Eating Disorders: Being Jewish in a Barbie World

Body-Image Negativism Poses Physical, Mental Threats to Many Women

Stand in line at the supermarket, and you're bombarded by tabloids and women's magazines."Lose 20 pounds in two weeks," screams one cover headline. Meanwhile, the cover photo is a four-layer chocolate cake offering "desserts to die for."

The tension between these two priorities - being thin and enjoying good food - has created an epidemic of eating disorders. Psychologist Stacey Nye, who specializes in treating those disorders, explains that "even though we're more educated about eating disorders now, it hasn't helped us protect ourselves from developing them, because we're seeing them in younger and younger children."

An additional conflict between Jewish culture, in which food plays a central role, and the general culture, which advocates the ideal of thinness, creates a compounded vulnerability for Jewish women, according to Nye. To explore these issues, Nye attended "Food, Body Image and Judaism - A Conference on Disorders and Resources for Change." The conference, held earlier this year in Philadelphia, was sponsored by the KOLOT Center for Jewish Women and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Renfew Center, a women's psychiatric hospital in Philadelphia. It was sponsored in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia with support from the Germantown Jewish Center.

"I specialize in eating disorders and body image," explains Nye. "Being a Jewish woman myself, I wanted to learn more about what particular struggles (exist) for Jewish women. Jewish women have particular cultural vulnerabilities that make them more at risk."

Body-image negativism poses physical, mental threats to many women, including the jewish community.Conference workshops included "Zaftig Women in a Barbie Doll Culture," "Chopped Liver and Chicken Soup: Soothing Food for the Traumatized Soul" and "Bagel Politics: Jewish Women, American Culture and Jewish Culture."

"If we want to follow our tradition, we have to revolve our lives around food," says Nye. "But if we want to assimilate, we have to look different."

Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of education, prevention and treatment at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center, points out that basic hereditary and physiological factors make it almost impossible for most women, including Jewish women, to conform to the Barbie-doll ideal.

"One percent of our population is genetically predisposed to be really tall, really thin and busty. And it's not us - it's the Scandinavians," says Steiner-Adair.

But experts note that societal and psychological influences make women strive to emulate unrealistic prototypes in terms of appearance.

"It's really hard not to buy into the general culture," admits Nye. "Girls are bombarded by messages that tell them appearance defines their identity. We have 8-year-old girls on diets. Body image dissatisfaction and distortion are rampant in our culture."

Steiner-Adair estimates that "every morning 80 percent of women wake up with body loathing. Eighty percent of the women in America don't relate to their bodies in a healthy, respectful, loving way."

"Stop worrying, and meet at the water cooler"

She says that combining this general obsession with "weightism" and anti-Semitic stereotypes results in a greater vulnerability to all types of eating disorders among Jewish women.

"If you have a Jewish girl who's feeling wobbly about herself and who feels a lot of pressure on her to assimilate, to achieve, it's very easy for a girl to say, 'I can't be all those things. I know what I'll be good at: I'll be thin,' " Steiner-Adair says.

Nye specializes in helping people accept their bodies and stop dieting.

"I help people to normalize their eating, not by dieting." She encourages her clients to eat normal, healthy food and to stop eating when they're full.

"I practice gentle nutrition, staying away from a dieting mentality." Nye also encourages increased activity rather than exercise, which she says has "a bad reputation with some people" - almost like medicine.

"I help people expand their identities. To explore what there is to feel good about," Nye adds.

Nye frequently speaks in schools to educate young people about accepting their own body image and that of others. "They're getting bombarded about looking a certain way. The reality is that not everyone is meant to be thin. Weight falls in a normal curve like anything else. Some people are intelligent, others are less intelligent. You can't make yourself taller."

She says one aspect in Jewish culture that is helpful is the emphasis on knowledge and excelling in scholastic settings, rather than on the athletic field.

Family plays a role A Los Angeles-based psychotherapist who specializes in addictive behaviors, Judith Hodor finds, "more likely than not," that her patients with eating disorders come from Jewish homes. There often is an "enmeshment" in the Jewish family, she says, where one member, usually a child, feels pressured to be a reflection of the others.

"There is a tendency," she says, for parents to try to create a perfect existence as a positive reflection of themselves. This "demand for perfection" creates huge pressure on a child, who might try to starve herself as a "means of escape." This is one area, she explains, where the child can actually be in control.

Hodor cites an instance during a session in her office when the patient, a teenager, "actually was fading in and out due to lack of food" and the mother ran out to purchase milk, bananas and other edibles. "When she returned," Hodor recalls, "she looked at her daughter with tears in her eyes and said, 'You have to stop this. You are my reason for living.' "

"If I was anyone's reason for living, I might well want to disappear too," Hodor notes ruefully.

Within the context of the Jewish home, Hodor finds, there is an emphasis on intellectualism - and food. In other groups she tends to find "more aloofness, which, in a sense, protects family members from each other." But then again, she notes, they often have their own "isms, such as alcoholism" with which to deal.

Common to many cultures Taking issue with the premise that eating disorders are more prevalent within Judaism, Phoenix psychiatrist Jill Zweig reports that a significant percentage of her patients who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are not Jewish.

"These ailments are pervasive in all cultures and all socio-economic levels," she finds. "Food plays an important role in the traditions of many cultures," she points out.

"Adolescence is a time of turmoil," Zweig says, "a time of seeking individuality and separation. This typically creates some conflict within the family and this is normal, expected - and to some extent, healthy."

But, she warns, those with eating disorders tend to internalize and distort suggestions that might be as innocuous as "cut down on junk food." Determining "what actually goes into the mouth" is one way that someone can be in total control. This can lead to such inappropriate thought and pattern behaviors as, for example, cutting out all junk food, all meat, all fats - "and then they are down to three rice cakes a day," Zweig says.

Individuals suffering from anorexia and bulimia constantly are thinking about food, Zweig says, and with both there is focus on body image as a source of self-esteem.

"The difference is how the individual goes about obtaining control. The anorexic constantly restricts food intake; the bulimic may binge, regularly or periodically, and then purge."

Parents who fear that their children may be prone to, or suffering from, an eating disorder should be alert to significant changes in their children's eating patterns, such as eliminating certain foods from their diet, skipping meals, finding excuses not to eat with the family; also, hair and/or weight loss, and cessation of menstruation are signals. Warning signs of purging include locking themselves in the bathroom after meals, along with the odor of vomit.

Patients prone to eating disorders are influenced by media-created images portraying the ideal woman along the lines of Ally McBeal, Zweig says, adding: "Dissatisfaction with their bodies comes down to a comparison with image. They look in the mirror and see their own body distorted. That is the illness part of it. They don't see what others see."

The challenge for parents, Zweig suggests, is to work on effective communication, "to go for realistic goal-setting."

To that end, she emphasizes the importance of tension-free family meals and the need to teach youngsters to make appropriate food choices.

"Fat-free items don't necessarily fall into that category," she says. "Rethink what has been drummed into us regarding the craze for fat-free foods," she proposes.

"The truth is that fat is necessary in moderation. The healthiest diets include some fat."

Both Hodor and Zweig advocate a team approach in their work with patients who have eating disorders. When appropriate, they confer and collaborate with dietitians, family physicians, gynecologists, family members and friends.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 9). Eating Disorders: Being Jewish in a Barbie World, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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