Choosing between faith and health isn't kosher.
Eating disorders aren’t just for models and white, middle-class teenage girls anymore. First, there was a spike in middle-aged women seeking treatment. Then, it was gay men. Now, it seems Jewish women are the latest population dying to be thin.
While the spate of recent articles (“Eating Disorders are the ‘Addiction of Choice’ for Jewish Teens,” “Being Jewish in a Barbie World”) and documentaries present conflicting research about the prevalence of eating disorders within the religion, Jewish leaders and eating-disorder experts agree on one thing: There is definitely a problem.
Experts say that growing up in a niche culture that routinely ritualizes food within a mainstream culture that relentlessly prizes thinness presents a unique constellation of triggers for eating disorders. For the one in five Jewish women who observe kashrut, Jewish laws that govern what food is kosher (“fit to eat”), there can be a struggle to reconcile the needs of the spirit with the needs of the flesh that’s not readily visible to the outside world.
Hilary grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in a Conservative Jewish household, observing kashrut, Shabbat—the centerpiece in the rhythm of a Jewish family’s week marked by deliberate rest and a grand feast—and all the traditional Jewish holidays. She also grew up suffering from anorexia. “For all the years I was dealing with my eating disorder there was always the issue like, ‘What is Hilary going to do on fast days and Passover?’” she says.
Pretty, with long brown hair and a bubblegum-pink scarf draped around her neck, she seems like any other carefree young girl. You’d never know she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.
“It’s difficult when you’re struggling with an eating disorder for years and years, and your family is always bonding over these different meal opportunities or holidays with ritual foods,” Hilary says just a few days before Passover.
Though she traces symptoms back to when she was 8 years old, Hilary was able to successfully hide her problem until freshman year of high school. She dropped a drastic amount of weight. She was often sick and missed a lot of school. Her relationship to food was mangled by compulsion.
“I didn’t eat the right foods the right way. I’d eat only at certain times on certain plates in a certain order,” she says. “I would only eat foods I could eat with a spoon for a year. I still have trouble taking a bite of a sandwich. I’d pick at foods a lot.” Eventually, she stopped eating in public, ever. Such ritualistic eating habits are common for people suffering from eating disorders.
Anxiety and depression struck and the eating disorder took over. “For me it was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, waking and sleeping hours. I was thinking about it and dreaming about it and eventually I started losing sleep over it,” she says. She was living and dying by the numbers, weighing herself before and after eating, first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Living just a few miles away from Renfrew Center, the country’s leading treatment and research facility for eating disorders, her doctor mentioned Renfrew to Hilary’s parents—but he recommended against it. His advice? “Just feed [her].”
“My doctor at the time actually said, ‘We don’t want to send her to Renfrew because that will make it worse.’” So the family dealt with the issue mostly on their own throughout Hilary’s high school years.
“It was a huge mistake,” she says. The eating disorder, or “E.D.” as insiders call it, kept getting worse. After she left for college, it ate her alive.
Hilary, now 27, says that though she was normal weight when she moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, she was “a complete insecure wreck” on the inside, struggling with manic bouts of exercise and obsessive urges that gnawed into every minute of her life.
“Think about any of the things you think about during the course of a day. Now replace all of that with managing what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat, how you’re going to eat, exactly how many calories you’re taking in … and that’s just the intake,” she says, matter-of-factly. She also obsessed over exercise.
“Sophomore year I found the gym, and never left,” she says.
By junior year, Hilary’s parents had her coming home weekends so she could see a therapist, but that didn’t slow the progression of the disease. By her senior year, a good friend called her parents and warned, “Whatever it is you think you’re doing right isn’t working.”
Hilary graduated with two degrees in four years, which required taking classes every summer with no time off. Academically, she succeeded. Physically and psychologically, she was failing. “Managing all of that while attending Columbia is very, very difficult,” she says. “I worked myself to the bone, literally.”
A week after graduation, Hilary wound up at the Renfrew Center after all. While she emphasizes that the facility is an “amazing place with amazing people,” she acknowledges one challenge she wasn’t “entirely comfortable” with: having to choose between reclaiming her health and observing her faith.
“I remember working with my therapist to figure out how matzo could fit into my diet, and what did that mean, and it just wasn’t worth it,” she says.
A conference today in Philadelphia will bring together health-care professionals, researchers and policymakers to discuss a public health approach to eating disorder prevention.