I had the privilege of going to an eating disorders conference at the Renfrew Centre in Philadelphia earlier this year. It was called ‘Feasting, Fasting and eating disorders in Jewish Women”. The presenters highlighted how much of Jewish culture, tradition and religion expresses itself through food – either eating or abstinence. For instance, there are specific foods associated with every Jewish holiday. There are no shortages of recipe books, blogs, Facebook pages and magazines all focused on holiday foods. What’s more, there are rules about how you eat, what you eat, when you eat, if you eat…
As a woman becomes more observant of Torah laws, she becomes more flooded with duties around food. Who else will be planning, preparing and cooking the food? Women with eating issues are preoccupied with food. Observant Jewish women are not only responsible for themselves and their families, they are also responsible for entertaining others, regularly. We don’t expect men with alcoholism to work in a bar serving drinks. Women with eating disorders don’t get that same recognition and reprieve. It is understood that, for the most part, they are the host and chef of the home. Furthermore, the average Shabbat or festive meal is far longer than an average meal of 20-30 minutes, making food exposure and multiple courses a predictable and significant frequent challenge.
In orthodox homes, there are often very large and close-knit families. While the warmth and support of family has many obvious advantages, there is a higher risk of individual needs going unseen for the greater good of the family. Additionally there’s a strong pull to be loyal to the family’s reputation, and this may make it difficult to express negative emotions. Part of eating disorders’ (ED) treatment is learning to recognize and express feelings. In some communities, negative emotions such as anger and depression are sinful. How can a woman with these emotions learn to express negative emotions in this context?
The studies exploring the prevalence of eating disorders in Jewish women in North America are limited. There is more research done in Jewish teens. A study done in Toronto in 2008 found that 25% of Orthodox Jewish high school students (compared to 18% of non-Jewish teens) had EDs that merited treatment.
The recognition and treatment of EDs in the Jewish orthodox community has come a long way in the last decade. It is especially difficult to acknowledge and seek help as there is often a stigma of a psychiatric illness and social pressures to be thin to find a groom. It’s understandable to want to protect a young ED sufferer by being secretive, but eating disorders need treatment. And fertility is a primary value in Judaism and is at odds with ED.
There has been a remarkable positive shift in the Jewish community. I have been asked by religious schools to speak to teens about eating and body image. Mothers bring their daughters for individual counseling to prevent EDs. Rabbis are more aware of the severity and prevalence. They will frequently allow ED sufferers (or those at risk) to eat on religious fast days. After all, health and body come first and foremost in Judaism.
Judaism is a religion that celebrates our physicality. Our bodies are the vessels that hold our souls. Without a strong, nourished, vital body, Jews cannot bring light and goodness to the world through mitzvot (good deeds). It is not a Jewish value to be thin. Somehow the western culture values of thinness have permeated, in spite of limited or no television and internet access in many orthodox homes. Somewhere the messages got all mixed up. Or perhaps, the vast breadth of eating disorders across so many cultures and religions highlights how it is virulent, indiscriminant and a maladaptive coping strategy that can be used by anyone. Silence and denial can be fatal in eating disorders. Let’s ensure that Jewish women are not trapped in secrets and that healthy, vital women are celebrated.