Why Jewish Girls Starve Themselves

Who among us made it through childhood without hearing about The Starving Children? “There are children starving in India,” our parents—often our mothers —would intone, casting a cold eye on whatever remained on our plates. It seemed a universal American ritual. But for therapist Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., the mantra in American-Jewish households had another, hidden meaning: the starving children stood for the aunt who never knew her niece, the brother killed in Russia, the mother who didn’t escape Buchenwald.

Food, love, control, survival, and the nature of Jewish mothers and fathers were just some of the issues touched on at “Jewish Women and Their Bodies: A Case Study of Cultural Influence and Eating Disorders,” a workshop led by Steiner-Adair during the annual Renfrew Foundation Conference in Philadelphia in November. The Renfrew Center, the foundation’s treatment arm, operates ten residential treatment facilities in four states for women with eating disorders.

Steiner-Adair is Director of Education, Prevention and Outreach at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center. As both a therapist and an affiliated member of the Jewish community, she became curious about the link between Judaism and eating disorders when, after a decade in private practice, she began to notice a high proportion of Jewish women among her clients. She wasn’t alone: the prevalence of eating disorders among Jewish women is now well established. Though Jews make up just over 2% of the American population, Karen Smith, a therapist at Renfrew’s Philadelphia facility, says that from 1994-1996, the facility’s inpatient clientele— drawn from across the country— was 13% Jewish. “There is absolutely no question that eating disorders are culturally mediated,” said Steiner-Adair. “Every culture has its own schtick about food, body, sensuality, sexuality, appetites.” In Jewish families, she said, these issues “are used and confused in attempts to deal with interpersonal relationships, or to deal with pain”—including second- or third-generation Holocaust trauma.

Steiner-Adair noted that there is “a resonance of internalized anti-Semitism in eating disorders—the idea of changing the body to fit the goals of achievement and assimilation,” she said. And she ran down the continuum of messages about Jewish women’s bodies: from the stereotype of the Jewish mama as zaftig (Yiddish for “juicy”) to the pressure to be less visibly “Jewish”: be thinner, have straighter hair and noses, avoid talking with one’s hands.

Working in Israel in September 1997, Steiner-Adair was surprised to discover that country’s significant problem with eating disorders. Nurses would often approach her on behalf of both traditional women and women serving in the army: evidence of an eating disorder in a soldier garners immediate dismissal, and in a traditional woman renders her less marriageable, Steiner-Adair said.

Yet Steiner-Adair also looks to Judaism as a potential cure for dysfunctional eating. “There is enormous transformative potential in Jewish culture and Jewish texts,” she said, “enormous potential for renewal.”

On May 3, 1998, Steiner-Adair will participate in a day-long conference in Philadelphia called “Food, Body Image, and Judaism,” co-sponsored by the Renfrew Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and KOLOT, The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.