The Mask of Hunger: Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

eatingdisorders_000021035060SmallBy Debra K. Waranch, LCSW-C

Judaism teaches that our bodies are God given, and that they need care and nurturing.  It is against Jewish values to abuse, change, harm, or mutilate our bodies in any way, and yet Jewish families are increasingly struggling with eating disorders.  What is causing our daughters, sisters, wives, brothers and sons to put their lives in danger?

This is a puzzle, and the cause for each individual is just that, individual; it is different for each person and each family.  Our society’s practices and values (especially the premium put on thinness) certainly impact how we feel about ourselves, as well as how others view us.   Ironically, as our society is becoming more aware of health, eating disorders are on the rise.

Some practices and values in Jewish culture affect eating habits.  Food plays an important role in the Jewish family and in the communal setting.   Holidays have foods associated with them, and there are specific blessings for before and after eating.   A line in the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) sums up the Jewish approach to food: “You shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless the Lord…” (Deuteronomy 8:10).  This emphasis on eating as a positive commandment can create conflict within a person who has an eating disorder.

Within the Orthodox Jewish community, the stage of matchmaking causes many girls to abuse their bodies. Thinness is seen as desirable for attracting a potential husband.  Mothers, fathers, and sisters pressure girls to lose weight, whether overtly (‘’Don’t eat that, you’re gaining weight,” or “You need to go on a diet and lose 10 pounds, or no one will date you”) or covertly (hiding food, not putting enough food on the table, or dieting themselves).  This often causes the girl to feel isolated, left out and vulnerable, and she may rebel by eating in secret and punishing herself through bingeing or not eating.

Many girls caught in this cycle of eating, dieting, and loathing their body feel ashamed, anxious and depressed. They judge themselves by their weight.  If the number is good to them, it is a positive day, and if the number isn’t, the self-abuse continues.  Also, when they lose weight, others praise them, and this encourages them to continue.

There are so many things adolescents cannot control in their world: parents, rules, school.  The intake of food becomes the one thing they can control.  Many people with eating disorders feel successful and powerful in this realm of losing weight. They think, “I can do this, I am successful, and good at this… look at how people react to me in such a positive way…I am strong…”  But in reality they are not strong, because this illness causes internal turmoil and takes a costly toll on them, both emotionally and physically.   They wear the mask of hunger.  Deep down they are in pain, but they show the world a smiling face.

Taking care of our health, nurturing and nourishing ourselves are Jewish values and each individual’s responsibility.  The community is also mandated to help people who are ill or not caring for themselves.  This may cause additional pressure for Jewish people with eating disorders, as they are knowingly violating Jewish law.  They may feel guilt and question who they are within their family system and within their religion, peer group and community.

What can Parents and Family Members Do?

  • Be aware of your own eating messages and set a positive and healthy tone about food.  Food is the energy of life.
  • Teach that no food is bad; everything can be enjoyed in moderation.
  • Our body takes care of us and allows us to run, move, think, and grow.  When we nurture our body, our body will nurture us.
  • We are more than a look.  Looks change, but who you are and what you do determine who you become.
  • Be aware of the compliments you give your children on how they look.  Be sure to compliment them on their positive attitude and helpful behavior.
  • Ask yourself: how do I feel about my body; what is my relationship with food?
  • Watch your food conversations (“I need to go on a diet, I can’t eat that…”), and remember that your children are listening and watching.
  • Be aware of your gender rules, e.g., a man can be heavy and eat that food, but not a woman.
  • Set appropriate rules and boundaries about food and getting together.
  • Sharing a meal is a way of coming together as a family.
  • Make family dinners a peaceful time and keep difficult or uncomfortable discussions away from the table.

The Baltimore Jewish community has become much more aware of the serious concerns and life threatening issues with eating disorders.  Eating disorders are treatable.  We are here to help you and your family.

By Debra K. Waranch, LCSW-C, JCS Family Therapy

Debra K. WaranchTo learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.

JCS: / 410-466-9200

Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt

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