Under the Radar

TRIGGER WARNING: This content deals with the topic of eating disorders and may be triggering to some people.

It was just a regular online chat with one of my best friends, talking about whatever random stuff we always talk about. Teachers. Schoolwork. Gossip. The usual suspects. That’s when she told me that she’d had an eating disorder for four years, during three of which I counted her as part of my close inner circle of friends.

I was floored. Of the many girls at my school whom I could imagine developing an eating disorder, this friend was among the last on the list. She was never one of those girls. You know whom I mean when I say those girls. Those girls buy an overpriced salad for lunch and only nibble on some lettuce before throwing it out. Those girls have a calorie-counting app on their iPhone. Those girls stare disapprovingly at their perfectly normal-looking bodies in the bathroom mirror at school. But this friend of mine wasn’t ever one of those girls. As a result, I was completely taken by surprise about what she confided in me.

Based on my experience at an Orthodox girls’ high school intended for overachievers, it feels like body dissatisfaction and excessive dieting and exercise are ubiquitous among my peers. However, it’s difficult to ascertain if rates of eating disorders are indeed higher within the Jewish community than they are among the general public. Only a small number of studies have been done on this issue, and those scant few have yielded extremely inconsistent responses.

One study comparing Jewish and non-Jewish girls in a Toronto public school found that 25% of the Jewish girls suffered from disordered eating, while 18% of the non-Jewish girls did. In contrast, an Israeli study surveying Jewish public school girls found that they suffer from the same amount of body dissatisfaction as girls in Western countries. Another study posited that the number of diagnosed eating disorders among teenage Jewish Israeli girls is comparable to Western rates.

The prevalence of eating disorders among the Orthodox community is just as disputed. One unpublished study found that the rate of eating disorders among non-Orthodox Jewish college women is significantly higher than the rate among Orthodox Jews. These findings are contradicted by a different unpublished study conducted at an Orthodox girls’ high school in New York, which found that 1 in every 19 girls had an eating disorder (The national average was 1 in 50 at the time of the study). Until more reliable data becomes available, there is no way to know which studies portray reality.

Those specialists who believe that eating disorders are just as common or more common among Orthodox girls and women than among the general public have tried to explain the phenomenon. Many blame the strong emphasis that the Jewish religion and culture place on food. Strict regulations keeping kosher, washing before bread, and saying brachot before and after eating are just a few rituals centered around the mechanics of having a meal or snack. Once we begin to consider that the weekly Shabbat meal is akin to a Food Network Thanksgiving and every Jewish holiday (save fast days) has a specific food or meal associated with it, it’s easy to see that food has a unique connection to Orthodox life.

Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, an expert on eating disorders within the Orthodox community, strongly disagrees with the claim that Judaism’s emphasis on food breeds anorexia. “Regulations on food intake do not lead to disorders. They’re just like a nutritionist or dietician who suggests your menu,” Rabbi Goldwasser said in a personal correspondence. “The fact that there’s an emphasis on food [in Judaism] – it only creates a challenge for someone who already has an eating disorder.”

Rabbi Goldwasser also believes that the rates of eating disorders among Orthodox girls and women are no higher than those of any other minority group. “[Orthodox Judaism] has the same challenges as other religions that also have feasts and fasts….Does sacramental wine make Catholics alcoholic? No. But an alcoholic Catholic may be challenged by the presence of sacramental wine.”

I very much agree with Rabbi Goldwasser’s hypothesis that the overemphasis of food in Judaism is largely irrelevant to the development of eating disorders among Orthodox girls and women. Anorexia is rarely about food; it’s about body image, conformity to the social ideal, and maintaining control. While the ubiquity of food in Jewish ritual and culture may make it more difficult for Orthodox girls and women suffering from eating disorders, I don’t believe that it’s a factor that triggers anorexia and bulimia.

There are innumerable other factors that play a part in the development of eating disorders among Orthodox girls and women. As Jews, we must follow the imperative of kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh, that we are responsible for one another. We are religiously obligated to help our sisters with eating disorders, and ensure that they are fully integrated into Orthodox society. If we don’t, who will?