Q. I am concerned that a young woman I work with might have an eating disorder. She is ultra skinny. She rarely goes out to lunch with us and when she does, she either pushes her food around on the plate or goes to the bathroom immediately after eating. I have a feeling it has something to do with the fact that she is an Orthodox Jew and her parents are setting her up with prospective husbands.
A. You colleague’s behavior might be normal, but taking all these factors into account, might indicate an eating disorder. You are thoughtful to be concerned. You don’t want to make her defensive by confronting her, but you could mention you notice she has become very thin and ask how she feels about that. This might open a conversation.
In your co-worker’s case, Orthodoxy might be a factor. However, we know that eating disorders affect the entire Jewish community (as well as the non-Jewish) and that they can be life-threatening. What is shocking is that the prevalence of iconic thinness is so great in our contemporary society that even those who eschew TV and movies absorb the desire for thinness.
Since you asked specifically about Orthodoxy, I will focus on that in my response. The more Orthodox practice of arranging marriages for girls in their late teens may play a part in your friend’s illness, but Judaism may also be part of the cure.
According to an article posted by the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish community are underreported. Rabbinic leaders are actually sounding an alarm, suggesting that getting treatment is a problem because the stigma of mental illness can affect not only the marriage prospects of the individual but also of her siblings. A good match is so important that many families hide problems. A 1996 study of a Brooklyn Orthodox school found eating disorders were 50% higher than in the non-Jewish community.
In Philadelphia, New York, Dallas and Florida, the Renfrew Centers offer kosher food in their clinics. There is now an eating disorder hotline in the Orthodox community. In Jerusalem there is a new residential treatment center, which caters to US women.
Those observant Jews who don’t live in these cities and want to keep their children nearby may feel they have to choose between treatment and religious observance but the choice to get treatment is sanctioned by some rabbis. For example, many rabbis are clear these women must eat during a fast because it is a matter of preserving life.
Hypothesized reasons for this growth in anorexia are several. First, matchmakers ask the dress size of prospective brides and their mothers; the preferred answer is 0 to 4. Second, anorexia may be a way to stall adult life. Without menstruation, which is one of the side effects of anorexia, one cannot have children. Third, the Jewish focus on food and preparing for Shabbat and the holidays may put what seem like impossible demands on women.
But Jewish Orthodoxy also may provide a route to curing eating disorders. The Torah values food as holy, requires that it be eaten with forethought, and with appreciation. In fact, Judaism might be a protection against eating disorders since the value is on character as opposed to superficialsecular notions of beauty and thinness. Judaism teaches us that everything can be used for good or for ill. Even food, the sustenance of life, can harm. Thank you for calling our attention to this public health problem. Judaism may be able to show a way to its solution.
This article is written by Ruth Nemzoff in collaboration with Andrea Rosenthal, photographer and author of “Stations of the Scale: A Memoir About Food and Suffering.” Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D. is an author, speaker and resident scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and a board member of InterfaithFamily.com.