No One Is Immune
Jews get eating disorders, too. I say this because being in the Jewish community myself, I can attest to the shame and stigma that many hold around mental illness, including eating disorders. But just because eating disorders are not talked about or always acknowledged does not mean they do not exist in this community. As I’ve mentioned before, eating disorders do not discriminate – individuals of any race, ethnicity, ability status, sex, gender, religion, or sexual orientation can develop an eating disorder.
Regardless of the ubiquitous nature of eating disorders, research depicts that they are underreported in the Jewish community, and particularly among Orthodox Jewish women. However, among women in the Jewish community there has been a rise in these concerns. Whether this means more people are beginning to report their symptoms or that there has been an increase in those who have developed eating disorders, various risk factors, both specific and nonspecific to the Jewish culture and religion can influence the development of disordered eating.
As a member of the Jewish community, I can recognize that there is an emphasis on weight and body image, as well as various cultural values and practices that place a high importance on food. These and other factors can put Jewish individuals at risk for developing eating disorder behaviors:
Body Image Standards. Similarly to the general Westernized populations, Jewish communities tend to idealize and put pressure on maintaining thinness and thereby engaging in diet practices, exercise, and other measures to reach this standard. Such pressures and subsequent behaviors reinforce body dissatisfaction, which is an integral component of developing eating disorders.
Pressures on body image also play into the importance of marriage arrangements among the more Orthodox Jewish communities. Women looking to get married are encouraged to take measures to be thin as to attract a potential partner.
Rigidity and Restriction. For some who observe Judaism, the various laws, tenets, and practices of Judaism may begin to create a culture of rigidity, discipline, limitation, and perfectionism for the individual. Following certain rules and restrictions becomes a way of life and a path to show deference to one’s higher power. In fact, Judaism enforces its own laws and regulations around food and eating, known as kashrut (keeping kosher), in which certain types of food (e.g. pork and shellfish) are prohibited and particular animals must be slaughtered in a specific way in order to be suitable for consumption. Often, the expectation to adhere to these laws and rules of Judaism can reinforce a pressure to be perfect. Subsequently, some individuals may take these standards to another level and apply them to other aspects of their life, such as having control, discipline, and rigidness around amount of food consumed (i.e. restriction for non-religious purposes), body image, and exercise. Taking such restrictive tendencies around food and weight to an extreme can put an individual at risk for developing disordered eating.
Moreover, a Jewish individual who feels an aversion towards this expectation of structure, self-restraint, and strictness from their religion or community may feel a low sense of control or agency in their own life. Thus, engaging in eating disorder behaviors, whether restricting, binging, purging, or excessive exercising can be a means to gain some sense of power and control in their otherwise controlled life.
It’s Not Always About Food. Regardless of these societal pressures to achieve a certain body type or to engage in diet culture, –expectations that could contribute to disordered eating — eating disorders are also a symptom of underlying trauma and emotional dysregulation. For instance, a history of sexual abuse can increase the risk of eating disorder development as a means to cope with this trauma. As with all other communities, sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences do occur in the Jewish community and could thereby influence eating disorder development. The presence of other mental disorders, including depressive, bipolar, anxiety, obsessive compulsive, substance use, or personality disorders could also contribute to the use of eating disorder behaviors as emotional regulation strategy.
But…It Could Be About Food. Eating and meals play an integral role in the Jewish religion and culture. Such a cultural significance and value placed on food could put pressure on the development of disordered eating. Various holidays and the observance of the Sabbath include a focus on an abundance of food and lavish meals, and different foods also carry religious symbolism. This overarching role of food in the community, coupled with the idealization of thinness, can set the stage for eating disorder development, as someone tries to participate in cultural practices while also attempts to fulfill societal expectations surrounding body image standards.
Moreover, Jewish practices involve various instances of ritual fasting, which in and of themselves can encourage a sort of disordered eating–the individual is encouraged to restrict food as a way to atone or honor a historical struggle, with the expectation that there will an episode of overeating to compensate after. The regular occurrence of Shabbat and holiday meals and their symbolism may influence someone Jewish to manipulate their eating behaviors, such as restricting all day to prepare for a big holiday meal. The individual can subsequently end up in a disordered eating cycle – overeating after a day of starving, followed by more restriction or other compensatory measures to deal with guilt and shame about having eaten too much, followed by more overeating, and so forth.
If you are Jewish and struggling with an eating disorder, your experience is valid and nothing to feel shame about. There are various factors that could have contributed to your development of such a complex and distressing relationship with food and your body, and fortunately, help is available to facilitate your recovery.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are struggling with compulsive exercise or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to repair your relationship with food, body image, and movement.