Choosing between faith and health isn't kosher.
For all the time she spent calculating intake and output, figuring out whether to prioritize health or faith wasn’t an easy equation.
“I fasted on every Yom Kippur and every fast day since I was 13 years old and here I [was] being told, ‘you’re not allowed to do this anymore’ ... I felt disconnected from my Jewish community. It was the same with changing my diet for Passover,” she says.
Hilary says it was hard to celebrate holidays and share family meals while the eating disorder was “active” and she was trying to hide it. Now that she’s in recovery, it’s hard not to participate—despite still being active in the Jewish community, she has chosen not to keep kosher or observe Jewish holidays and traditions that involve feasting or fasting.
She says, “It’s just one example of how an E.D. just sucks the joy out of your life.”
Whether or not Jewish women suffer from eating disorders more frequently than the general population is debatable—and it is debated—but insiders agree that there’s newfound pressure on these women to be thin. They point to recent changes in Orthodox tradition of Shidduch, the system in which Orthodox Jewish singles are paired up for marriage, as symptomatic of a problem in the community at large.
It seems even the ultra Orthodox aren’t impervious to the charms of airbrushed models on billboards and magazine covers. Experts say that matchmakers, or Shadchan, report that over the last five years or so when they’ve asked young men what traits they seek in a potential bride, they’ve started to answer: Skinny, please.
Abraham Twerski is a Hasidic rabbi, psychiatrist, addiction expert and author of more than 50 books about Jewish ethics and issues. In an article in Foward, a daily Jewish newspaper, Twerski speaks out about young Orthodox men’s sudden interest in potential brides’ dress sizes.
“If it is anything over an eight, forget it,” he says. “Girls have become probably even more body-image conscious in the Orthodox community than in the general population,” he says. Some reports say that the boys even ask for the sizes the brides’ moms wear.
“There’s actually online information about prospective brides where data about problems in the family, illnesses, weight, financial information—just like if you’d looked up Dun & Bradstreet on a business to find out how solvent it is,” says Adrienne Ressler, Renfrew’s National Training Director and national body-image expert, on the phone from her office in Florida. “Within small communities, whether online or common knowledge, there’s a lot of pressure to make yourself desirable so you’re a good catch.”
“I don’t mean to be demeaning, but those are the things we do here,” she says.
Ressler, a Jewish woman who was raised “toward the more Orthodox end of Conservative,” concedes the exchange of such information goes on in mainstream American culture also, though perhaps not as formalized.
“Eating disorders are gender-biased and culture-biased, and also it has a political bent,” Ressler says. “As women gain more power in the culture, we have to have a smaller presence.”
When it comes to the unique expectations of Orthodox women, Ressler looks at the issue through a feminist lens. “We know that eating disorders is a voice that says things that can’t be spoken,” she says. Ressler theorizes that the eating disorder of an Orthodox woman could be saying, “I don’t want to get married so young; I don’t want to bear so many children; I don’t want to not have as much value as my husband or father.”
Still, the numbers are unclear. “I don’t know that we tend to have more reports of eating disorders in Orthodox communities or not,” Ressler says.
What she does know is that kashrut, and Jewish holidays are problematic for someone with an eating disorder. “Eating disorders in general tend to be woven around a lot of the elements that you find in Judaism,” Ressler says. “There’re a lot of rituals in Judaism, so it’s easy for someone following Conservative or Orthodox or Reform rituals to base their life around the rituals of an eating disorder. Whether they’re binge-and-purge rituals, how many pieces you cut your food into or whatever, you’re already attuned to living a life of ritual.”
All this discussion leads to a very uncomfortable question: Does practicing Judaism make a person more prone to eating disorders?
Dr. David Hahn, a psychiatrist and Renfrew’s assistant medical director and a “fairly conservative observant” Jew, says no—at least, not any more so than any other given set of cultural circumstances—and that such a simplistic assumption reveals a bias against Judaism.
“There’s a desire perhaps to make kashrut into a pathology,” Hahn says. “Whether you’re Catholic or Mormon, eating disorders are a solution to a problem that is cultural-specific, but it’s not because particular cultures are pathological.”
There’s no concrete answer. Every culture has specific stressors, but one isn’t necessarily more “triggering” than the other: It takes a perfect storm of factors to create an eating disorder, and everyone’s perfect storm is different.
Hilary believes she was simply born this way. “I’m a firm believer that it was just something hard-wired into me,” 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.