Sisterhood Blog

Treating Eating Disorders in Orthodox Women

By Gabrielle Birkner

  • Print
  • Share Share

Observant Jews seeking help for anorexia or bulimia have long had the added burden of finding treatment programs that will accommodate their religious practices, such as adherence to the laws of kashrut and Sabbath observance. But now a nationwide network of eating disorders treatment facilities has launched a track specifically for observant Jewish women.

The Renfrew Center, which has facilities in eight states, will introduce the new program June 7 at a daylong conference, “Food, Body Image and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community.” A news release about the conference, to be held at New York’s Ramaz school, states:

Renfrew staff members are receiving training in the cultural aspects of Judaism that may affect treatment. This training is designed to educate clinicians about specific traditions, rituals and beliefs which can be incorporated into treatment.

“Working with the traditions and values of the Orthodox Jewish Community empowers patients to overcome eating disorders,” said Cindy Shore, Assistant Vice President of Northeast Operations for The Renfrew Center. “We are pleased to provide a program that offers women treatment while continuing to fulfill their spiritual needs.”

To understand the Jewish communal demand for such targeted treatment programs, check out this article by psychologist and eating disorders specialist Esther Altmann. In it, she explores the pervasiveness of such disorders in the Orthodox community, writing:

There are several theories about why eating disorders have become prevalent amongst ultra-Orthodox adolescent girls. One commonly cited cause is that young ultra-Orthodox men are seeking thin brides, thereby heightening the worries of teenage girls, along with their mothers, that they need to be slim to marry.

The expectation and pressure to marry and start a family at a young age may exacerbate the problem. Girls approaching marital age may feel they are not ready to assume responsibilities of rearing their own children, or may fear becoming sexual with a marital partner. Feeling that they cannot challenge parental expectations, they may instead rebel by trying to control their bodies.

OTD Fri. May 1, 2009

Another reason for the pervasiveness of eating disorders among Orthodox women is the attitude of Orthodoxy towards women's bodies. Because of the emphasis on tzniut (modesty), Orthodox girls are taught that their bodies are shameful and must be kept hidden lest they tempt men.

SB in Brooklyn Fri. May 1, 2009

I disagree with the link between tznuit and eating disorders.

Modesty in no way suggests something is wrong with the human body; quite the opposite and hence the idea behind tzniut. With rare exceptions, women do not want to be oggled by men, only by the one man you choose to be with.

I find women today just put everything out there and then wonder why men don't respect them. While I don't dress like a "prude" I do dress in a way that people take me seriously and respect me. The only person I want to reveal myself to is my better half.

I think the reasons cited in this article are more to blame for eating disorders. Why all of a sudden do young, Orthodox men want slim women? Because that's what society is putting out there now - if you aren't slim like some celebrity, you are nothing.

Perhaps if more people, secular Jews and non-Jews alike practiced some form of modesty, we'd eliminate this problem, at least on this level.

OTD Fri. May 1, 2009


It's convenient to try and blame society for Orthodoxy's flaws, but the reality is that the emphasis on tzniut does far more to sexualize women than society does. As feminist scholar Elana Szkotkman puts it "Laws of modesty protect women? I vehemently disagree. Excess layers of clothing do not protect women from the imposed sexualized gaze upon their bodies, especially not the way Orthodoxy is practiced. When girls as young as five are told to cover up because men are looking at them, this is not protection but over-sexualizing ... It is depriving girls of the freedom to freely be who they are, even when they are merely children in play. It is internalizing the obsessive male gaze, not protection from it. The skirts thus intensify women’s self-consciousness about their bodies and their sense that their own sensuality and physicality is owned by others ... Putting women behind a curtain of clothing does not remove the gaze but makes her suffer for it."

Janis Fine Fri. May 8, 2009

A young Orthodox girl is not told to "cover up because men are looking at them". She is told that she is spiritually holy and just as when a Torah Scroll is always covered when it is not being read, like between aliyahs, so to the human body is spiritually holy and should be kept covered as a sign of giving it respect. The freedom to be who you are has nothing to do with revealing your body to the world. Who you really are has nothing to do with your body, period. There is a great story told by a Rebbetzin who is called by a young friend of hers to help her select an outfit to wear to an important job interview. The Rebbetzin reaches into her friends closet and pulls out a mini skirt and halter top and suggests her young friend wears this to her interview. The young woman looks aghast and says, "I can't wear that! I want to be taken seriously!". The Rebbetzin they replies, "Oh, but to go out to meet your prospective life mate you don't have to be taken seriously?".

Dr. Judi Hollis Wed. May 13, 2009

I am a therapist who has been treating overeater families for over forty years and specialized with orthodox families over the past twenty years. I wrote FAT IS A FAMILY AFFAIR, FAT & FURIOUS, and HOT & HEAVY, as well as FROM BAGELS TO BUDDHA. The discussion does not need to converge on dress codes and modesty, but on attitudes toward the holiness of eating, struggles for individuation and separation between mothers and daughters, following Torah while also learning assertiveness and self care, diminishing competition and gossip while encouraging righteous acts so that self punishment diminishes. When we focus on the deeper issues, not food plans or dress codes, we will assume a proper new relationship with nurturance. Feel free to call me at 1-800-8- ENOUGH or

Melissa Groman, LCSW Fri. Jul 10, 2009

There is a new eating disorder program for Orthodox girls. Please visit us at

Melissa Groman,LCSW

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.