My aunt tore three ligaments in her knee after fainting in a yoga class. She laughed when she told me this story over lox and bagels, explaining how she biked seven miles to class on an empty stomach at 6am, only to faint in warrior two ten minutes later.
Beneath my family’s devotion to exercise, is an obsession with food and body size. The highest praise from my grandparents is “You’ve lost weight!” From this, I learned a thin body is a badge of honor to one’s devotion to exercise and working out a requirement to counteract the lures of food. Naturally, I hated exercise and suffered through my family’s endless all-day hikes and ski trips; but at night, I found my sweet rebellion by dumping fistfuls of sugar into orange juice as the glee and danger of fructose coursed through my veins.
Pilgrimages to the YMCA, snow-capped mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and fiendishly early yoga classes are the default plans when the three generations of my Jewish family get together.
Unsolicited opinions from others about body weight and food choices are common, if not routine, for many individuals socialized as women. These issues are particularly complicated for Jewish folks. Food is an enormous part of our culture and the way that we show affection. In an article for Jewish Boston, Corinne Engber describes how in some families, “cooking is seen as love,” while “have you eaten?” is a term of affection. In fact, for many, “offering advice about how to avoid getting fat is also seen as love.”
Rules regarding what to eat, how much to eat, and when not to eat are woven into Jewish holidays and rituals like Yom Kippur and kosherism. Strict religious food rules coupled with the valorization of thinness fertilize a breeding ground for body image issues, particularly for Jewish women. Early studies exploring the link between eating disorders and Judaism show inconclusive results, but a recent study found that Jewish girls reported more eating disorder symptoms than the non-Jewish girls, even after controlling for BMI.
Ancestry also provides some insight into the relationship between body image and religion. When I interviewed folks for this piece, a few descendants of Holocaust survivors described to me how their grandparents stocked freezers to the brim and pawned off endless leftovers, while different forms of disordered eating rippled throughout generations. While generational differences (and changes in beauty standards) alter the way that disordered eating manifests in Jewish communities, the dual presence of food as a mechanism for care taking and tool for bodily surveillance creates at best, a fragile relationship between food and exercise.
In my own experience, the road to a disordered relationship with food and exercise was paved with well-intentioned comments about my appearance and eating habits that ushered me into the cult of feminine restriction. Detaching my appearance from my sense of self worth felt like an impossible feminist task as a high schooler. My hatred of rules and strong gag reflex never allowed for a full-fledged eating disorder; but I vacillated between intense shame and hedonistic rebellion, as constant comments about the S curve of my stomach led to half heart push ups followed by fistfuls of cake. The glory of Jewish baked goods and early morning hikes comprised my fondest memories of my family— but the surveillance that I was taught to regard my eating and exercise made it almost impossible to fully enjoy either.
In college, I considered myself a devout feminist, wholly embracing the concept of body positivity, which encourages the celebration of bodies at all sizes. Yet I secretly harbored a distinctly unfeminist hatred of my stomach, and wondered thinking myself way into self love lead to full-fledged body acceptance? I stared at myself in the mirror and made a list of the things that I liked about my body, but attempting to cultivate a sense of self love, I further instilled an obsession with how my body looked. I wondered, was it even possible to undo decades of messaging to have a positive appearance with one’s body, or better yet, to not even think about it?
Years later, I broke up with someone, and entered uncharted territories of emotional pain, so I decided to tempt the fates of physical torture, and put my name in a drawing for a half marathon. I promptly forgot about it until my name was drawn months later. I’d run six miles before. I didn’t think that a half marathon would be that different. Turns out, training your joints to withstand slamming against the pavement for thirteen miles is much harder than for six. I quickly realized that the only way I could withstand half marathon training was to ground my voluntary masochism in a higher power.
So I turned to Judaism.
Running taught me to balance chesed (kindness) and gevurha (judgment). I learned how to challenge my limits without risking, to be frank, shitting myself and fainting on a public sidewalk. In Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, we read that the soul is a guest to the body and that care of the body is deemed a commandment. No longer was my body a physical manifestation of my devotion to “exercise” and “healthy eating.” I started to consider the physical agony of running not as a punishment for eating too much, but as a way to tend to my vessel, my soul’s house. The prayer Asher Yatzar is the thanks giving to the functions of one’s body. So that prayer taught me that instead of being grateful for things like the appearance of my calves, I felt admiration and absolute awe and respect for my body’s ability to continue in the months I trained.
One night, after nine miles in the rain, I collapsed in the mud. I noticed that I wasn’t bombarded by my usual mirage of exercise-to-calorie- to-weight calculations after working out. Instead, I listened to my lungs push oxygen throughout my body and noticed my shins twinge as rain dripped into my mouth. I laid in the wet grass. In my self-inflicted agony on my quest for greater fulfillment, I felt distinctly Jewish as I entered a realm of sweaty transcendence, a divine appreciation for the function of my body as opposed to its appearance.
One criticism of body positivity is that it places an emphasis on finding joy in one’s appearance, as opposed to body neutrality, a relatively new concept which encourages an appreciation for the mere function and existence of the human body. In my search for peace, I realized that aspects of Judaism inherently encourage a mindful and neutral relationship to the body.
While I don’t know if I’ll ever be fully free of bodily insecurity, I do think that approaching excercise from a Jewish perspective is an inherently feminist act. It encourages us to view the body as miraculous in its neutrality, sublime in its mere existence.
Hannah Meyer is a freelance writer and playwright based in New York.