The subject of eating disorders is swept under the rug in many communities and is hardly addressed among Jews. But the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta and Eating Disorders Information Network are bringing the issue to the forefront Thursday, Feb. 23, at Congregation B’nai Torah as part of EDIN’s Love Your Body Month.
The panel discussion includes a psychiatrist, a therapist, a nutritionist and a recovery speaker. Rachel Wasserman, the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Fund, said the goal is to teach people how to recognize eating disorders and the specific challenges related to them in Jewish culture.
“We’re going to speak about eating disorders through a Jewish lens,” she said. “There are specific risk factors different Jewish women experience with eating disorders. We’re a very food-centric culture; all of our holidays revolve around food.”
Wasserman said it’s easy to become disillusioned with body issues in the United States, and Jewish women face a different set of expectations to meet. She said most young Jewish women hear opposing messages daily that can harm their self-esteem.
“We hear, ‘Eat, eat, eat,’ and it’s a cultural norm to have these big meals at holidays and for Shabbos,” Wasserman said. “But at the same time we are also told to uphold social standards and be thin.”
Jewish women have higher rates of eating disorders, and the problem is believed to be even worse among the Orthodox. Wasserman said there are challenges the Jewish community doesn’t want to acknowledge, especially in the Orthodox community, where any sign of illness, especially mental illness, can ruin marriage prospects.
“It’s underreported in the Orthodox and Jewish community in general. We’re reluctant to get help until the girls are on the verge of hospitalization,” she said. “We’re doing our children and ourselves an injustice by denying we’re affected by these social challenges.”
Ruth Falkenstein is a recovery speaker and EDIN board member. She battled anorexia for more than 10 years. She said the Jewish community’s food focus didn’t necessarily contribute to her eating disorder. Like most girls, she experienced social changes as she got older, and the emotional trauma of losing friends caused her to stop eating.
“It was about control for me. It was something I could control. My core group of friends changed, and I felt alone. I found something I had control over,” she said. “I was a little overweight and could have stood to lose a few pounds When you lose 10 pounds and get compliments, it’s like, ‘What will happen if I lose 20 pounds, 30 pounds or more?’ ”
When Falkenstein was battling her eating disorder in the 1970s, there wasn’t much research on the subject. She didn’t see a therapist, and most of her recovery focused on gaining weight. She’s happy the panel is addressing the issue from different angles, such as nutritional, psychological and social.
“I think the message is important and how it’s delivered. The media and pressure to be thin is worse than when I was younger,” she said. “I could have not been able to have children. I am lucky to have been able to have children. It’s hard to put in perspective what it will do later in life.”
The Feb. 23 event is free and open to the public.
Sarah Pannell, EDIN’s executive director, wants to promote body positivity during Love Your Body Month. The goal is to provide activities for everyone in February, such as “mommy and me” yoga, yoga for women over 50, and events geared specifically to the Jewish community.
“We want to increase early intervention and recovery,” Pannell said. “The societal message of diet culture, beauty and pressure makes it hard for those vulnerable to illness and makes it harder for those in recovery to bounce back.”
EDIN tailors its message to the audience and works with parents, schools and professionals.
Pannell was approached by the Jewish Women’s Fund and was told that the issue is a concern within the Jewish community and that the fund wants to provide education on eating disorders.
“Eating disorders are complex,” Pannell said. “There are biological, psychological and social factors involved in how to identify its medical impact.”
What: Panel discussion on eating disorders in the Jewish community
Where: Congregation B’nai Torah, 700 Mount Vernon Highway, Sandy Springs
When: 9 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 23
Cost: Free; www.jwfatlanta.org/events or 678-222-3716