What’s Eating our Community?

Last night I went to an evening dedicated to raising awareness about eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish community. The evening was hosted by Shearim College of Jewish Studies as a service to the community, and Shearim is to be congratulated for opening their doors to provide a venue for such an important topic to be aired.

The program featured the film “Hungry to be Heard” made by the Orthodox Union in 2008. You can see a preview of the documentary here:

The movie is made with sensitivity and honesty, pulling no punches about the problem as it exists in the observant community. I was particularly moved by the willingness of the women in the movie to grant interviews, and to be as brutally frank as they were.

The movie was followed by a talk by Dr. Carolyn Peyser, a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders, and the author of the book: Body & Soul: A Guide for Addressing Eating Disorders in a Jewish Education Setting.

During the question and answer session, I asked about community responses to the phenomenon, particularly since anyone involved in matchmaking, or simply trying to introduce acquaintances, knows that the obsession with being thin is a major problem in the Jewish world. Dr. Peyser is clearly aware – and passionate – about the problem. She suggested that from every possible platform the community, and community leaders, proclaim that the obsession is socially unacceptable, and make the point whenever possible.

As I pondered the evening, I thought something more radical: what would happen if we, as a community declared a moratorium on answering questions such as, “What size is she? Is she thin?” Meaning, if I want to introduce a woman to a man, and he asks a question like that, I respond “I’m sorry, that’s a question that leads to an epidemic of eating disorders, so I’m not willing to answer.” Obviously, if only one or two people answered like that nothing would happen, however, if it became policy throughout the Jewish (and non-Jewish!) world, perhaps that would begin to make a dent.

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12 Responses to What’s Eating our Community?

  1. Rachel Hershberg says:

    I was also thinking something along those lines – a community policy of what questions we will accept around physical appearance.

  2. Rachel Hershberg says:

    Or maybe just the hairy eyeball to the question? Or saying, “Are you sure it’s important to you?”

  3. this is an excellent suggestion because it goes to the heart of the problem. it’s men’s lookism (most often defined not by them but by mimetic drives – fashion) that produces the fears that women have of not being attractive. the obsession with thinness is bizarre (and goes back, i suspect to twiggy).

    as Appiah says in The Honor Code and Moral Revolutions, it’s the community that brings about moral revolutions by deciding what’s honorable (duels, footbinding, slavery, honor killings) and not (duels, footbinding, slavery, and honor killings). it’s up to the community to shame men shallow enough to be hard-core lookists.

    of course many men are equally susceptible to mimetic desire (how else could skininess have won out), and not in touch with their real desires or feelings, but responding to what they think they should like.

    i remember a wedding on the kibbutz some forty years ago when two russians got married. they were both, by mimetic standards, losers — short, round, not very attractive. but they clearly loved each other. in other words, winners in the game of life.

    • Rachel Hershberg says:

      Richard, men’s lookism is definitely a real part of the problem, but I think there’s also women’s self-image problems, and Dr. Peyser also focused on how women’s attitudes towards our own bodies get transmitted to our daughters (and other women and girls around us). This also needs to be dealt with.
      Rachel

  4. ariella says:

    thanks for sharing your comments on this important subject. This has certainly been an issue for many people that I have known, and raising awareness that this is even an issue (!) can be eye opening for anyone. Thanks!

  5. shaananlaw says:

    Wow, I have to say I didn’t expect the kinds of responses and interest I’ve had to this blogpost, so thanks again to Rachel and Shearim for organizing the evening.
    I’m happy that a discussion has started, including about ways to make the focus on size unacceptable. Rachel, self-image is definitely part of the problem, which is still tied into lookism since women tend to determine their value by how much they are desired by men, a vicious cycle. It’s something Dr. Peyser mentioned in her talk, women’s desire to please at all costs, which comes up in my work as well, a topic I’d like to explore in another post.
    Richard, I think you touched on this, but with a typo when you say in the second paragraph of your comment that “men” are also susceptible to mimetic desire, suspect you meant women. That susceptibility is clearly tied into self-image and self-esteem, and is fed by the unrelenting consumer culture which surrounds all of us, including the orthodox community.
    So I will throw a painful irony out there: that even in those communities which proclaim their fealty to Torah values and a disdain for the values of the larger culture, we see men and women sucked deeply into the vortex of destructive mimetic desire.

  6. Rachel Hershberg says:

    Esther of course you’re right. I was thinking it’s time for a new metaphor, more suited to the more complex needs of the community – instead of a neighborhood (ghetto) with walls up around it, how about something that conveys separate and part of at the same time. I thought of an egg, but it just isn’t exalted enough to go over.

    When I was organizing this event and talking it over with a friend who deals with compulsive over-eating, I told her my suggestion to shower compliments on women’s bodies on them, for boosting self-esteem, making the women more conscious of their (our) inherent beauty. She didn’t like the idea, because she was worried it would just promote the same superficiality that is part of the problem. It made me think of my friends who were beautiful, and suffered from that being the only thing the world thought was important about them, ie., a world that sees the body but ignores the soul. So then my thought was to shower women with (true) compliments about their bodies and neshamas, not necessarily at the same time. In other words, to take the warm, accepting, nurturing environment of She’arim, which focuses on growing the greatness of each individual, and bring it into the wider world. “You, friend Plonit, are such an inspiration to me because of the way you abc. Plus you have nice skin.”

    I don’t have a website yet. 🙂 But would welcome suggestions.

    Public opinions do change, with the efforts of people to whom it matters, effort, time, and siyata d’shamaya. I’d love to see articles in the Jewish women’s mags – “Building Women’s Greatness, through specific actions xyz.” Although really, they’re already doing that stuff, albeit not as directly.

    Richard, do you have the book? Could I borrow it?

    Rachel

  7. SE says:

    i wonder. if someone is looking for thin, that is his prerogative. everyone has quirks that will make them happy, and they are entitled to their quirks. and if thinness/looks is one of them, then so be it. who am i to judge?
    if this man is interested in a certain girl and i want to make the match, then shouldnt i just answer the question he asks which will further the shidduch, rather than trying to ‘solve world peace’?

  8. Rachel Hershberg says:

    SE – no, you are also obligated to be concerned with world peace. The Torah demands that we think of problems that are community-wide. If you won’t, who will? It would be a sad world if we didn’t take responsibility for preventing pain of those outside the room.

    We’re not talking about a man who prefers thin – of course every guy has what he needs and wants in a shidduch. Rather, we’re talking about overfocus on looks, unrealistic, Hollywood-influenced definitions of beauty, and inflexibility in approaching shidduchim. How important should being thin be?

    The people I know involved in chinuch and shidduchim describe this as a makah plaguing the Jewish world, the “size 4 phenomenon.” They’re talking about something beyond quirks.

  9. shaananlaw says:

    SE – yes, continuing what Rachel said, one of the things Dr. Peyser said in her talk was that we are confronting a phenomenon that I would call the “size 0, 2, 4” phenomenon, something we didn’t see 10=15 years ago, so we have a major health and mental health problem. I do feel we need to confront this as a community, since it’s not simply a question of accommodating people’s quirks. Further it exacerbates what has come to be known as the shidduch crisis, and finally, as both Dr. Twerski and Rabbi Weinreb point out in the movie (and maybe others as well) this trend is a perversion of Jewish values.
    Rachel, re: your comment that we should be writing about other ways women can be great Jewish women, I have this feeling that those articles are out there, and what it has led to is a tremendous sense of heavy expectations on women who in any case, work very hard, and often do above and beyond.
    Or, as a woman put it very succinctly at a conference I attended many years ago of Jewish outreach professionals, “the women are expected to look like Marilyn Monroe and act like Sarah Schenirer.” I’m afraid of more articles about Jewish super-women because I feel that there are already enough women out there who feel like if they are not taking in five orphans, cooking shabbos food for ten neighbors and making sheva brachos for another eight couples, they are not up to par. I know, I’m exaggerating, but I’d like to see us all give ourselves a break; we’re all working hard and we’re all doing our best. Let’s appreciate that.
    Sorry if this sounds like a rant, it’s not meant to.

  10. Rachel Hershberg says:

    Esther – yes I know what you’re talking about, I think of it as the Eshet Chayil syndrome. I’m not talking about articles that profile “amazing” women, but articles that provide tips and hashkafas on how support them (us). Meaning, can we develop a language of positive body- and neshama- image that we can learn ourselves and teach others? There’s been a huge societal change in awareness of lashon hara, and that’s made the world a better place. How to do our end of helping change the way women talk and think about ourselves, in this thread about our bodies?

    This issue also ties in with the conformity issue, as your friend alluded to – unattainable, cookie-cutter “beauty.” What about individuality?

  11. Pingback: Angry Brides | The Missing Peace

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