohydrates. I feel that in my life when it comes to my body and health that I have done some exploring of my spiritual 'holes' through the therapeutic process. But now I also have a new understanding of how my body reacts to ingesting different types of food. This has made a big and complementary difference to my inner work in this regard.

  • Comment Link Michael Milano Wednesday, 05 September 2012 20:46 posted by Michael Milano


    Just to clarify my comments about Cindy Crawford. She gave in interview in 2011 where she said during her modeling days average size of a model was size 6. Now it's 0-2. That's what I mean by fuller figured.

    I also agree with Gabor Mate. I know whenever I feel stressed or low or unhappy I go straight for the carbs. Pasta is my comfort food. Always has been. I remember as a teen making pasta for myself almost every night for a year.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 06 September 2012 21:35 posted by TJ Dawe

    Michael - The fact that there is such a thing as size 0 is kinda fucked up. So strange to imagine Cindy Crawford being rejected for being too big, if she were starting her career today.

    Matt - Gabor does go into that, but more in terms of drugs than food. He says that there are a few people with a physiology predisposed to addiction, but the vast majority of cases, the addiction (whether it's a substance or a behaviour) serves to relieve stress.

    Nicotine is the substance with the highest percentage of people who try it and then go on to become addicted - 33%, I believe. with alcohol, cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, the percentages are all lower. Certain substances have physically addictive properties that create a physical dependence over time, but the roots of addiction are almost always mental and emotional. If a person is in need of constant stress relief, it's worth asking - where does the stress come from?

    Of course, if you look at carbs as an addiction - they might outstrip nicotine in terms of the number of people who try them and then start eating them beyond simple energy and nutrition needs. And the obesity rates in our society are pretty damn high. But then again, so are our stress levels, and those of the parents who raised us, which gets in the way of attunement. And lack of attunement in early childhood causes some neural wiring to happen that can make a person react to otherwise non-stressful situations with stress their entire lives - or at least until they come to understand the roots of their mental and emotional patterns and work to untangle themselves from their old survival strategies.

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions