Eating disorders have at their root a complex combination of biological, psychological and cultural factors that are unique to each person. Although as Jews we may take pride in being among the best and brightest, the pressure to achieve can come at too high a price.
Whether in the classroom, in the kitchen or on the scale, the quest for perfection never has a happy ending and can lead to an eating disorder, especially when factors such as feelings of inadequacy, negative self-talk, body-image issues and too little opportunity for self-expression are involved.
In cultures where rules can be rigid and food is a focus, the incidence of eating disorders tends to be greater than in the general population.
The Jewish culture has a definite food focus: everyday meals, Shabbat family dinners, funeral comfort, elaborate holiday and simcha celebrations, even break-fast menus. And we have rules about what may and may not be eaten.
For many women, this combination is fine. For others, it creates an environment that triggers weight or food anxiety.
It is important to note that it’s a myth that eating disorders affect only women. Over the past decade it has become clear that males are vulnerable to eating disorders, and children as young as 9 show symptoms.
Jewish culture places a high value on a beauty ideal of thinness. In some Orthodox families, for whom marriages are early and often are arranged, the prospective bride’s weight and clothing size can be important considerations, as can the attractiveness of the woman’s mother.
Only 1 percent of the world’s female population is very tall, very thin and very well-endowed (Scandinavian), and the average Jewish woman is 5-foot-2 and curvy. It’s no wonder that many Jewish women feel frustration over failing to conform to unreachable standards.
For those who are more vulnerable, the result can be anger, anxiety or depression — feelings that go hand in hand with eating disorders.
Following are common warning signs for eating disorders. Someone could have symptoms of more than one diagnosis or not fully meet the diagnostic criteria for a specific disease but still need help.
In addition, most people are secretive about their behaviors. No matter the situation, it is critical that people seek professional help for an assessment even if they deny having problems.
- Is thin and gets thinner.
- Never reaches a weight that is satisfactory.
- Displays perfectionistic tendencies.
- Has a distorted body image and feels fat even when thin.
- Has a cycle of bingeing and purging.
- Reacts to stress by overeating.
- Feels as if her eating is often out of control.
- May purge using laxatives, over-exercise or vomiting.
Binge Eating Disorder
- Eats large amounts to the point of feeling uncomfortably full.
- Eats when not physically hungry.
- Turns to food to cope with feelings.
- Feels disgusted, guilty or embarrassed after binge-eating.
Education is an important factor in eliminating eating disorders. The Renfrew Center , which has a location in Sandy Springs, hosts “Feasting, Fasting and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community,” a half-day seminar for health and mental health professionals, educators, and clergy, in cities around the country. The event takes an in-depth look at behaviors among Jewish women.
Renfrew also provides specialized programming to meet the needs of its Jewish clients. The programming lets people keep kosher, observe holidays and rituals, and use many of the tenets of Judaism for healing while working to overcome their struggles with food, weight and body image.
Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. With treatment targeted to meet their needs, people can learn to enjoy Jewish traditions without being controlled by them. They can learn the value of a life filled with positive affirmations rather than a life filled with weight-related achievements.
Adrienne Ressler, LMSW, CEDS, F.iaedp, is the vice president, professional development, of the Renfrew Center Foundation and has served as a senior staff member for over 27 years. A body image specialist, she is a member and co-chair of the Somatic and Somatically Oriented Therapies SIG of the Academy of Eating Disorders and serves on the advisory board of Eating Disorders Recovery and Support in Petaluma, Calif.