Eight days without leavened bread is no easy task for any Jew. No whole-wheat bagels with scallion cream cheese! No chewy chocolate chip cookies! No soy sauced-drenched rice! But it is especially trying for me; I am 29 years old and eight years recovered from a decade-long eating disorder. Each year, Passover’s food restrictions — a triggering behavior for any recovered bulimic or anorexic — challenges my footing.
I grew up in a reform Jewish home, and my parents encouraged my siblings and me to forge our own paths regarding Jewish customs and rituals. I quite liberally pick and choose from Halachic law at my leisure; for instance, I fast each Yom Kippur and keep each Passover. In order to honor these food-related traditions, I embrace pikuach nefesh (the saving of a soul or life) because, even though I am fully recovered, it lets me cut myself slack and ensure that my health takes precedence over Pesach’s rigorous demands.
While my eating disorder began as anorexia at age 11, it morphed into bulimia when I finished eighth grade, continuing until I was 21. I inhaled food as a metaphor for my emotional deprivation, then purged it in an effort to stop feeling so overwhelmed. Because this binge/purge cycle dominated my adolescent development, restricting food in my adult life — like bread on Passover — can reactivate these feelings, especially during emotionally volatile times. Fasting, on the other hand, doesn’t stimulate the now very ancient desire to starve myself.
Last week, Israel passed a long-debated bill that would ban extremely thin models from being used on runways and in photo shoots. The law states that models must have a body-mass index (BMI) of 18.5 or more — for example, a model who is five foot eight must weigh at least 119 pounds. For context, supermodel Kate Moss, who helped popularize the “heroin chic” look of the early ‘90s, is five foot seven and reportedly weighs about 114 pounds. Israel’s own Bar Refaeli, who has a curvier bikini-model figure, is five foot eight and reportedly weighs in the 125 to 130 pound range.
Many feminists are hailing Israel’s law as a huge step forward for the fashion industry. However, I’m not one of them.
Most of the other laws or public agreements aimed to combat the overuse of extremely young or thin models have not worked. Last year, Vogue magazine vowed that it would not use any models under the age of 16 in any of its editions around the world, but they’ve broken their own rule multiple times since then. American designer Marc Jacobs has also violated rules about paying models for their time and was caught paying some models ‘in trade’ (aka free clothes) and not following labor laws, but he has not been sanctioned in any way by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). Perhaps that’s because he is a board member? Spain passed a similar BMI-based law in 2006, and Australia wrote its own legislation in 2010. But Spain, Australia and Israel are all second-tier fashion countries when it comes to worldwide attention and corporate dollars. In order to make real structural changes, the four fashion capitals of the world — Paris, Milan, London, and New York — will have to step up. Simply passing laws about models will not change the real, underlying issues of body image, health and labor exploitation.
Tracey Gold played a significant role in my childhood. I found most of “Growing Pains” terribly boring and annoying, but Carol Seaver, the fictional family’s perfectly nerdy teenage daughter, fascinated me. When I saw pictures of an emaciated Gold on the cover of magazines in the supermarket, I thought they seemed completely incongruous with Carol’s sensibilities. I was terrified by her skinny arms and protruding clavicle. (At one point in 1992, Gold reportedly weighed 80 lbs.) But I didn’t understand what was happening to her — until many years later, when it was happening to women in my family and several of my friends.
If you tune in to Lifetime (you know, the so-called network for women) every Friday night at the peculiar hour of 11 p.m., you can see Gold again, older and earnest, in a new reality show called “Starving Secrets.” Each week, Gold goes on a mission to “help others battle their own eating disorders and to get them the treatment they need to save their lives.”
The opening sequence of the show is a litany of the emaciated, wasted bodies of folks with eating disorders. I feel like I’m about to watch a Holocaust documentary.
Eating disorders are famously misunderstood.
Earlier this week, The New York Times shed some light on them in an article detailing the high rates of these illnesses among American Orthodox Jews. The writer, Roni Caryn Rabin, reports on the various pressures Orthodox girls face, and looks at whether eating disorders might be the result of these pressures. She writes that, in some cases, those disorders seem to be symptoms of their desire to stave off menstruation to postpone marriage, the hope of losing weight with the ultimate goal of reaching the chuppah, or of their lack of time to develop a sense of self in a home filled with many siblings.
It’s the topic that the Forward has written extensively about in recent years.
While Rabin’s piece focuses on the American Orthodox community (though she doesn’t make completely clear whether she is referring to the Modern Orthodox community, the ultra-Orthodox community or Orthodoxy’s entire spectrum), the consequences of control, power, socialization and media impact everyone. Attempts to avoid acknowledging important psychological issues run rampant in most societies. In order to promote healing, the therapeutic approach must be holistic, and must not ignore the religious context.
Aviva Braun, a social worker and psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders in young women, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, a pioneering Modern Orthodox spiritual leader at New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Maharat, are teaming up for an event that will focus on body image from feminist, therapeutic and Torah perspectives. The event — aimed at bat mitzvah-age girls through college age women, and their parents — will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. There will also be a screening of “Hungry to be Heard,” the Orthodox Union-produced documentary about Jewish adults struggling with eating disorders.
“Judaism supports the notion that our bodies are sacred,” Hurwitz told The Sisterhood. “Philo, a Jewish philosopher said, ‘The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of the house so that it will not fall into ruin?’ We have an obligation as a community to help foster a positive body image in our own selves and in our children.”
Braun spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the specific challenges of treating eating disorders in the Orthodox community, Braun’s use of a feminist therapeutic model and her forthcoming book that is part memoir, part recipes.
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.