Eating disorders shmeating disorders!

In the Jewish community, there has been a tendency to think we're immune from societal problems like addiction, domestic violence, and eating disorders. This makes dealing with their realities (which of course do affect Jews) even harder. This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, so it seems like a good opportunity to reflect on some of our misconceptions around the issues (not least the idea that Jews are immune; if anything we have one of the most complicated relationships with food I can think of!)

Most of us probably think we know what an eating disorder is... but our dominant ideas are not necessarily the biggest problems; B-EAT (Beat Eating disorders who are promoting the week) write: "We held a vox pop – asked the general public if they could name a type of eating disorder. 72% said anorexia. Only 3% said binge eating. Yet anorexia is the rarest eating disorder, only 10% of cases. We asked people if they could tell if someone has an eating disorder. Half said ‘Yes, they could’. People said they would be very thin but
most people with eating disorders won’t be underweight at all. Over 80% of people with an eating disorder are overweight."

B-EAT also suggest that the media has a lot to answer for. I think we're all aware of how the media presents men and women with idealised images of physical beauty that help create self-loathing and images of perfection that people go to awful lengths to achieve. But according to B-EAT, the media has improved on it's written reporting of eating disorders, (one example from the JC last year:  while continuing to get the presentation of the problem wrong, indeed exacerbating the issue with emaciated pictures which only represent part of the story, while for anorexics the pictures are even more complicated and painful:

“They make me want to be like the anorexic girl I was again. It makes me want
to compete with the person and become thinner than them, or it makes me
beat myself up because I'm not like that anymore. “
“They make me feel that I must be at least as skinny as the photos they show
before I can be considered as ill and deserving of help.”

 You can read more about their report on media presentations of eating disorders in my google documents (

And what about within the Jewish community, where food is the focus of so much communal life? One friend who has been on her own journey with these issues wrote to me (and indeed prompted me to write about this): "For those with an eating disorder, Jewish communal life can be a very stressful thing, dietary laws, the centrality of food in our celebrations and what is perceived as an increased pressure to be 'perfect' can all compound things. It is something however that is not age or gender restricted (about 10-20% of sufferers are male and its growing). In our close-knit community, myths such as mothers or families in general being responsible for eating disorders, believing that eating disorders are purely about image, or that its something that 'silly little girls' get, make it particularly hard for families to be open about what they are going through, even more so if the sufferer doesn't meet stereotypes."

In many ways this is a hidden illness and not one we will always be able to spot. Help is out there from all sorts of arenas and sources. One particularly moving resource within the Jewish Community comes from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Women of Reform Judaism: It is entitled "To Nourish Hope" and contains useful articles, prayers and support. Again I've uploaded the document to my google documents:

This week has been designated Eating Disorders Week to help us focus on these issues which are so often kept behind closed doors, and when they are out in the open, leave people feeling misrepresented. When my brother was in rehab I was struck by how eating disorders were treated in the same centre, and with the same 12 steps as drug and alcohol addiction. Ultimately this means that sufferers can't be helped unless they themselves want to heal. But as a Jewish community there is a need to offer greater support and to open a conversation on these issues; acknowledging that behind closed doors families are struggling with this.


  1. So important. Thank you for writing about this. The Jewish community are not immune to any illness, abuse or disorder, even if sometimes we pretend we are. And that pretence can be, as you wrote, a huge barrier to accessing support. Well done Debbie for breaking taboos! Alma

  2. Very interesting article. In my experience more and more people consider anorexia a sickness but obesity just a lack of discipline that you can fix with some veggies and a gym membership...there is so much more to do to raise awareness for these issues and to challenge the publics opinion about them. Very well done in getting the topic out there!

  3. Theres been a resurgence in the coverage of this over the past few weeks after this ( article in the New York Times as the Orthodox community faces up to the challenge.

    Following this a rebetzin called Melissa wrote this piece highlighting some challenging parts of communal life for sufferers and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote this great piece in the Huffington Post

    The London Jewish Cultural Centre is putting on this event in July to discuss eating disorders on a communal level


Post a Comment

Popular Posts