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Eating Disorders in the Orthodox Jewish Community

Contradictory demands on women may result in disordered eating.

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, 2/23 - 3/1, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action is publishing a three part series on disordered eating; each post offers a very different perspective. This is the second of the series from the Eating Disorders, Compulsions and Addictions Service at the William Alanson White Institute.

By Caryn Gorden, Psy. D.

Eating disorders among Orthodox Jewish females are a major and continuous cause for concern—there is increasing awareness and greater numbers of women seeking treatment. The eating disorders of observant Jewish women and teens are both the same as and different than those in the larger Jewish or general population.

Cultural Difference

So what distinguishes eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish population? Unique cultural and religious elements. These factors include: the mixed and contradictory obligations embedded in the religion, the importance of food, the significance of family and the shidduch (matchmaking) phenomenon.

Mixed messages and incompatible expectations

Nothing intrinsic to Orthodox Judaism causes an eating disorder. However, incompatible demands to observe a traditional, spiritual way of life, while functioning in a modern, secular world may put certain women at risk.

For example, Jews are taught to celebrate and take pleasure in their bodies, yet many restrictions regulating this enjoyment and send another message. There are laws dictating the modest clothing women are permitted to wear, married women must cover their hair when in public, and women are allowed only limited contact with men, including their husbands. The observant female’s attempt to reconcile these contradictory imperatives can catalyze the body shame and sexual discomfort that often underlie eating disorders.

Perfectionism and Desperation

Jews value education, as well as professional and economic achievement, all of which can lead to greater contact with secular culture. But Orthodoxy privileges traditional gender expectations: a good shidduch (marital match), marrying young, having many children, skillful domesticity and physical appeal while in modest dress. How can a woman balance the requirements of secular success with those of significant domestic responsibility?

My patient Elana struggles with this dilemma. A thirty year old high powered attorney and mother of 4, she relentlessly strives to meet the demands of her law firm, while also attending to every detail of her children's lives, preparing large meals for Sabbath company and staying thin and physically desirable. Elana suffers from perfectionism and a belief that she must always be in control. This manifests in her relationship to food—initially Elana restricted herself to eating only “healthy food” but eventually developed full-blown anorexia punctuated by weekly “Sabbath binges.”

Susan, an academically successful seventeen year old, responded to the impossibility of fulfilling both traditional and modern gender roles by silencing herself and protesting against these pressures.  Her anorexia and the related loss of menstruation and fertility were a desperate solution to her problem: In this state, she could not be expected to pursue pre-med at an ivy-league university, while also marrying young and quickly having a large family and home to manage.

Food Has Many Meanings

Food plays a prominent role in Orthodox Jewish life because of its link to religious practices. It is a source of joy, embedded in many familial and communal traditions and rituals such as the Sabbath and holiday meals. Yet there are many rules surrounding food such as Kashrut (keeping kosher), blessings before and after meals and fast days.

Food's distinct role in Orthodox Judaism makes it a prime vehicle for playing out unspoken conflicts and confusion.  The religious regulations that demand strict observance can serve as scaffolding for the rigidity, control and deprivation characterizing restrictive anorectic eating

The shidduch may generate body image dissatisfaction

The importance of making a good shidduch shapes the lives and timelines of many young women. The trend is to date briefly prior to an engagement, quickly marry and then begin having many children. The common underexposure to the opposite sex can result in fear and an avoidance of physical intimacy. Eating disorders, however, can “solve” the problem: the loss of fertility consequent to Anorexia can make a young woman undesirable and unable to make a shidduch.

The shidduch process has morphed, for some, into a shopping expedition with a list of attributes the man is expecting in a potential mate; the “shidduch resume” has become commonplace.

My patient Sarah was nonplussed when Jonathan’s mother asked her matchmaker what size dress Sarah wore and even, “What size does Sarah’s mother wear?” suggesting that anything larger than a size 4 might lower Sarah’s chances to marry her son.  The pressure to make a good shidduch, and overvaluing a thin bride, can objectify young women and foster body dissatisfaction, that may further the development of an eating disorder.

How can we respond to cultural shifts and collisions?

As Jewish Orthodoxy continues to shift to the right, modern technology and globalization is infiltrating and impacting every aspect of daily life. This consequent collision of traditional and modern culture presents young women with irreconcilable demands. Mixed messages regarding body image and gender role expectations have increased women’s conflicts and the desperation of their solutions.

It is important to consider eating disorders in the context of cultural/religious factors, while continuing to look at unique biological and psychological issues. As cultural shifts are clearly beyond our control, it is essential to focus effort on ways to broaden and redefine individual female identity and role expectation. By doing so, we can provide women with greater freedom to access their desire, and make choices about how they want to live.

Caryn Gorden, Psy. D., is a faculty member and supervisor at the Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies and a visiting faculty member at the of the William Alanson White Institute. She teaches, lectures and writes about eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish population and the intergenerational transmission of trauma.