TRIGGER WARNING: This content deals with the topic of eating disorders and may be triggering to some people.
There are many pressures in the everyday life of a frum girl that may bring about the desire for weight loss and unhealthy dietary control. As several articles have recently highlighted, eating disorders represent a serious and unspoken danger in the Orthodox Jewish community. The lack of attention paid to eating disorders is terrifyingly dangerous, as they carry a shockingly high mortality rate of 20%. This is why it is crucially important that certain practices and routines – the origins of the problem – are fixed. They cannot be ignored or whispered about by community leaders. I would now like to to speak on behalf of the many struggling Orthodox women, those pressured to keep silent.
Several problems common in the ultra-Orthodox community are triggering to those suffering from eating disorders. At the root of these problems, there exists substantial pressure for women to remain excessively thin at a young age. Nice Jewish boys want the supposedly perfect bride: a pretty face and small waist from a stable family.
Of course, shidduchim put pressure on more than merely one’s weight. Matchmakers have no appropriate boundaries when it comes to conducting research. The girl’s exact height and adherence to tzniut are also placed as top priorities. Unfortunately, the average girl feels a pressing need to be a ‘perfect size two’ in order to be worthy of a loving husband.
Obviously, something has gone terribly wrong with our matchmaking system. Judaism focuses on the inner beauty of a person: on the soul. The strength of a girl’s faith should be the top priority, not her measurements. A woman’s religious behaviors should certainly be more important to a man than her dress size or her effectiveness at covering her collarbone.
As is often the case, ultra-Orthodox girls adhere to a strict dress code and take the laws of tzniut to an uncanny extreme. Their bodies are constantly examined by local school administrators, parents, and peers to make sure they match the high standards of the society. Clothing must cover as much as possible and cannot be form-fitting.
A Bais Yaakov girl with anorexia can drop more than a few pounds without anyone noticing, because her loose, Oxford shirts hide her exposed ribs. From what I’ve seen, wearing baggy clothing is a common way for those rapidly losing weight to hide their new bodies.
In a case where a girl does gain weight, the other girls may notice that her clothing has become tighter. In the ultra-Orthodox community, a girl is looked down upon for wearing even marginally tight clothes, regardless of the reasons. Of course, any sort of weight gain inevitably may trigger negative thoughts.
A woman should embrace the beauty of the human body and not cover it up to such a colossal extent. When the body is hidden so much, it is then viewed as an object of shame. Such an outlook promotes eating disorders because it degrades self-image. Self-image and self-confidence need to be encouraged and embraced.
Other areas of Jewish law also contribute significant pressure on young girls. For instance, keeping kosher plays an essential role. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are notoriously strict regarding dietary laws. Their attitude generates habits which support the goals of the anorexic: one can simply restrict a high-calorie food by thinking of it as a ‘non-kosher food,’ because the instinct to avoid such things is already heavily ingrained. In this capacity, kosher-keeping creates a mental mechanism that feeds the disease by developing the necessary restriction skills.
The ultra-Orthodox community also refuses to accept and recognize mental illnesses as serious illnesses. As I said before, young girls are often expected to conform to a high standard of perfection in order to find husbands. More often than not, parents and sufferers deny the existence of a problem and reject treatment because they do not want to affect the probability of finding the right guy. Misconceptions surrounding the importance of therapy need to be corrected now. We must teach our young girls that therapy does not reveal weaknesses or flaws; in fact, it shows that you care about your mental health. Judaism fundamentally encourages health and healing. If someone is dying, you can do practically anything to save them according to Jewish law.
In its current state, Orthodox Judaism discourages individuality amongst younger women. The phrase “Walk modestly with your God” has been taken completely out of context in the ultra-Orthodox world in which girls are constantly pressured to conform to the community’s modesty standards. In that community, it is difficult to live honestly without being viewed as an outcast, which inevitably detracts from a person’s sense of individuality. Every girl isn’t given the chance to follow her personal ideals, dreams, and sense of uniqueness; she is rather controlled by a set of demanding social expectations. Most young people yearn for individualism. In a society where personal distinction is practically forbidden, one of the only things young girls can control is their size or what goes in and out of their mouths. Developing one’s individuality is part of enjoying life and growing. Healthy individuality accentuates the beauty of the soul, so it should be embraced.
Many sufferers of eating disorders also view their disorders as expressions of their own personal autonomy. Orthodox teenage girls may often feel as though they are controlled by teachers, rabbis, and parents. An eating disorder grants a huge sense of control; it is the only thing they can do independently. This is their own secret that no one knows about – and no one can stop them. Controlling one’s own diet in unhealthy extremes can seem empowering to victims, but it is clearly also destructive. Giving young people a sense of healthy control is a necessary part of growing up. And when it’s not given, the consequences can sometimes be fatal.
I pray that the Orthodox community can begin to open their eyes and realize the triggers and sufferers amongst them. These issues cannot be whispered about any longer. The problems must be addressed fully, and with sensitivity. My heart pours out when I think about the ignored girls in the community suffering from life-threatening mental disorders. These ill and pressured girls need to know that they are incredible, strong, and flawless. If you know someone suffering from an eating disorder, please don’t hesitate to ask them to reach out for help. You won’t be ruining their life – you’ll be saving it.