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Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

Article contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC and Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC

Eating disorders are not unique to any particular culture, striking individuals regardless of their background, gender, religion, or race.  While mental health illnesses, such as Anorexia or Bulimia Nervosa, are not exclusive to a certain group of individuals, there are conditions within specific communities that may contribute to the development of eating disorders.

Women within the Jewish culture may be particularly susceptible to eating disorders.  While few studies have examined the rate of eating disorders among women in Jewish communities, it is largely understood that these women may be more unwilling to admit to struggling with these illnesses because of stigmas within their culture.   Eating disorder awareness and treatment promotion has become more prominent in mainstream culture within the United States.  However, within many Jewish communities, there is a greater reluctance to disclosing the eating disorder struggle.

With food being a prominent part of Jewish cultures, a preoccupation with food can worsen already existing eating disorder behaviors.  In Israel, there are eighteen religious holidays that involve food preparation.  This does not include the weekly planning for Shabbat, the seventh day of the week that is recognized as the Jewish day of rest.  While variations of Shabbat are prevalent throughout Judaism, it is traditionally observed and celebrated with three festive meals, all which require involved food preparation.  Jewish holidays that involve fasting, such as Yom Kippur, or the intense need to follow a kosher diet, can spur restrictive eating patterns in women.  The rigidity enforced in many Jewish traditions, such as strict kosher diet laws or elaborate meal planning, can escalate into a more serious eating disorder.   For women who may already be susceptible to developing an eating disorder, this central part of Jewish culture can increase pressures and existing struggles.

Jewish culture often implements more structured guidelines for dating and marriage, which can be an additional factor that intensifies eating disorder behavior.  For example, arranged marriages may place a greater emphasis on physical appearance, which can drive a woman towards pursuing a “perfect” image, at any cost.  Internalizing cultural and familial pressures can lead to an eating disorder, as women find ways to tangibly cope with feelings of guilt, stress, inadequacy or shame.

Jewish women may also be less likely to seek out help and treatment for an eating disorder.  Many women will go to extreme lengths to hide their sufferings, as mental illnesses are perceived to be signs of weakness and looked upon negatively.   Many families may not seek help or treatment until the disease has progressed significantly, as there is immense reluctance to acknowledging eating disorders.  With the many stigmas associated with mental health issues, treatment is often reserved for individuals in acute phases of their eating disorders.

The Jewish community is a beautiful culture that involves a rich heritage of generational customs and traditions.  For Jewish women who may be struggling with an eating disorder, this can serve as a powerful platform for healing when reconciled with the need for recovery.  Understanding the challenges that Jewish women may face can also be instrumental in developing effective outreach programs and counseling methods for promoting recovery and awareness.  No matter the background or culture, every individual is worthy of experiencing a life in recovery and freedom from an eating disorder.

 

Page Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on
January 25, 2014
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Eating Disorder Help & Information

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