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Food, Fat, and Feminism: Navigating the Contradictions of Judaism and Food

We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the zaftig Jewish bubbe stuffing her offspring with chicken soup and brisket, shouting, “Eat! Eat! You’re skin and bones.” We love to talk about these mythical kitchens of our childhoods—tables overflowing with kugels and babkas, tsimmus and kneidlach. But for many Jewish women, there was another, more painful, side to this abundance. Our bubbes didn’t just say, “Eat! Eat!” they also said, “Why are you eating so much? You’re getting fat!” I don’t think this contradiction is unique to Judaism, but I do think there’s a distinctive cultural spin to this schizophrenic relationship to food. And considering the prevalence of eating disorders, if there are cultural roots, we need to weed them out.

In his book Making the Body Beautiful, historian Sander Gilman teases out the relationship between Judaism and plastic surgery at the turn of the century—chronicling the history of Jewish nose jobs and boob jobs. He argues that Jews tried to climb the socio-economic ladder by literally changing their bodies, making themselves svelter, more streamlined, WASPier. Gilman tells the story of one woman who, after seeing her new nose, expressed relief that now her children wouldn’t be burdened with a Jewish schnozz. Of course genetics doesn’t work that way, but cultural transmission does. We can’t keep our children from having Jewish schnozzes, but if we scare them enough we can, maybe, make them skinny.

I was thinking about Sander Gilman when I heard Lily Myer’s poem “Shrinking Women” on WBUR last week. One line stuck with me all day: “and I wondered if my lineage is one of women shrinking…women in my family have been shrinking for decades. We all learned it from each other the way each generation taught the next one how to knit…” My lineage has certainly been one of shrinking women. My mother used to count out the number of almonds she could eat at night before bed. (In case you’re curious, 6 was the magic number.) She learned this fear of fat on Long Island in the fifties—the land of the nose job, the girdle, and the assimilated, successful Jew.

So what are your stories about Judaism and fat? What is your lineage of body hate and body acceptance? Did you also grow up navigating the contradiction of “Eat!/Don’t Eat!”? We’d love to hear your stories and then post them on our blog, creating a long overdue conversation between Jewish women about our relationships to food and each other.

How to cite this page

Yahm, Sarah. "Food, Fat, and Feminism: Navigating the Contradictions of Judaism and Food." 3 February 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/food-fat-and-feminism-navigating-contradictions-of-judaism-and-food>.

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