Currently, Israel has one of the highest eating disorder rates in the world. One study of ultra-Orthodox and Syrian Jewish communities in Brooklyn and found that 1 out of 19 girls was diagnosed with an eating disorder – a rate about 50 percent higher than the general U.S. population. Why is this? It is believed to be a combination of culture, perfectionism and family dynamics.
For starters Judaism has deep roots in food centered rituals around religion, family and culture. Families bond and traditions are held over holidays like Yom Kippur and Shabbat dinners. Indulging in food is encouraged and celebrated. However, many marriages in Israel are still arranged. Potential brides (and their mothers) are expected to be flawless in education, intellect, body and features. Requests for the girl’s transcripts, weight and mother’s weight (projecting what the potential bride might look like in the future) are requested by suitors prior to any courting period. The pressure for these numbers and stats to be perfect can be daunting on a young girl. Her family can be seen pressuring her to indeed not eat and drive herself to succeed in school in order to secure an elite marriage.
Having so many opportunities for fasting, rules around mixing dairy with meat, the lack of port and eating kosher makes an eating disorder hard to detect among Israeli girls. In Israeli women have been challenged by the dogmatic view of beauty narrowing toward Western features. A girl being told she “looks Jewish” for her predominant features in her nose and dark curly hair is often seen as a misfortune.
Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical instructor in Harvard Medical School’s department of psychiatry did research on eating disorders in Israel identified a cluster of personality traits associated with eating disorders: sensitive, intelligent, eager to please, low risk taker, anxious, high drive for achievement.
Adair asks “How many Jewish people do you know who fit that bill?” she asks rhetorically. “A lot. Whether that’s nature or nurture, we don’t know. This is not just about a bunch of spoiled girls skipping lunch or throwing up in the bathroom. Eating disorders are a coping mechanism.”
Are Jews more prone to eating disorders because of their genetic code for success? The writer thinks, perhaps. Having grown up with a Jewish father I know that as a Jew there is not only pressure to be a person of broad intelligence, but to use that intelligence to change the world and be the best at what you choose to do. I can definitely see how this pressure coupled with the pressure of arranged marriage and the pressure around food can create the perfect storm for an eating disorder to sneak in on a Jewish teen.
However, there is always hope. Israel’s parliament endorsed a bill that aimed to keep underweight models out of commercials, prohibit modeling agencies and photographers from employing them, and ban the media and advertising agencies from airbrushing models to extremes. Israel is preventing eating disorders by trying to change how the people in their country classify as beauty. The people in Israel may be prone to eating disorders, but there is always HOPE. All of us can do something to help. By that way, what are you doing to prevent eating disorders today?