In a fascinating and deeply troubling article for the New York Times, Roni Carin Rabin chronicles a growing problem in the Orthodox Jewish community: anorexia and eating disorders among teenage girls. Rabbis have started to raise concerns about the issue, saying that the trend is exacerbated by the deep stigma surrounding mental illness among Orthodox Jews.
Although data seems to be somewhat scarce, the studies that have been done among Orthodox Jewish teenagers shows that girls seem to be more susceptible to eating disorders like anorexia. More and more treatment centers have started to accomodate Orthodox girls, providing kosher food; a clinic catering to young women from the United States recently opened in Jerusalem.
Part of the reason that eating disorders are so stigmatized is that young women, in particular, are expected to conform to a specific code of conduct. Public knowledge of anorexia can damage women’s marriage prospects, despite the fact that both matchmakers and potential husbands seem to privilege slender brides. This expectation that women will be thin creates a tension with the primacy of food in Jewish tradition.
“There are a lot of mixed messages,” said one woman. “My grandmother would see me and say, ‘You look so good, you’re so skinny — come eat, eat.’”
Other women take the injunction to fast too far. And many suffer from the pressures that make adolescence a time of great responsibility for young women, despite the fact that women say they don’t blame Jewish culture for their health problems, saying that in fact, they derived strength from their religious faith. Still, the women said they struggled with “the enormous pressure they feel to marry young and immediately start families , and the challenges of balancing professional careers with the imperative to be consummate homemakers who prepare elaborate Sabbath meals.”
Rabbis seem to be at the center of the move to raise awareness about eating disorders within their community, and their counsel to devout young women seems to be one of the most powerful antidotes. Although it’s crucial to have treatment facilities that accomodate Jewish women, the rabbis’ roles are also important, and it’s hopeful to see that they have identified this problem, and are committed to helping young women deal with it. Religious leaders have tremendous influence in communities like these, and they can help women with these struggles, both by identifying and counseling women who seem to be suffering from eating disorders, and helping women deal with potential health and emotional problems before they emerge.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.