Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

The notion of vegan "celebrity" is quite a controversial one. There are many vegans that love celebrity endorsements of veganism because they shine a more concentrated light on our cause, making it seem more mainstream, more admirable and more attainable. Others are vehemently against vegan celebrity, arguing that it instead takes away from our position as animal advocates and instead focuses in on other issues such as health, nutrition, or simply "looking hot in a bikini".

My stance falls somewhere between these two extremes. I secretly get a little giddy every time I see the word vegan on a mainstream source, because of the simple fact that for years vegans were relegated to the underground, forced to explain themselves every time they refused a slice of someone's meat lovers' pizza. Celebrity endorsements have undoubtedly helped bring the word "vegan" into mainstream vocabulary so that nowadays when we go to a restaurant and say we're vegan, the staff is all the more likely to know what we mean and not accidentally butter our veggie burger buns.

However, as with any issue, there are two sides. With more mainstream acknowledgement there is more mainstream backlash. For every time that Oprah or US Weekly or Natalie Portman mentions vegan, there's an equal anti-vegan response that seems to surface. And while it sends a powerful message every time a celebrity goes vegan, it is equally powerful when a celebrity decides to abandon the vegan diet (I'm looking at you, Lea Michele). Furthermore, it's no secret that in the post Skinny Bitch-era, a lot of the celebrity excitement surrounding veganism has less to do with compassion for animals and more to do with fitting into an Oscar dress, making veganism seem like nothing more than just the fad diet du jour. This is something that deeply offends me and many other vegans, because veganism is not a diet for us. It's our way of life. It is everything that we believe about the world and how it should work. While I firmly believe that it really is the most healthful way to look at and interact with food, I am not vegan because I believe it will prolong my wellness and subsequently my life. I am vegan because I don't believe in exploiting animals. The added health benefits (and they are many, many, many) are but an added bonus. A little thank you from the universe, for doing whatever small part possible in preserving its goodness.

That being said, I am all for whatever saves the most animals from abuse. I don't care how or why people make vegan-friendly choices, as long as the end result is the same - less animals suffering than would be suffering had that person not made that choice. However, if you don't come to veganism with at least a slight interest in animal welfare, it makes it all the more easy to abandon the lifestyle. We see it time and time again in Hollywood. I think this is partly why animal advocates are so critical whenever the V-word pops up on the television screen.

Because of this, I am careful when I talk about celebrity vegans, in fear that I will put my foot in my mouth somewhere down the line, when said celebrity shows up at a movie premiere in head-to-toe leather.

I'm going to make an exception here and talk about the actress Portia de Rossi's memoirs, "Unbearable Lightness".

While Portia is vegan, this book is not about veganism. She doesn't even use the word vegan to describe herself. However, it is a discussion about the struggles with disordered eating that eventually lead to her abandoning all animal products. As such, I think it is relevant here.

Paul and I recently went through the Arrested Development series on DVD, but other than that I had very little working knowledge of Portia de Rossi before coming across this book. I was a bit young for the Ally McBeal demographic back in the late 1990s and so I wasn't a spectator in the media circus surrounding her struggles with gaining and losing weight that eventually resulted in her eating less than 300 calories a day and weighing 82 pounds. However, I was attracted to this book because I have gone through similar (albeit far, far less severe) circumstances. Quite honestly, I can't remember a day since I was nine years old that I haven't been trying to lose weight in some form or another and my self-delusions all came to a boiling point somewhere around age 15 when I decided it was a good idea to eat a handful of blueberries and tons of water and nothing else each day four times a week. Over the years I lost, and I gained. Lost and gained. Sobbed uncontrollably on the kitchen floor after my first wedding dress fitting and subsequently decided to take six diet pills a day leading up to the big day. Some of which were so potent that I at one point went 36 hours without sleeping.

However, something changed in 2007 when I went vegetarian and even more so in 2008 when I went vegan. What happened was echoed at the end of Portia's book and it is the reason I am sharing all of this with you. Because believe me, talking about how messed up I am/have been in such a public way was not exactly on my "what I want to do with my day" agenda. I assure you that I am really not a proponent of oversharing via the interwebz and that I'm aware that this blog is supposed to be about the "lighter" side of veganism. All of these should be reasons why I should not hit POST when I am done with these embarrassing confessions.

But I'm going to hit it anyway. Because I want to tell you what veganism has done for me. And what it appears to have done for Portia too.

For 22 years of my life, eating was about me. About how thin or how fat I was and about how what I was putting into my mouth was going to contribute to which way the needle on the scale would go. That's it. Food wasn't animal or vegetable or mineral. I didn't think about where it came from or what happened to get it first onto my plate and then onto my hips. I generally took no pleasure from eating. I didn't enjoy a single bite of anything because it always felt like I was doing something wrong. I didn't work out, because I hated working out, because I hated my body. I gained weight. I became lethargic about how much weight I gained, which in turn caused me to eat even more, because what did it matter anyway? I would always be "fat" regardless of whether it was a time in my life when I was a size 12 or a time in my life when I was a size 3.

It was all about me. Me, me, me. Poor, self-obsessed me.

It was veganism that finally broke this ridiculous cycle. Because it made eating no longer about me and what food was going to do to ME.

I learned about the plight of farm animals first. The first pivitol moment came the first time I went to order food and looked at the chicken options and didn't think about how fat they were going to make me. I thought about the chicken. And only the chicken. And I stopped eating meat.

And then I stopped eating dairy.

And then this really cool thing happened where for the first time ever I started to feel good about the food choices I was making. Not because I was conscious of them being healthy. And not even because they were particularly healthy all the time. But because in whatever small way, I felt like I was contributing to the betterment of something. Something bigger than just me and the plate that was in front of me and the size of my jeans.

The health benefits came afterward. I started losing weight without even realizing that it was happening because I changed nothing other than abstaining from eating animals. I was so concerned with animal suffering and this new found passion of mine that I didn't even notice. My iron deficiency was eliminated. The blood sugar issues I developed that were no doubt a product of years of obsessive yo-yo dieting were eliminated. Rather than excessively fluctuating in weight like I had my whole life, I stayed the same basic size. I became inspired by food rather than frightened by it. I cooked vegan meals and I sat down to eat them and I enjoyed every single bite (right down to the licking of the plate) and I felt good about myself because I knew that I was taking great strides to not be a willing participant in the harm of another living creature. This blog is one of thousands of vegan blogs out there. But to me, showing the world what I eat everyday is a sign of progress from the person I used to be. Ten years ago I would have never willingly shared what I ate with anyone, friend or stranger, in fear of someone hearing it, glancing at my waist and judging me for it. When I was a teenager, the mere act of eating in front of other people terrified and mortified me.

Yet here I am.

While I can brush off most criticisms of veganism pretty easily, the one that continually gets under my skin involves equating veganism with an eating disorder or some sort of psychological pathology. Every once in a while I will come across an article in which "experts" draw parallels between anorexia and veganism or claim that vegans are more likely to suffer from body dysmorphic disorder or that feeding children a vegan diet is akin to starving them to death. And I think that it offends me so much because the exact opposite is least in my own example.

I went into veganism demanding nothing. I just didn't feel comfortable participating in the exploitation of animals anymore. Little did I know that veganism was giving me something in return - health, wellness, a sense of compassion and peace of mind. Peace of mind that what I'm eating is the right fuel for my body and not something I need to feel guilty about because it harms animals, the planet or myself. Going vegan gave me a chance to partake in something so many people take for granted - enjoying a meal.

I can't pretend like all my negative thoughts have disappeared just because I went vegan. It doesn't work like that. I'm a size 8 and still lie and say I'm a size 6 sometimes, all the while wishing I was actually a 4. I have a circa 1999 size 2 dress that I will never wear again that hangs in my closet. Mostly, it's there to remind me of how delusional I once was, thinking it was normal for someone who is 5'8" to weigh 103 lbs. But I admit that I sometimes treat it like a trophy. On bad days.

But these days, I let my clothes get a little tight, sometimes. I eat two cupcakes instead of one, sometimes. And then when I've had enough I stop and work at getting back to feeling good again. I try to, anyway. A size 6 would be awesome but most of the time I'm okay with a size 8, too.

Without divulging too much of Portia's story, I'm going to end off with a quote from her book in hopes that it might spark your interest enough to pick it up. I'm always so fascinated about the many ways that people come to be vegan.

"While I have never felt more healthy or energized, the most important thing that happened to me when I stopped eating animals was a sense of connectedness. When I was suffering with an eating disorder, my life was solely about me. I was living through my ego and didn't care about life around me. I was selfish and angry, and because I didn't care about myself, I also didn't care about littering in the street or polluting the environment. My decision to not eat animals was paramount to my growth as a spiritual person. It made me aware of greed and made me more sensitive to cruelty. It made me feel like I was contributing to making the world better and that I was connected to everything around me. I felt like I was part of the whole by respecting every living thing rather than using it and destroying it by living unconsciously. Healing comes from love. And loving every living thing in turn helps you love yourself."

Her book is a powerful documentation of her struggles with herself, as an actress in an appearance-driven environment and also a closeted gay woman in the public eye. It's honest. Sometimes brutally so. She spares no room for her ego, so I figured I had better not either. But don't worry, This is Vegan will return to its regularly scheduled programming shortly - with the awesome coconut curry rice recipe I found!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I've been vegan 7 years and I just recently developed disordered eating at a subclinical level. Mine is due to a lot of past abuse issues and is more about control and anxiety than being thin. On top, it's being thin... below it's control. I lost weight (healthily) and am at a healthy side. I just am having trouble letting go - for once I feel like I can control part of my life and it's hard to stop the rigidity.

Reading this made me cry. You just gave me another perspective on my eating and food. I hope it helps as I continue to go to therapy and heal my self and regain my self worth and confidence. Thank you. THANK YOU for this post.

Dido said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I read Portia's book not long ago and thought it was very good. I also wanted to thank you for sharing a bit of your struggles. I recently made the decision, at the urging of medical professionals, to give up my veganism as I am in recovery for an eating disorder. I agreed to do so-- temporarily, although I'll never actually be able to drink a glass of cow's milk or eat meat. But I've been struggling lately because I just don't feel good about it- both physically and mentally. Not eating animal products means so much more to me than simply what I am or am not putting into my mouth and chewing. I was in tears at the suggestion of giving up on veganism, but understood the reason why I needed to. I can't wait until I am healthy and able to again fully embrace that way of life.

Krystina said...

Unfortunately, I fall into the category of people who initially used veganism as a means to control my weight and stay thin. I ended up getting REALLY thin. Like, no breasts, bones sticking out everywhere, way too small for my 5'8" broad build skinny. But, since my passion wasn't really in it, I fell off the wagon. I ate a cheeseburger. I started eating fish regularly. I ate buffalo chili. I ended up gaining weight steadily. I felt like shit.

Now, I'm taking control over my life. I'm not vegan for now, but vegetarian because I feel like that's what is best for me now. I NEVER want to eat meat again, but I do want a little fat and good cholesterol from organic eggs and yogurt. I'm taking control over my life again and I'm hoping to do it without disordered eating. I just want to feel good again!

I really, really want to read Portia's book. Maybe I'll take a trip to B&N and give it a go.

Bliss Doubt said...

Great book review Mary. I agree that getting animal out of one's diet changes the whole paradigm, the whole realm of choices, and turns that love/hate relationship with food into a new path of discovery.

BTW my most hated argument is that veganism is poor nutrition.

Anonymous said...

brilliant post, and certainly rings true with me. thankyou.

kmm22 said...

i loved this post. all of the former/ex vegans "coming out" has really been bringing me down b/c being vegan has made me feel so, so, so good. thanks for this.

Mary said...

Anon - Thank you for commenting and sharing our story. I will keep you in my thoughts, hoping for a full, healthy and happy recovery and the awareness that you are worth wellness in every imaginable way.

Dido - Wishing you the best in your recovery. I do believe that deep down we know what is best for our bodies and so I respect your decision to give up veganism for the time being. We need to take care of ourselves first and foremost so that we can go out into the world and take care of the issue we feel so passionately about, and I look forward to the day that you are confident in a return to veganism. All the best.

Kristyna - Best wishes to you! I do recommend Portia's book to anyone who has ever struggled with weight/self-esteem issues. It is very powerful to learn that you are not alone in your least I know it was for me. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

Bliss - I couldn't agree with you more. I find that the mainstream focuses entirely too much on what we DON'T eat (meat and dairy, the most unnecessary aspects of the traditional human diet) rather than what we do eat (whole grains, vegetables, superfoods)...and focuses entirely too much on what omnis DO it ("everything") and not what they DON'T eat (which is quite often unfortunately vegetables and whole grains because they are given a backseat to meat in our culture). It's a strange backward system and I hope that we vegans will be better understood someday.

Mary said...

Anon - thank you!

Kmm - thanks for reading! I couldn't agree more :)

Geanna said...

I recently read this book myself, and I, too, was struck by it. Thanks for your honest post.

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