Eating disorders can begin for many reasons – whether it is from insecurity of not meeting society’s unattainable standards of beauty, or the feeling of not being “enough” – a lot of factors can contribute to the development of these conditions. For many, a common theme for their eating disorder is control. When your dream college rejects you, or your parents tell you that they’re getting a divorce or you did not get the job that you wanted, life can feel like it is out of your hands. Women living with eating disorders often feel as though they are regaining control when they manipulate their weight using unhealthy behaviors. These maladaptive behaviors are concrete and demonstrable—and can be controlled by one’s own actions. This sense of achievement and reward—though gained through unhealthy means – can perpetuate the eating disorder.
Taking that into consideration, it is no surprise that females in the Orthodox Jewish population experience a high occurrence rate of eating disorders. For many young women adhering to principles of this religion, it can feel as though their futures are outside of their control. Shidduch – a matchmaking process within the Orthodox Jewish community – is an expected part of female maturation. Traditionally, a young man’s mother picks a woman for him to marry. Women are expected to marry this man that they might not even know – or particularly like.
In addition to the heightened bodily awareness that young women may feel as part of the normal development into adulthood, females living in this community may feel added pressure to look a certain way so that they can be deemed “more desirable” for suitors looking for a life partner. Often, the idea that the women must be skinny comes from expectations within the community. Here, we can see the glorification of thinness as well as the devaluation of anyone who does not meet the thin ideal.
While Shidduchim can be an enjoyable experience for some, others find it to be an extremely uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden time spent obsessing over perceived physical and psychological flaws. This life experience can be especially difficult for those actively living with an eating disorder and for those predisposed to developing the condition.
As eating disorders are often a function of uncomfortable emotions or situations, it makes sense that this would be a time that many eating disorders are either activated or exacerbated. With the hope of alleviating some of the internal / external pressures felt by many women in this community, many women begin using eating disorder behaviors as coping skills to manage emotions and/or control a situation that cannot be altered.
Although it is easy to see why this process can be dangerous for many women living in the Orthodox Jewish culture, I think it is also important to understand that this tradition does not cause eating disorders. Biological, psychological, and social factors, along with many external influences all have a great impact on the development of these illnesses.
Philo, a Jewish philosopher, once said, “The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of our house so that it will not fall into ruin?” Perhaps one day observant Jewish women and families will begin to see the correlation between Shidduchim and eating disorders, thus beginning to make strides to alleviate the social pressures and physical standards associated with this important life event.
• The Renfrew Center in Philadelphia has a treatment track for observant Jewish women.
• Relief Resources opened a helpline for those struggling with an eating disorder
• The Hadassah Foundation funded the creation of “Bishvili: For Me,” in hopes to help strengthen girls’ self-esteem.
• The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the KOLOT Center for Jewish Women and Gender studies established Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing. This establishment aims to teach teen and preteen girls positive body imagery and other Jewish values that relate to their lives.
Ashley Sawyer, LCSW is a clinician in the adolescent IOP and the Free to Be program in Milford. She provides individual, family, and group counseling to adolescent and adults with eating disorders. She received her bachelor’s degree at Bridgewater State University in sociology and her master’s degree in social work from Simmons College. Ashley is particularly interested in eating disorders and the Jewish population. She incorporates Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Exposure Therapy in her work with patients and families.