October is host to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Love Your Body Day (Oct. 21st), and now Fat Talk Free Week. Beginning Oct. 19th, Fat Talk Free Week challenges us to stop "Fat Talk", defined as "all of the statements made in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women's dissatisfaction with their bodies. Examples of Fat Talk include: "I'm so fat," "Do I look fat in this?", "I need to lose 10 pounds" and "She's too fat to be wearing that swimsuit." Statements that are considered Fat Talk don't necessarily have to be negative; they can seem positive yet reinforce the need to be thin — "You look great! Have you lost weight?"
Does any of this sound familiar?
I just discovered the concept of "fat talk," and it was revealing to see something so familiar and so ubiquitous identified in this way. American Jewish women have a complex relationship with beauty and body image, and this week seems to be the right time to continue some of those discussions.
Last week, I wrote about Cravings: Songs of Hunger and Satisfaction, a cabaret about food, love, ambition and nourishment set in a Jewish kitchen. Cravings deals with the idea of food as metaphor in Jewish culture. Hearing "food is love" often elicits warm and fuzzy feelings of family and tradition, but it can also trigger some of the food and body issues Jewish women face living in "thin and blonde" America. And if America isn't "thin and blonde," the representations we see in the media certainly are. See the recent buzz over model Filippa Hamilton (fired for being overweight at 120 lbs), and Tablet's piece on why Jewish men in Hollywood chose to make the "shiksa goddess" the perpetual love interest of male Jewish leads. While the "Aryan ideal" has driven many Jewish women to rhinoplasty, the quest for thinness has led to much more dangerous consequences.
According to MyJewishLearning, research does not support the claim that Jewish women experience higher rates of anorexia and bulimia than other groups. However, eating disorders seem to hit hardest in upwardly mobile demographics, and are undoubtedly some of the most serious issues affecting young Jewish women. The unique combination of Jewish and American cultural expectations for women unfortunately seem to culminate in an environment that encourages or supports eating disorders.
Jewish culture is a food culture. Food is the central element of our holidays, celebrations, and life cycle events. It is the most tangible element of tradition and memory and informs our ideas of nourishment, satisfaction, success, safety, and love. In Jewish families, food is love and feeding your children is a way to show your love. But success is also part of Jewish culture, and Jewish parents are known to put pressure on their children to achieve, even to achieve perfection. When you factor in the pressure of assimilation and the "blonde and thin" American ideal of beauty, it's no surprise that eating disorders develop as a way to cope with the conflicting pressures to eat, to be thin, to assimilate, and to be the perfect Jewish daughter.
The Jewish community and Jewish individuals have made important strides to combat this problem. Hilde Bruch was one of the leading authorities on emotional problems related to eating. Her collected work Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Person Within (1973) is considered the definitive work on this subject. Catherine Steiner-Adair is a clinical psychologist, school consultant, author, and teacher whose professional life is devoted to clinical work and research in the areas of girls’ development and understanding, treating, and preventing eating disorders. Steiner-Adair contributed to Jewish Women's Archive Feminism exhibit by co-authoring the introduction to a curriculum for middle school girls called Full of Ourselves: Advancing Girl Power, Health and Leadership – A program promoting body and self esteem and the prevention of eating disorders. My Jewish Learning has more information about steps taken by the Jewish community to combat eating disorders in recent years.
We can and should help by supporting organizations that work to combat eating disorders in the Jewish community, but the message of Fat Talk Free Week is that the fight starts at home. As Jewish women we must take responsibility for the mixed messages that we send to our daughters and granddaughters about food, beauty, and body image.
We must stop using "have you lost weight?" as a compliment. We must stop pushing food on our loved ones one day and saying, "You're going to eat that?" the next. We must practice healthy eating habits ourselves so that our daughters can grow up with a model other than the perpetual yo-yo between dieting and holiday binging. We must stop complaining about our thighs and noses, and convince ourselves that it is okay to "look Jewish."
We must confront our own body image and food issues and realize that by healing ourselves, we can heal the Jewish women of future generations. So this week, sign the pledge, and promise to avoid "fat talk."