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

A plated bagel with lox, and cream cheese.

Image courtesy of flickr user Stu Spivack.

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.

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Interesting. I also wonder how geography ties into this. I know my mother's crazy-ish relationship to food was really nurtured by growing up on Long Island in the fifties. Some of it came from her mother, for sure, and some of it was just part of the zeitgeist. I do have to say, as regulated and judgmental as my mother could be about food, she was also all about abundance and nurturing us with foods we loved. In fact, she used to have anxiety dreams about having dinner parties and running out of food.

I grew up with an atheist Jewish mother (of 1930s Communist parents) and rather than try to stuff us at any point, she was weight (and beauty) obsessed, perhaps as a rebellion to the bubbe phenomenon. A former anorexic, she had rules about how much a woman should weigh for every inch over 5 feet (4 pounds!) and dreamed of having a waist like Audrey Hepburn. To a certain degree there is a balancing factor in offspring seeking moderation after being raised in a gluttonous family (who were reacting to having been raised in, but rising out of, extreme poverty) but this is also dangerously mixed with American perfectionist ideas of beauty. These days, with so much healthy food and information about nutrition and the mental repercussions of it (of too many refined carbohydrates, for ex) hopefully what we crave is more about how food makes us feel.

I can't say I have much experience with that "eat, eat" stereotype. I vaguely remember my father's mother making a big table of food and serving with pride, but for the most part the focus was on dieting. Particularly for me, as a fat child, withholding food was my common experience. I really can't say whether it had to do with our heritage, Certainly it was important for girls to be pretty, but I think that goes on in most cultures. We were not religious Jews, but we were definitely Jews. Though I never "looked that Jewish." I don't have a big nose, just a big body. I can recall that more of my Jewish friend's mothers were inclined to be dieting, or talk to their girls about dieting. I went to "fat camp" for two summers and there were definitively a lot of Jews relatively speaking. That I think is where I saw the most significant sign that Jews were more concerned with thinness. There were a lot of Jews at fat camp, for sure. Now, as a writer about fat and weight, I have interviewed hundreds of people on the subject of childhood, and fat as an issue seems to cross all cultural, ethnic, and religious lines.

In reply to by Rebecca Jane W…

Rebecca. Do you think there are distinctive cultural flavors to the particular relationship to bodies? Do you think assimilation has something to do with it?

In reply to by sarah yahm

I can't answer that with authority, but it certainly seems so. Generally speaking, different cultures view bodies differently. But cultural differences are less strong than they used to be before the constant access to everything from everywhere. The whole world is assimilating into one pop cultural image, which is non-ethnic and non-fat. Eventually those who embrace cultural differences will be rebels. That is already true in the fat-acceptance world. Not only are these people viewed as rebels, but perceived as delusional, dangerous, and pathetic, when in reality they are merely embracing certain cultural perceptions that were once considered valid.

Yes, I definitely experienced that tension, although I can't think of any specific stories. I grew up in a family that loved and valued good food, and special occasions often had special meals at their heart. Yet, we were all judged if we ate what was considered too much. My mother loved making decadent desserts, but was disparaging if we ate more of them she thought we should. We were supposed to enjoy food heartily, yet somehow never cross some invisible line.

Its tough as a mother because I feel like making sure the small human eats is my job (although its easier if I see it as my job to provide food, and their job to eat) and its also my job to make sure the small human isn't overweight. And its my job not to give a confusing eat/don't eat message. And I want to role model being body positive....but I don't want to be fat and for all the wrong reasons because you CAN be fat and healthy so what's left for reasons?

A number of the women in my family have taken to the Overeaters Anonymous perspective and program; viewing their relationship with food as a disease to be treated. As someone at the younger end of the lineage, I really resent being made to feel as though my body which mimics theirs in appearance is something in need of a remedy or that it is a problem. Growing up and seeing how unhappy the role models in my life have been with thier zaftig bodies and the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle disapproval or "concern" for my zaftig body has most definitiely contributed to the self-deprecating dialogue that invades my thoughts and dissentegrates my sense of self-worth. Such an interesting perspective and something I have considered for a long time, I'm glad to see this conversation being brought to the light of day.

In reply to by Lucy

The Overeater's Anonymous point is an interesting one, but I think it's important to separate that out from something like Jenny Craig or WeightWatchers. While OA certainly has the stereotype of being a weight loss organization, it's actually much more about addressing the unhealthy power food can hold over certain people's lives and minds. In most cases, we're not talking about people who are just looking to lose a few pounds. We're talking about people who have an addictive reaction to appetite fulfillment. People who lose sleep thinking about what they want to eat for lunch tomorrow or what they ate for lunch today. For some people, addressing a disordered and obsessive relationship to food can result in calorie reduction and weight lose (No, I don't NEED to eat a tube of Pringles every time I feel stressed), but just as often, it means freeing people from the obsessive calorie counting that the author describes in her mother (6 almonds, NOT 7). It's about talking through traumatic food experiences, processing through the shame and learning to set that trauma aside. Certainly most of the trauma comes from our culture, but OA itself can be a safe haven from, not necessarily an agent of, mainstream fat-shaming. I guess what I'm saying is that OA isn't pathologizing our relationship to food, it is addressing a "disordered" relationship to food that is the result of other, more pernicious cultural influences.

In reply to by Dmelkins

Also, the sorts of disordered food dynamics I'm talking about aren't just about whether or not to eat some chips. I know someone who cannot sleep if he doesn't get out of bed and run out and buy the snack he's craving. I know someone who will spend 12 hours (!!!) fantasizing about what kind of Starbucks latte to buy and then shame herself for buying it. I know someone, a thin 20-somethings man, who would drive one town over to buy 2 Safeway sheet cakes and eat them in the parking lot. All of these people went to OA to address the painful, obsessive, disordered relationship to food that was consuming their mental energy in a painful and disruptive way.

BTW, I totally agree with your general point! I don't mean to pile on. I just want to assert that it's possible to be body positive while still recognizing that some people are tortured by their relationship to food and not just as a means to weight lose. Weight lose is in there, CERTAINLY, but so is addiction and obsession.

In reply to by Dmelkins

Right. I think all this just speaks to the fact that as a culture we have an intensely disordered relationship to food. It would be great if we could accept that our external bodies are often not the best signifiers of our internal thoughts/beliefs/neuroses/desires about food.

In reply to by Lucy

Right. It's so hard to remain body positive when you're surrounded by people with similar bodies who are really body negative!

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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 April 20, 2024) <>.