If You Have an Eating Disorder, You're Not Alone

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Content warning: This piece contains descriptions of disordered eating. 

I can still remember the look my dentist gave me, gentle and kind, as she quietly asked me how often I was throwing up. I can still feel how my heart jumped into my throat as I realized that the worn enamel on my teeth was telling the story I tried so hard to keep secret. I can still hear the hygienist whispering by the computer about contacting my primary care doctor. It was the first time someone confronted me with the evidence that my body held onto: I was struggling with disordered eating.

Like most eating disorders, it started out small and innocuous. I would wave away toppings and sides to cut down on calories. I would complain that my stomach was sensitive, so I had to watch the fat content and salt levels in my food. I would take advantage of my natural inclination to eat slowly, so nobody would notice if I discarded half of what was on my plate. 

But like most eating disorders, it spiraled and darkened as time went on. With every escalation, I tried to keep quiet. Some of the most difficult times  were around family gatherings, when kitchens seemed to overflow with food and whole conversations centered around what everyone chose to load onto their plates.

Holidays can provide a great reason for friends and family to come together. Can you think of a single holiday, whether a religious occasion or a secular celebration, in which food doesn’t play a foundational role? In Judaism, there are beautiful and abundant traditions for preparing, cooking, and eating food. Crisp apples dripping with sweet honey; tender, slow-roasted brisket; warm, soft challah; latkes piled with sour cream or applesauce; or even bagels, lox, and cream cheese. Entire rituals revolve around food, whether we’re eating or fasting; Yom Kippur centers on completely abstaining from food and drink for 25 hours, and Tisha b’Av is another major fast day, considered the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

When food is central to a celebration, but also to your most painful secrets, where does that leave you?

In the United States, approximately 28.8 million people—9% of the population—will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, and women are affected at about twice the rate of men. While the gender disparity is not fully understood, research shows that girls and women are more likely to exhibit certain disordered eating behaviors, such as purging and excessive dieting to control weight. One study suggested that factors like a family history of eating concerns, teasing from peers, and sociocultural influences on body satisfaction may contribute to preadolescent girls’ drive for thinness. As early as first grade, 42% of girls want to be thinner. But the impact of eating disorders is widespread and pervasive: Among 10-year-old children of all genders, 81% report being afraid of being fat. Eating disorders also often occur together with anxiety disorders. 

Within Jewish communities, there is increasing awareness of how prevalent and devastating eating disorders can be. It seems that every Jewish woman has an anecdote about a family member or friend struggling with an eating disorder.

Jewish leaders, educators, and organizations have developed communal responses to the  problem of body image and disordered eating, with an emphasis on fostering healthy and positive Jewish identities. One such initiative, a program called Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing was established by The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in collaboration with the KOLOT Center for Jewish Women and Gender Studies. It strives to encourage Jewish girls and women to form loving relationships with their bodies as sources of wisdom, creativity, and pleasure. The Jewish Women’s Foundation (JWF) of New York has also supported educational programs in Jewish day schools, using current research about early intervention and helping girls combat negative body image and unhealthy cultural norms. 

Raising awareness around eating disorders and encouraging healthy body image are wonderful. But like many young women who develop these illnesses, I had seen and heard all of these messages before, and I still struggled. Rates of eating disorders are not declining, and misconceptions persist about what eating disorders look like and who they affect. For example, contrary to what you might think, only 6% of patients diagnosed with an eating disorder present as underweight. Disordered eating regularly occurs in people who are “average” weight or “overweight,” but these people are half as likely to have their eating disorder diagnosed as their underweight peers. On a recent NPR program, licensed clinical social worker Shira Rosenbluth discussed how, despite having similar psychological symptoms to underweight patients with anorexia, larger patients have more difficulty accessing proper treatment and are praised by healthcare providers for restricting food intake and losing weight, even when they express dangerous thoughts and behaviors. Shira, who practices in New York, emphasizes a weight-inclusive approach to helping patients with eating disorders. 

Many factors contribute to the development of eating disorders, including genetics, psychology, and social conditions. Family members and friends who are informed and supportive can be a recovering patient’s strongest ally in their most difficult struggles, including large gatherings and social situations where there is pressure to appear healthy and happy and engage in the expected activities. Knowing what's helpful and what's harmful can make a significant difference in the lives of people who are battling eating disorders. According to the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, here are some key steps you can take if you are supporting someone in eating disorder recovery:

 

  • Encourage treatment from professional and specialized providers.
  • Learn about eating disorders from reliable sources.
  • Validate your loved one’s feelings and express concern using “I” statements (e.g., “I’m worried you’re going to be hurt” as opposed to “You’re hurting yourself,” which can be seen as accusatory).
  • Don’t attempt to “fix” the problem yourself.
  • Avoid making comments about your loved one’s weight, physical appearance, and food intake. Steer away from body talk or jokes that frame fatness as a negative condition, (e.g., “You should wear that dress because it makes you look thinner” or “I ate so many latkes over Hanukkah, I’m going to need another fast day.”)
  • If applicable and appropriate, remind your loved one that the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (prioritizing life and health) commands us to set aside laws that endanger one’s health and safety; if fasting would be detrimental to their physical, emotional, and/or mental well-being, they must not fast, and they need not atone for being unable to fast.

For me, part of the healing process involved reframing the way I thought of and looked at my body, and how I understood my value as a person. Recovery is not perfect, but it is possible. The Renfrew Center, a holistic treatment program that uses evidence-based models tailored for patients of marginalized genders, offers a program option centered on Judaism and refuat hanefesh (healing of the whole person and spirit), including kosher meals and Jewish-based explorations of family tradition, body image, and perfectionism.

It is now January, and we are once again bombarded with messages of “improving” our bodies in the new year. And we internalize these messages: the top three New Year’s resolutions made for 2023 were exercising more, eating healthier, and losing weight. For people with eating disorders in our pasts and presents, it can be one of the hardest times to look to the future with hope and love for ourselves. If you’re struggling, know that you're not alone. You don't have to suffer in silence. There are resources that can help you figure out what questions to  ask and where to seek guidance. If you’re on your path to healing, remember that recovery isn't linear. On my path, 2022 was the most difficult year in a long time. Sometimes, recovery drags its feet, fighting to remain upright and keep its eyes open against the cold and rain. But other times, recovery sprints ahead, spreading its arms wide and laughing into the sunrise. Keep going—you’ll get there.

 

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How to cite this page

Barthold, Emma. "If You Have an Eating Disorder, You're Not Alone." 3 January 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/eating-disorders-jewish-community>.

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