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Living Full Jewish Lives in a Barbie Doll World

Although the topic of food, body image and Judaism had been moving around my mind for years, it was a statistic I found that gave me cause to pursue my curiosity. The statistic comes from The Renfrew Center, a women’s mental health facility specializing in eating disorders. During a two year period in our inpatient program, 12% of the women we treated for Eating Disorders were Jewish. Twelve percent, of a community that makes up only 2% of the national population.

This statistic is not particularly noteworthy, as it only captures women who had the resources to seek inpatient care, from a facility that serves a higher percentage of East-coast women, where Jews make up a larger part of the population. But the statistic caught my attention because I expected quite the opposite.

The Passover seder begins, “Let all who are hungry come and eat, all who have been enslaved taste freedom at this seder!’ With this mandate, I was sure that our Jewish heritage decreased the likelihood in our community of enslavement by food and body. Not so. While Judaism clearly has traditions to celebrate body and food, it seems also to serve as a source of body image distress, food anxiety and of shame of hunger.

In the clinical world of eating disorders an important conversation has begun exploring how issues related to food, body and hunger vary between communities. My interest in this led me, in 1998, to co-chair a conference with Lori Lefkovitz, director of Kolot—The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The conference was called “Food, Body Image and Judaism.”

We know that what counts as beautiful is societally constructed. Zaftig, for instance, used to have exceedingly positive sexual connotations. It captured concrete truths, like a father or husband wealthy enough to feed the woman, someone who could withstand child bearing and long winters. Fat became associated with hardiness, strength, vibrancy, life. Today, eating disorders serve as an extreme representation experienced by most American men and women. We need to ask, What does the extreme thinness in today’s ideal woman symbolically capture?

The thin woman today, the one at the party who refuses the piece of cake, elicits admiration from many other women. What do we say about her, at least to ourselves? What will power, what self-control! What does the emaciated woman have control over? Her own hunger. We know she is hungry. We know she likes cake. And we are impressed by her capacity to dominate her own hunger, to deny her own pleasure.

When we say hunger we must hear it with all its meanings—desire, longing, passion, appetite. A woman dominating her physical hunger symbolically communicates to us that she is willing to dominate all her hungers. She is the woman who indicates indifference to what movie she wants to go see because her own taste doesn’t matter to her. She is the young patient who, when she hears that her parents are reluctant to take off from work to attend a much-needed family therapy session during her inpatient stay, insists they not come.

To our collective feminist horror, eating disorders have only surfaced as an epidemic since our gains of the 1970s. They are perhaps women’s and girls’ boldest reaction to the backlash against feminism. In a society that has villainized women who would demand to be satiated, the eating-disordered woman is filled with shame about her hunger. The anorexic women is a source of curiosity and admiration in our society for her ability to deprive herself.

The period when girls move into womanhood is the time when eating disorders are most likely to surface.

The physical signs that alert us to a boy’s movement through puberty include an increase in height, an increase in muscle tissue, a deepening of the voice and appearance of body hair. These are all eagerly anticipated by the pubescent boy, his peers, family and community; staying child-like is not admired in a male.

Girls’ bodily changes are not so celebrated. Advertisers assure them they can keep “it” secret even in white pants…on white horses…in white bedsheets. Girls are offered an endless assortment of products to remove the hair of their puberty and regain the legs of children. Puberty for girls also means an increase in body fat, which girls know will not be celebrated. Some facts: 50% of all nine-year-old girls have dieted; 80% of all 13-year-old girls are dieting at the time of a survey; 95% of all 20-year-old women have a strong desire to lose weight.

A strong desire. In a world of competing hungers—for justice, power, love—our women have strong desires for weight loss.

If our society valued womanhood, the signs of movement into it would be celebrated. Instead, the ideal woman has become the pre-pubescent girl—with breast implants.

What would it mean to celebrate womanhood, to rejoice in the increase in power, wisdom, strength that comes with age? Living full lives, satisfying lives, lives that tasted good. What would that look like in women? Full lives for men look like education, career and financial success, family success, pride in one’s work and one’s self. This is what satiation looks like. The anorexic is hardly the embodiment of satiation.

Truth is, as a Jewish woman, living a full life was the goal my community set forth for me. Strongly so. It was most certainly expected that I get a solid education, have a strong career, seek satisfaction in my life. The fact that I was female did not lessen these expectations. The legacy of the Holocaust and of Jewish history has played a role in Jewish homes across affiliation. We are collectively expected to contribute to our people’s survival, and must be strong to do so.

As Jewish women, mainstream American society is only one of the two powerful cultures we receive mandates from. And as Jewish Americans we are likely to attempt the impossible task of embracing both sets of values even when in direct conflict with each other. While taught as Jewish women to ensure our capacity, through education, power, finance, to satisfy our own hungers, we must do so in a Barbie doll world. Evidence of one’s hunger and the capacity to satisfy it will be labeled entitlement. It will mark us as Jewish women, and we will be villainized in the same fashion as the feminist—as needy, demanding, insistent, as “a loud, pushy Jewish broad.”

And so the contradiction enters our own homes. “Eat, eat, eat, but not too much because you know how fat your aunt Goldie got,” our mothers say. Our parents try to raise strong assertive girls and yet also try to teach them how to thrive in the world around them. It is this contradiction that I believe teaches many of us as Jewish women to either misdirect our larger hungers into overeating or endless diets. Some questions to begin with: What would it mean to fully embrace our Jewish culture, which knows that hunger should be satisfied, that even offers sources of food and body sanctification in liturgy, ritual and text? Might we welcome our daughters’ womanhood with celebrations on Rosh Hodesh, the new moon? Can we make our daughters’ bat mitzvahs less about pomp and circumstance and more about entering a time of self-satiation? Would hate of body, and anxiety of food, even exist in a society that assumed its members were hungry and empowered us to seek their satisfactions? Might we make seder, order, out of our lives by adhering to the Passover commandment: Let all who are hungry come and eat, all who have been enslaved taste freedom at this seder?

Karen L. Smith is a clinical social worker at the Renfrew Center, teaches gender studies in the graduate psychology program at Rosemont College and maintains a private practice in Philadelphia.