Sunday, March 20, 2005

"I started losing weight, I continued to lose weight, and then I no longer wanted to stop losing weight. Which was fine by me, because May didn't just bring bathing-suit season closer, but it brought my brother's Bar-Mitzvah as well. I designed the outfit I wore and it was custom-made to fit me.
At that point my weight mostly fluctuated between about 112 and 109 pounds. The top I was going to wear to my brother's Bar Mitzvah fit me like a second skin-and it looked best when I weighed 109 pounds. I dieted more stringently than usual and doubled my exercises routine that week. I was down to 107 pounds by the time the weekend rolled around. I remember that when I saw that I weighted 107 pounds I, again, was shocked. Only this time it was a shock with a thrill. The insane control I realized that I had over my hunger and self gave me a false sense of power and that power made me feel good."

I was a scrawny, boney little girl growing up. So when I stopped growing, I didn't realize that I was supposed to start watching my caloric intake. I started gaining weight and didn't even realize. I mean, I noticed that some clothing was a bit tight, but I never realized how tight because when I looked in the mirror I saw me--skinny Dina--not what I really looked like.
It hit me when I stood on the scale one day and saw that I hit two pounds overweight. Now, for someone who never even fit into the weight range allotted to my height group, I was shocked to find that my weight went above it. Something was wrong and I had to fix it. Long story short--it wasn't very long until I pretty much stopped eating.
I wasn't the only girl in my class with an eating disorder, either. My friend Miryam and I sat with our high school yearbook one Shabbos afternoon counting the girls in our class who had either an eating disorder or a "disordered attitude toward eating." Forty girls in my class: about nine girls with eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, excessive dieting) and about twelve girls with disordered attitudes toward eating (as in, girls who wouldn't eat for a month after a holiday because they "gained so much weight, it's scary" or they'd skip a meal because they had three cookies for dessert with lunch). Sometimes we refer to our school as "Manhatta n High School for Girls Who Don't Eat." That means that there were nineteen--nineteen--girls in my class with normal eating habits. (Just to give you an idea of how ridiculous it was, for those of you who know me and Mir, we were both in the top about-five fattest kids in the grade!)
Only half the girls in my class ate well and this is how my school addressed it.
In ninth grade, the principal was giving orientation to the mothers and she mentioned that because girls at Manhattan in the past had eating disorders, she suggests that they provide us with snacks like, for example, we should always have a box of granola bars in our lockers so that we can have a quick something to eat between classes, or something like that. Then, in twelfth grade, a teacher gave us a talk about how when you don't eat properly your body shuts its reproductive system down and that's why many women were not able to have children after the Holocaust. We, as young women, she said, have to take good care of our bodies (she also mentioned that she was telling us all this because she overheard two girls having a conversation that went like this, "You know what I ate today? All I had was a diet coke." "No way! I'm so jealous.").
It used to bother me that we would have bajillions of speakers talk to us about tzanuah, tefillah, tzedakah, etc. and not one speaker about eating disorders. While I know from experience that a girl with anorexia can hear how terrible or dangerous having an eating disorder is and not be effected by it, if there was more education about eating disorders there would be more awareness and more sensitivity in the Jewish community.
Eating disorders are epidemic in the frum community and it's not hard to consider why. Here is my list of possible reasons:
  1. Between running tzedaka campaigns at school, getting straight A's on exams (or at least having that expected of them), and doing chessed outside of school, Jewish girls are driven to become overachieving maniacs (and I say that in the nicest way). Eating disorders are more likely to develop in someone who always expects perfection from herself or himself because it's just another area of control. Control your eating habits and you control your life and its chaos.

  2. (This is for the bit much more frum girls:) While still in high school, many frum Jewish girls have nothing to do with boys and neglect to notice the sexual aspects of their bodies. Because they don't think of themselves as sexual, it oftentimes doesn't even occur to them to take care of their bodies and they just eat what they want and then go off to Israel for a year and continue eating what they want. Then they come home and their mothers freak out that they won't get a shidduch because they are not a size 4 or 2. Excessive dieting ensues.

  3. Frum boys are shomer all their lives. They do not, like their non-shomer counterparts, realize that a girl with no meat is also little fun to touch. Because they also have had minimal contact with girls through out their lives, they get their idea of what an attractive girl is from society. Society says, "curvy is nice, but the thinner the better." Now these boys think that the thinner a girl is the more attractive she is and when it comes to shidduching they only want a thin girl (easily categorized as a "size 2").
    Note: My mother disagreed with me on number three. She thinks that the boys have no idea because their mothers are the ones who say yes or no to shidduch potentials and that it's their mothers who go crazy over the "size 2" kind of girl.

Something else that has fascinated me, aside from my own school's lack of mentioning anything is that the frum community, in all its tzniut concerns teaches you to not only be modest, but to be repressed too. I think, anyway. The first time I ever opened up and said something about my own experiences with having an eating disorder was when I was already at Hunter in Spring '04. I had to write a "gender autobiography," or, personal essay about something about me that is directly related to my gender, race, ethnicity, or religion for my Women's Studies class. It shocked me, when I was done writing, that had I been in high school, where even my poem about running in Central Park was censored for the school literary journal (because it wasn't tzanua to get an image of a girl running--which I took to mean my poem was so good you really saw it!), I would never have written something so frank and honest. As a matter of fact, excluding that one talk we got from our teacher in twelfth grade, there was no mention of eating disorders ever.
Once, I was eating a salad for lunch and a piece of lettuce fell onto the floor. "Oh no, Dina, there goes half your lunch." My friend said and she and I and all the other girls around us laughed really hard because at that point the fact that I barely ate was a joke to us.
Everyone knows that eating disorders are serious. Everyone knows that an eating disorder can result in death, amenorrhea, a screwed up digestive system for the rest of your life, ulcers, and many other not such fun things. But when you don't even mention that it's a prevalent issue you're only creating a breeding ground for this viral epidemic.
If you aren't familiar with Mishpacha magazine, it is a very right-wing, big time-chareidi magazine. This week's cover said:
Anorexia.
Bulimia.
"Dieting."
There are MANY names for eating disorders, but only TWO possible outcomes: Life or Death.
I just have to say that I was in part thrilled that something within the very frum community was written on the matter and in part sickened that it's taken this long for mention to be made. But yasher koach to them.

3 Shpeils

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have not read the article in “Mishpacha” that you refer to, however, I wanted to say that I agree with you very strongly that the issue of eating disorders is not addressed properly in the frum community. I think that it is very important to bring to light the reality of this condition among frum girls as well as its severity. I think that the attitudes of the frum community with regard to eating disorders is not unique to eating disorders, but rather a reflection of the communities unwillingness to acknowledge that problems do exist in our sheltered little communities and that they will not go away if we ignore them. I think that this way of thinking is evident in the reaction of the community to mental disability and several other things as well. It is my belief that the frum community needs to undergo a major change in the way that we think. When this does occur on a community wide level the problems that we are discussing now will not be hidden and denied but can be dealt with more effectively and without embarrassment. Anyway, as it stands I just wanted to thank you for bringing up this topic and I am glad to see that Jewish publications are beginning to discuss them seriously.

Sunday, March 20, 2005 1:25:00 AM  

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Blogger editor said...

I occasionally do a google search to see if there are any posts about mishpacha, and i saw yours. I lost a lot of sleep when I made that cover. I had no idea how it was going to be received. If at least one reader thought it worthy, than it was worth my REM. Big time and right wing as we seem to be, we are just regular Jewish people looking to make a difference. If there are any other issues you think we should know about, you can let us know. ps I am an alumna of Hunter and got my start in journalism in Thomas Hunter Hall. You can accomplish anything you want -- just don't m'vater. --mishpacha magazine

Wednesday, March 23, 2005 6:22:00 AM  

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is soo scary. I knew that girls in the frum community were skinny, but I didn't realize what the price was. It also didn't dawn on me that it wasn't necessarily natural. I want to marry a girl who is healthy, not skinny. Shkoiach for publishing that.

Monday, May 30, 2005 10:11:00 PM  

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