AMBER LOVE 15-JUL-2014 I spent about a week listening to PORTIA DE ROSSI narrate her memoir UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS: A STORY OF LOSS AND GAIN which was her 2011 book divulging all the details of her eating disorders. She has been one of my most respected LGBT role models for a while.
It wasn’t easy taking any of my thoughts and penning them down about this book. I had thoughts. A million of them. All agreeing with everything De Rossi said. Then I’d get distracted by life like driving through traffic, not hitting any deer, and of course stalking Twitter with a vengeance. I know my thoughts can be the same as a famous TV star but not matter because I’m a nobody.
My intention to review UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS lasted only about a chapter or two. After that I knew that I wouldn’t be reviewing it in a traditional sense. I wouldn’t be telling you that it’s well-crafted and interesting; that she delivers with intelligence and is genuine about herself even at her most bitchy moments. Nor would need to tell you that I was thrilled she narrated her own book because hearing the fighting words with her own voice would somehow make it different than if it was someone else. Instead, I wanted to document how I felt hearing her story about denial, struggles, food, shame and her sexuality. De Rossi mentioned a few times about how she tries to pass as American and hide her Australian accent. I went through simply moving across New Jersey! I had a deeply embedded city accent like you hear on THE SOPRANOS and when I was in fifth grade, everyone made fun of me. I tried to not speak much but for me that’s not so easy. In college, I majored in Communications which entailed a lot of public speaking. The professor of the theatre department had a field day breaking me and molding me. He was also the one to shame me. He knew my ambition about working in television and told me that I needed to lose 15 pounds. I was 137 at the time. I spent that summer following a strict Richard Simmons’ diet plan and in the fall, my professor was pleased.
This book made me cry. A lot.
I know what you’re thinking: “But, Amber, you cry all the fucking time. You tweet about it incessantly.” Yes, that’s true too. But there aren’t always times when a particular thing makes me cry. I’m depressed so I can cry about absolutely nothing and that’s usually the way it is. My depression hits out of nowhere during a perfectly adequate day because someone didn’t say hello to me or my drink order was wrong or I’m too tired to do what I want. But this – the book, the story, the journey – made me cry.
Hearing how one of the most beautiful women in the world couldn’t find perfection with her body or life was 9 hours of heartbreak. De Rossi began as Amanda Rogers, an Australian model at a very young age. She left and became American Hollywood celebrity with paparazzi stalkers, cosmetic company contracts, and magazine covers. The early part of the book where De Rossi talks about getting asked to be on the cover of SHAPE magazine, a magazine that I used to read along with my comics on the elliptical machine at the YMCA, was when I got really hooked on her tale. She was already well into a routine of addictively exercising, counting calories, and vomiting up anything she ate when she went to SHAPE and had to lie about how much she valued her body and her health.
To give you perspective about how media brainwashes – I would devour magazines like SHAPE and I would read comics like RED SONJA and I would hate myself with every picture. SHAPE has featured the likes of Kelly Ripa, another notorious denier of eating disorders who frequently discusses how she hates herself for taking a bite of cake or restricts her food or is picky about how she is photographed; all the while she’s doing commercials for cooking appliances as if she ever goes near food. Ripa, a 43-year-old mother of three, openly talks about her neverending fitness regime which has nothing to do with health and everything to do with hating her body.
If De Rossi and Ripa are obsessive about their bodies to the point where they see fat rolls where none exists, what hope is there for a non-celebrity?
Just once I want a woman in the media to admit that yes, she is on a diet and that yes, she hates her stomach and her thighs before accepting the deal for a cover of a fitness magazine. I want these women to think about what they are doing. How do they feel when they see those covers? Well, De Rossi explains that she would always feel worse. If she did a cover and then continued to lose more weight, she’d be mad because that cover was already out there and she wasn’t perfect enough.
De Rossi described how painful it was for her to bury her sexuality and her personality in order to do covers like ROLLING STONE where she was displayed like a sexual vixen when all she wanted was to be in comfortable jeans and work boots. Landing on ALLY MCBEAL was her big break and she was surrounded by thin talented actresses like Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu. The whole time, De Rossi was tormented about hiding everything real about herself. She would defy orders from the makeup artist and put on concealer to hide the blemishes of burst blood vessels that purging had caused. She would feel humiliated by the wardrobe staff of the TV show and L’Oreal representatives because she was a size 8, not an appropriate size 6 which is what all fashion samples are. She showed them all right. She went from her “fat” size 8 around 135 pounds (at 5’7”) down to 115 then 110 then 105 then 98 then 82 skeletal pounds all the while denying that she had an eating disorder and that she was just being responsible about dieting and exercise.
Women like me aren’t allowed to talk about women like De Rossi unless it’s praising them for their strength and talents. Women like me are called bitches and jealous. We’re told that to point out how unhealthy another woman is, means that we are fat-shaming or body-shaming them about their personal choices.
I’m here to tell you that it’s bullshit.
I’m not body-shaming De Rossi or Flockhart or Ripa. I’m pointing out that they are forced to keep lies about their food habits and lie about how important fitness is to them because of unrealistic beauty standards. The shame is completely on the press that points how hot it is to be thin but then critical if you are. The shame is on the fashion industry. The shame is squarely on the studio executives who refuse to give women above age 30 or above 125 pounds more than one role per generation unless you plan to be touted as the fat funny one. Patricia Arquette wasn’t offered magazine covers beyond the 1990s with captions about sex, health or being hot and MEDIUM was on for seven seasons during the 2000s. Arquette obviously used up her hotness tokens.
De Rossi became so ill that her body was shutting down completely. Her bones developed osteoporosis. Her liver was on the brink of cirrhosis. She hadn’t had her period in over a year. Her joints were constantly in so much pain that she cried walking, standing, or sitting. Those are not the standards we should be striving to achieve.
Each day that I would listen to De Rossi’s voice, it would be during my commute to work. It’s summer now and I want to wear dresses. I hate wearing dresses without pantyhose because I hate the chafing that makes my thighs raw. I can’t find pantyhose that fit. I’m short and fat. It’s not a great combination for buying any article of clothing no less an undergarment like pantyhose. The packages have these charts on them. Across the top is the range of heights. Across the side is the weight. In the chart are these shaded areas for the sizes A, B, and C where you navigate to find your intersection of height and weight to tell you which size to get. Above 120 pounds, these charts have never been correct for me. I have never been able to find a comfortable pair that I can tolerate for more than 15 minutes. They may be fine while I’m standing but then I sit. The waistbands dig into my skin and cause an irritation and make my fat rolls more pronounced. The bands roll down completely so that when I’m in my car or at my desk I’m trying to yank them up hoping nobody is watching. I’ve tried Hanes, L’eggs, Spanx… all of them are awful for someone my height and my width. The bigger the size, the taller the legs. The Spanx pair are supposed to reshape the entire torso and make legs look better so they are so tall that they reach my bra’s band and I become a fully encased suntanned sausage. I have beige dance tights I wear for cosplay and in order to get the Danskin waist size I need, the legs are six inches too long. They bunch up and create folds around my legs that look like goblin skin. My clever solution was to find a comfortable pair of Jockey shaper-shorts that are like bicycle shorts meant to go under clothes; I love them and I even wear them as shorts at the gym and to dance class. I can’t even wear my traditional Wonder Woman outfit anymore because I can’t get it to cover me and the belt doesn’t reach around. I have since made the far more modest versions, Bombshell and the Hughes’ white Grecian gown.
The more attractive I try to be in clothes, the worse I look. Do you know how awful fat women look in skinny jeans? Skinny jeans are one of my most hated fashion trends – right up there with anything high-waisted or empire-busts. Skinny jeans make me look like an apple standing on two popsicle sticks.
I cannot conform to the standards of cute outfits or sophisticated dresses or the highly judgmental standards of cosplay in my spandex superhero suits. Portia De Rossi wanted to be herself but once she got the role of Nelle Porter on ALLY MCBEAL, she began living as a persona. She wore what movie stars were expected to wear. She had platform shoes that she wore off-camera all the time. She got so used to wearing them that she would go running in them if she wasn’t in her regular workout clothes. All that mattered was that she was running.
I would sit in my car for hours listening to De Rossi because she was no longer an actress on two of my favorite shows, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and BETTER OFF TED; now she felt like my best friend or an alternate personality. Some days my drive was 95 minutes on New Jersey’s highways going from 25 mph to hitting the brakes for traffic lights every 500 feet. I’d sit there listening to her open up about how she hated this one inch roll of fat on her stomach while I was fidgeting in a seatbelt (something else that never ever in my life has fit my height, size, and breasts) and wanting to unbutton my pants.
I listened and I felt sorry for De Rossi. She’s radiant. She’s talented. There’s no reason anything should hold her back from a successful acting and modeling career. But she could not see what other people could see. This harkened me back to 2007-2009. I’ve written before about my weight loss and my love/hate of pilates. I had some caring instructors that I enjoyed seeing every day. I would take pictures of my progress. My clothes were able to be smaller sizes and my costumes were no longer tearing at the seams. But there were mirrors. You need to workout in front of mirrors in order to observe your posture and form. What feels like a arching back for yoga’s “cow” pose is actually my back straight. I have no more extension flexibility in my spine and I wouldn’t know as well if I didn’t stand in front of mirror in a class. I’d look in the mirror and back at my lowest weight, I’d see the loss and the changes of the smaller clothing but I’d really see the same rolls and bulges that I’ve always had. They’ve been there since I was kid. They wouldn’t go away. No matter how hard I worked, what pills I took, or what diet I was on. Those dysmorphia-inducing areas around my body mocked me every second.
Sure, I could get smaller clothes and look better than I did in my costumes but I still didn’t look Her or Her or Her – those taller, thinner, prettier women who would post about how they needed to lose 10 pounds for Dragon*Con when they were already a size 4. It’s interesting to me that De Rossi never compared her body to the other actresses. She compared her role. She hated her body simply for being what it was. She felt inferior to the others because she felt she was failing the producers by not delivering a sexy bombshell to the character of Nelle Porter. She was no longer the new girl when Lucy Liu came on the show. She was getting less time on the air. She used up that extra time by exercising even more.
I hope anyone reading this can’t relate to De Rossi’s stories. They’re sad. They’re unbelievable. But I do relate to them. When she chewed 60 calories worth of gum that she needed to burn off and she left her car door open, began running up and down flights of stairs, and forgot she left her poor little dog in the garden because those calories would most definitely end up on her thighs – I felt her pain. That’s something you don’t want to relate to but I did. I faced comment after comment on YouTube calling me “fugly” and “fat” or saying “no way” because I would never be a fuckable version of Black Cat like those other cosplayers. I remember the morning I went to a kickboxing class to work it off. I saw how red my face was in the mirror because of the rage. I saw how my eyes watered. It was worse in kickboxing because the lights were on. In a pilates class, we would turn them off. I made sure to take an illegal diet pill I bought from some Chinese pharmaceutical company over the internet. I felt my heart race and hoped that the tachycardia was burning calories and fat.
I didn’t care if I had a heart attack.
Being thinner never made me feel more worthy. Same as De Rossi. I would take my diet pills, count my food intake and log everything that came near my lips, work out a lot, and wonder what the hell I was doing wrong because none of it was working.
De Rossi only wanted to be thinner and thinner until she was invisible. It’s not something anyone else might understand. How can you want to be a model and be invisible? Because you enjoy the job and the outcome of it but there are moments – like not being a sample size or reading comments – where you wish no one at all could see you because you obviously aren’t good enough for this world. And I love modeling. It’s the best job I ever had. And I know that if I could be thinner than my thinnest and flexible and strong that I could have done better and maybe even made enough money that I wouldn’t have needed to get a day job with benefits. But I’m not teenage Amanda Rogers/Portia De Rossi who could take the bull by the horns and storm into an agency declaring that I’d be the best they ever signed. That’s not the kind of work I do. I have to book my own jobs or rather did since the day job commitment means I’ve lost 99% of my modeling work. I love my day job too because there’s steadier pay and benefits where I am trying to make up for spending my retirement savings after my divorce because I couldn’t find any full-time jobs. I’m grateful for my day job but it doesn’t give me the joy that modeling gives me. With that joy comes the trade-off. It’s physically demanding so I end up in pain. It doesn’t pay well. Sometimes the circumstances aren’t great (lousy heat or no air conditioning or I have my period). Emotionally, though, it was the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever had the opportunity to do.
If Portia De Rossi had to deal with comments from radio hosts that said she has a face like a pie, what hope is there for those of us that can’t lose the weight and seem to be perpetually putting on more?
WHAT NOT TO SAY
There’s a lot of mistaken sympathy too. My former mother-in-law used to say, “But Ronnie loves you how you are.” Well, maybe that’s why he stopped fucking me when I did get thin. Maybe he’d never admit to having a fat fetish. I recently ranted on Twitter about this. I do not appreciate when men say, “But I like heavier women.” I am not your fetish. I am not fat to appeal to a particular demographic. There are men who have a fetish for women in wheelchairs too but would you actually say that to one of those women? NO! If you ever did, you’re a pig. For some reason, people think this an acceptable way to comfort a woman who is upset about her shape. Don’t ever point out to me that some people like the BBW label. And don’t ever tell me that “bones are for dogs” or whatever the degrading meme is. I spent years on pro-anorexia websites being jealous of those girls.