Jewish culture, especially in the United States, fosters eating disorders. That's right, I said it.
A few studies have been done that were fairly inconclusive but I'm not advocating more. It's enough that therapists and treatment centers are indicating that a higher percentage of their clients are Jewish. I don't think any more money needs to be spent on seeing how many more.
Reasons? Anyone? Bernbaum? Bergenfeld? Anyone?
First off, there is a disproportionate emphasis placed upon food in the Jewish community
Food is central in our celebrations of Pesach, Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Purim, Shavuot and on and on. Not to mention lifecycle events such as births, bnai mitzvot and sitting shiva.
For anyone with an eating disorder, these times, instead of being occasions for celebration, are painful reminders of the struggle going on within. Rather than being a happy tradition and symbolic of our relationship with Judaism, food is an instrument of self-destruction.
Then there are the fasts. The absence of food.
Contrary to popular belief, the point of fasting is not to make the entirety of the Jewish people suffer for a day in September.
However, a thread through the theme of Yom Kippur and the fasting ritual is purity. According to this logic, fasting brings us closer to spiritual and physical purity.
This is a dangerous road for those of us with an eating disorder because we believe this is true with every fiber of our being.
Therefore, if I feel "dirty", "bad" or "impure", the long tradition that Judaism has between purifying the soul and denying the body food, drink or any pleasure feeds the eating disordered brain.
Fasting is a relatively frequent ritual. There are two major fasts. Yom Kippur and Tisha b'Av. Then there are 5 minor fast days on the Jewish calendar.
In some Jewish communities, it is customary for a bride and groom to fast on their wedding day before the ceremony. The additional fast days, plus family-instituted fasts and communal fasts to ward off impending danger or to ask for mercy and personal fasts for repentance makes for a good week of fasting and more (nothing compared to Ramadan, but I digress).
Rules of when to eat and not eat, what foods are "safe" and "unsafe" are key components of an eating disorder. Keeping kosher can "feed" into this obsession.
This year a mob of articles has appeared on the internet warning about Yom Kippur and eating disorders.
Not one of them mentioned the core issue, in my eyes. This is the mixed message that Jewish girls get about food.
"Eat, eat! But don't get fat."
"Try Grandma's kugel - and aren't you looking a zaftig this year?"
"You look fabulous! How much weight have you lost? You've got to eat more. You're too skinny!"
Some of these messages are habit, traditions passed down from bubbe to bubbe. Others are envy from mothers to daughters and aunts to nieces.
As an adult, I'm much better at understanding where they originate. However, as a 12 year old, I wasn't. All I knew was that I had to be thin. I knew that in my families eyes, thin was lovable and fat wasn't.
After all, all of the women in my family hated themselves if they were the slightest bit over some ideal barely attainable weight. The fasting that went on (or was said to go on) following a holiday where brisket and honey soaked apples and schmaltz-laden matzah balls were consumed was epic.
"I'm not going to eat again today after this!"
"Again today? I'm not going to eat for a week!"
"I think I'm not going to be able to eat until next Chanukkah!"
Those who were Jewish sylphs were revered, envied and talked about behind their backs.
"She's starving herself. It won't last long."
I didn't starve. I did what I was supposed to. I ate. And ate. And ate.
And then I threw it all up to punish myself for the sin of gluttony I was committing. For the pain of feeling out of control. For the starvation of others I was trying to be mindful of. For ruining the body that was supposed to be perfect and easily maintained.
I don't fast anymore. I don't do a lot of things anymore. I am desperately trying to learn how not to punish my body for my so-called sins and how not to see food/fasting as punishment, reward, purity and spiritual superiority.