Portia de Rossi, Ally McBeal, And A Generation Of Eating Disorders


Yesterday on Oprah, Portia de Rossi discussed her battles with anorexia and bulimia that climaxed while starring on Ally McBeal with other exceedingly thin actresses. However, she didn’t acknowledge the effect the casts’ unspoken competitive dieting had on female viewers.

Promoting her book Unbearable Lightness—which chronicles how her eating disorder spiraled out of control, leading her body (at 82 pounds) to begin the stages of organ failure—de Rossi told her personal story of how her discomfort with her body went hand-in-hand with being afraid to admit that she’s gay. While she did say that public figures who stay closeted do a disservice to younger gay people who are struggling with coming out, she didn’t recognize that the same is true for actresses who secretly starve themselves (which in de Rossi’s case meant consuming only 150 calories per day). Since starring on Ally McBeal, both Courtney Thorne Smith and (reportedly) Calista Flockhart have also commented on their extreme dieting.

It’s genuinely great that these women are being open about their past struggles, but that honesty would have been much more appreciated, by me at least, back in the late ’90s when seeing these women on magazine covers and red carpet specials—with their bones protruding through their skin—had such an oppressive impact. Yes, this is a problem that reaches far beyond the influence of a cast from a popular dramedy that was on television a decade ago. But in coming forward, the media seems to sidestep the impact—contagion effect, even—these women had.

After de Rossi joined the cast of Ally McBeal in 1998, the media focus on Calista Flockhart’s thinness shifted to other women on the show, as they dropped a significant amount of weight. At the time, I was 19, and that was the year that I started taking prescription diet pills. Obviously I don’t blame these women for that, but I can honestly say that as stupid as it sounds, their existence was a contributing factor in hating my own body. It’s not like I looked up to them, or even really blamed them personally for my problems. If anything, I resented them: I could tell by looking at them that they were dieting in an unhealthy fashion, but they just seemed more successful at it than I.

My experience was, of course, not universal; this sort of journey through hell is unique to each individual who goes through it. But these women provided an extreme visual, and we well know the impact that these visuals can ultimately have. And in de Rossi’s current media rounds, there doesn’t seem to be much acknowledgment of that. We shouldn’t be looking for an apology; she doesn’t owe us anything. But this is an opportunity for a discussion that should be had. Unfortunately, nobody’s having it.

Nevertheless: I think that it’s admirable that de Rossi is speaking openly about it now, and perhaps in some way it could help a younger girl who is unhappy with what she sees in the mirror.

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