Thursday, January 2, 2014

Blogging the JOFA Conference: Mirror Image: Eating Disorders in the Orthodox Community

This post is part of a series discussing the 2013 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th International Conference of Feminism and Orthodoxy. You can read my notes on this session here.

For the second session of the day, I went to Mirror Image: Eating Disorders in the Orthodox Community. Speaking on this panel were Dr. Esther Altmann, a specialist on eating disorders within the Jewish community, and Professor Yael Latzer, the founder of the Eating Disorders Clinic of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

I was particularly interested in this session because several of friends have struggled with eating disorders. Consequently, even though I have never personally dealt with one, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. I also think it’s important for the sake of women’s welfare at large, as eating disorders are a symptom of a culture that values women’s bodies more than their contributions to the world. It’s a shonda, a shame, an embarrassment, that our society allows them to continue.

When she started off the session, Altmann asked the audience, “Why are eating disorders and religion juxtaposed?” She pointed out that Jews suffer from various mental issues, but only eating disorders are linked to Jewish religion or culture. I’ve pondered this relationship as well, having written an article for The Beacon (also posted on my blog) debunking the idea that halakhot (Jewish laws) like keeping kosher have a direct impact on the development of eating disorders. Obviously, it’s basically impossible to come to any hard and fast conclusions about this issue, as studies disagree if Jewish or Orthodox girls are more likely to have eating disorders than the general public. I do think that it’s important for us to get a better idea of the situation, since we need to understand the reasons behind eating disorders in order to change the culture to benefit women and girls.

However, some culture change can occur without extensive background knowledge of the Jewish community. Altmann emphasized how much of a difference can be made if we just reevaluate our speech patterns and behaviors in regard to eating, dieting, and weight. I never thought about how triggering it could be for someone with an eating disorder to be told by an unwitting friend how great she looks because of her weight loss, or how toxic it is for children to see their mothers constantly dieting and feeling bad about themselves because of weight. The media sends enough negative messages; we don’t need to hear it from the people in our lives as well.

Now that I see the light, I am actively trying to avoid making weight- or dieting-related jokes or comments. However, it’s hard when I hear other people saying things that contribute to the tyranny of slenderness that our culture perpetuates. The Shabbat (Sabbath) after the JOFA conference, I was in a conversation with a woman in her 20s who is looking to get married, and she was bitterly complaining about how much she weighs. I didn’t know how to respond; do I assure her she is thin, or will that just prompt her to continue to put herself down in order to get positive reinforcement? Do I encourage her to view herself as beautiful and disregard societal standards for weight and thinness? It’s a slippery slope, and I don’t know if there’s one response that will work in every situation.

Although both Altmann and Latzer were interesting to hear, arguably the most powerful part of the session was the Q&A session. It was clear that both presenters’ words hit a chord with many of the people in the audience, as many asked their questions in tears, sharing personal stories about their loved ones’ experiences with eating disorders.

It was rather discouraging to hear Altmann say that “the problem [of eating disorders in the Jewish/Orthodox community] hasn’t gotten much better,” but I cling to the hope that the situation will improve, slowly but surely, in the years to come. There is so much more awareness of the issue nowadays, and that awareness is spreading. Although I doubt that my generation will ever be able to benefit from a cultural body-positive revolution, I pray that future women and men will.

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