Listen to this from a college junior when I gave a talk to a group of Jewish women students on eating disorders among Jewish women. “I’m not anorexic or bulimic or anything but if you added up all the time my roommates and I spend talking about what we’ve eaten and what we haven’t eaten, and what we shouldn’t have eaten but couldn’t resist, and what we’re not going to eat the next day, and whether your sweater tucked in or hanging out makes you look fat, it’s like we’re wasting half our lives. Imagine all the other things we could be doing with that energy. We could be remaking the world!”
The time has come for us to talk about the special demons Jewish women fight when it comes to self-esteem and body image. There’s a Jewish spin on body politics.
Jewish women are vulnerable, as all women are right now, to shaping themselves (literally) to the expectations of others—whether men or other women with whom they’re forced to compete. (Dieting together and talking about dieting is both an arena of competition among women and, paradoxically, a means of bonding, Judith Rodin points out in a new book, Body Traps.)
There is an added dimension to the problem for Jewish women. Perfectionism and high achievement seem to be linked to anorexia. Since Jewish women are the best educated women in the United States today, we’ve come to expect that we’ll be able to achieve all our goals—and accomplish them perfectly—if only we work hard and get straight A’s. Many Jewish women have been reared believing in the possibility of perfection. A B+ isn’t good enough, a near-perfect tennis match or dissertation defense or goat-cheese salad isn’t good enough, being a “good enough” parent (the title of two separate child-rearing books) isn’t good enough.
Perfection is hard to achieve, and perfectionism is a risk factor for eating disorders. It’s a hard world out there. You don’t get straight A’s in real life. Self-starvation can give women the illusion of control and accomplishment.
Though it might seem that well-educated women with interesting careers would be less vulnerable than others to an artificial image of “the perfect body,” the risk of developing an eating disorder actually seems to increase for high-powered women. Being able to function well in an environment outside one’s home is no guarantee that one will be any less enslaved by unrealistic ideas of what a woman’s body should look like. Rodin suggests that perfectionism and high achievement put a woman at greater risk, rather than protecting her from preoccupation with her weight.
Part of the Superwoman mystique for Jewish women is that not only are we expected to “make something” of ourselves and to have happy and procreative family lives, but the norm now also includes physical perfection—a decidedly un-Jewish view. And we all collude. People may shy away from descriptions by race (it would be considered impolite to say “she’s the Asian woman; he’s the Black man”) but descriptors based on body image are still very much the fashion. “Oh yes, she’s that big woman with the enormous hips.” Or this, from a woman in her twenties: “I was very, very ill with a problem that took many weeks to diagnose, and I lost about 35 pounds. Friends came up to me and said, ‘You look fabulous! Try to keep that weight off People didn’t even ask me how I was feeling. All they focused on was how thin I’d become from the illness.”
In the wake of encounters like this with young Jewish women on campuses and at summer camp, I’ve taken a vow, and I hope many of LILITH’s readers will join me in keeping it: To make no more mention of weight, size, physical perfections or imperfections when I greet someone or when I describe her. At the very least we can try to dilute some of the excruciating judgmental attitudes we’ve had toward people who have, in reality, not much more control over their bodies’ shape than they do over the color of their eyes, the multimillion- dollar-a-year diet industry notwithstanding.
In another vein . . . LILITH’s readers are grateful to the Maurice Amado Foundation for supporting work on Sephardic women, the Rita Poretsky Foundation for its support of LILITH’s work on women’s health issues, The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation for support of LILITH’s translations and The Shefa Fund for underwriting a part of LILITH’s work on women’s philanthropy.