Hungry to Be Heard – Eating Disorders in the Orthodox Jewish Community – A Project of the Orthodox Union Young Leadership Cabinet
The other day I was listening to a recently recorded episode on Jewish Talk Radio, of The Date Program, hosted by, Baila Sebrow. Sebrow has devoted herself to helping frum singles find their bashert, and has a weekly program discussing the issue. The episode I was listening to featured Rabbi Chananya Weissman, who pioneered efforts to “combat the angst and hardships associated with dating in the religious Jewish community” with his organization, End The Madness.
During the program, Baila Sebrow mentioned that she has observed how single women return home after seminary, only to begin starving themselves to fit the physical requirements that will make them marketable on the shidduch dating scene. Sebrow described the pattern:
“You know it’s interesting…eating disorders…there are girls that are starving themselves. It’s sad and funny at the same time, because the girls feel that they need to be very very skinny, and what’s interesting is the mother’s of the boys want the girls to be very skinny. But, yet, in talking to these boys, that’s not what they’re looking for. And so, when girls come home from seminary, they literally starve themselves, and I see that. I see girls when they first, you know, they, they arrive and it’s just a very short time and they shrink, some of them anyway.”
I think one of the main points of Sebrow’s observation is that having multiple people involved in choosing one’s life partner can have unintended consequences. The consequence here is that women (aka mothers) tend to value slenderness more than men. It’s been said many times that while some men like skinny women, many men also prefer curves. However, in the current beauty culture our women are exposed to, curves are akin to fat – and fat isn’t good. Women worship skinny. In fact, studies have shown that “men prefer a woman that is 10-15 pounds heavier than what the women believed to be the ideal weight that men want.”
When orthodox Jewish mothers are vetting dating prospects for their sons, one of the top checklist items is the woman’s dress size. If it’s anything above a size 4, the prospect will likely be dismissed. This practice has been decried for some time, yet nothing seems to be changing. One person critiqued this low weight requirement on a popular Jewish forum a few years ago:
“Why are mothers teaching their sons to be weary of the dress size of a girl? I find it amazing that mothers have the audacity to ask what size a girl is. Girls who are not “fortunate” enough to have a small build feel like less of a person because of something so superficial and so physical. I know of a girl who was 20 years old. and was overweight. A shadchan redt her a boy who was hashkafically NOT for her, he was divorced, and he had a child from his previous marriage… The shadchan told her that because of her circumstance (being heavier) she would have to compromise… Not only are people not redting these girls to normal boys, but they are also insulting them, degrading them, and offending them.”
While in theory, many folks agreed with the poster, it boiled down to this response by a single bochur:
“Something once happened to a friend of mine from Yeshiva. He asked our Rosh Yeshiva for advice. he was dating a girl. The conversation was great, they were on the same page hashkafically, etc. He had one problem: he didn’t think she was good looking at all. As he told the Rosh Yeshiva, “I could probably talk to her on the phone for hours. Even in person, once the conversation gets going, it’s great. I just don’t like the way she looks!” The Rosh Yeshiva told him to end the shidduch. My friend asked, “Since when do we put such an emphasis on looks?” The Rosh Yeshiva told him that you must be attracted to your wife, or the marriage will never work.”
While the commenter likened being overweight to being unattractive, many men are attracted to average size or larger women. However, if men are given the message that it is not normal to be attracted to anything but a skinny woman, most won’t want to go against that norm by dating someone larger.
Women who have suffered with extreme weight problems are prompted to take drastic measures upon reaching shidduch age. One Chabad woman, Merav Yitzhaki, made the news when she underwent bariatric surgery and lost 205lbs in order to increase her chances of a making a good shidduch:
“at the age of 21, when religious girls start seriously thinking about getting married, she reached the weight of 155 kilos (342 pounds).
“I was warned that I should be thin when I enter the ‘shidduch’ world, so that I could be matched to a good-looking guy. But I had already accepted the fact that I would probably be matched to a fat guy and that’s it.”
But Merav didn’t really accept the situation, and at some point found herself on the operating table at the Assuta hospital, where a ring was adjusted on her stomach to reduce her appetite.
And then, about a year ago, she looked in the mirror and saw a girl weighing 62 kilos (137 pounds) with a lot of excess skin, which used to cover her 155 kilos in the past. “I looked really weird, only in a different way this time,” she says.
In order to look her best and fit into the dating world, Merav was treated by Dr. Tali Friedman, a senior plastic surgeon from the Assia Medical Center in Tel Aviv.
“The problem of obesity is extremely relevant to the haredi-religious sector these days,” says Dr. Friedman. “I have been exposed to many patients from the sector who have undergone weight loss treatments and body shaping. Merav is a very impressive and highly motivated young woman, who has done very well.”
At the end of the treatments, Merav said goodbye to the excess skin as well and finally joined the world of single women and men.”
I don’t know if Merav ever got married. It would be interesting to find an update to see if the surgery helped her achieve her marriage goal.
An insightful piece in Tablet Magazine, called, Orthodox and Anorexic, portrayed Chaya Faigie Jundef, a young woman who began the road to anorexia at the young age of 13:
“like many people who suffer from anorexia, Jundef was an overachiever and a diligent student, a type-A personality. She was valedictorian of both her elementary and high-school class. Her anorexia began innocently enough: a diet, when she was 13 years old. She wanted to lose some weight for her twin brother’s bar mitzvah.
“I got a lot of compliments and I thought that was nice,” she said. “If it looked good to lose some weight, I should probably lose some more. That’s something you’ll hear from everyone who has an eating disorder.
Jundef began restricting what food she ate. She looked a little skinny and fainted twice, but school officials figured it was just because of stress. She also began running. “People thought it was normal I was so exhausted,” she said.
But a routine medical check-up in the 12th grade found otherwise: At 5-foot-3, she weighed 93 pounds. She was officially diagnosed with anorexia, and her doctor recommended a psychiatrist. The diagnosis shocked Jundef and her family. “I was a well-adjusted, happy teenager,” Jundef recalled. “Psychiatrists were for crazy people.””
After being mistreated in various eating disorder programs, Jundef finally found one in Toronto General that worked. However, she was still a long way from being fully recovered. Despite that, at the age of 21, she began shidduch dating:
““The matchmaking world has led to overwhelming pressure,” said Sarah Bateman, a licensed clinical social worker at Renfrew. “Women’s statistics are kept on file by the matchmaker. … The No. 1 question is about women’s size and weight.”
Jundef received a heter, or permission from a rabbi, to wait until she hit a third date with the same young man before telling him about her eating disorder. At the time, Jundef had fully recovered and was pursuing her college degree and teaching full-time.
“It became a lovely cycle of going out with fine young people,” she said. But, “every time they heard about my eating disorder, that was the end of it. … With each ‘no,’ I lost more weight.””
Ironically, the very shidduch system that prizes impossibly thin women, used this very trait against Jundef when the label of “anorexia” was stamped upon it.
The Tablet article also reports that:
“The Orthodox community has begun to grapple openly with eating disorders in recent years. In 2008, the Orthodox Union released a documentary film to be shown in Jewish schools called Hungry To Be Heard, (linked above) about eating disorders among observant Jews. And treatment programs that cater to Orthodox women have opened.
“Now practically everyone knows someone who suffers from an eating disorder,” said Dovid Goldwasser, one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis to deal with eating disorders.”
With all the dangers that come along with starving yourself skinny, why are we, as mothers, demanding such standards of future brides? Why are we creating a shidduch system that encourages eating disorders among our women? These disordered behaviors don’t only last during the single years, and magically disappear upon marriage. We are setting young women up for a lifetime of starving, binging, purging, and abusing diet pills and laxatives. It’s bad enough being exposed to skinny celebrities in the media, some of whom are mothers themselves, and are photographed weeks after giving birth looking as if they’d never been pregnant. Must we, as orthodox women who pride ourselves on holding higher values, subject ourselves to those same standards and scrutiny?
Our girls look to their older sisters and mothers to set examples of healthy eating. If they see mothers who eat healthy foods, exercise on a regular basis, and accept themselves, this is what they will emulate. If they see mothers who restrict their food, exercise excessively, and constantly complain about how fat they are, this is what they will emulate. When young girls hear us criticizing their older sisters about their weight, the amount or type of foods they are consuming, or their level of exercise, this also sends a disturbing message. Average sized girls who have barely hit puberty are starting to restrict foods and use excessive exercise to lose weight their developing bodies sorely need.
The shidduch process starts way before the age of 18 for most girls. They learn lessons about what attributes secure a good shidduch long before they’ve even put together their first resume, or interviewed with that initial shadchan. Our young men are learning these lessons too, when they see their parents prepping their older siblings for dating. We are teaching our children what traits are valuable in shidduchim. Until we, as parents, relearn what’s really important, lives will continue to be devastated as kids strive to meet our impossible expectations.