By Gillian Herszage
Trigger Warning: The following article discusses the author’s experience with eating disorders in detail.
As soon as I came home from my first year of college, everyone started bombarding me with dating advice. Their assumption was that I would begin dating in my second year of Stern (I’m in Syms, so they were already wrong). That summer, every kiddush interaction was “date until you hate” or “always say yes, it’s either the love of your life or a great story.” No one asked what I needed or wanted. While I had never said I was dating, and at the time, I was in no place to be, everyone had an opinion. With all that advice, there was one thing no one prepared me for.
I have struggled with bulimia since I was eleven, and that particular summer I was deep in the throes of my battle. Everyday is still a struggle, but through a lot of support and intervention, I am now stable and in recovery. Therefore, after a lot of work and what may have been seen as a year later than anticipated, I entered the dating world.
I had anticipated some of the struggles that come with eating disorders and dating. I have never had an easy time eating in front of a person I don’t know well. The idea of eating in front of a borderline stranger terrified me. The idea of someone who was already examining my actions and making judgements about my physical appearance, seeing what I eat, how I eat, and the only place he is supposed to look is at me, was a nightmare I had prepared myself for.
Right away, I began to notice the lack of awareness so many people have toward this issue. I have always had friends that are extremely sensitive to these issues. Many of whom have gone through similar struggles. I had never heard the term “pull trig” — a phrase that is used to refer to making yourself vomit to avoid alcohol poisoning — thrown out causally until a date was telling me about a drunken Purim night he had. My date saw that night as a crazy experience to laugh off, but I saw myself throwing up blood just one summer before. I knew right away this relationship had no future. If he can speak so casually about something that I found so triggering, how can I possibly feel comfortable sharing with him?
After every date, I am left with the questions: can I be honest with this person about my past? Will this person accept me and understand what I went through and how I healed? And sometimes, does this past that I carry make me unlovable?
Across the world, so many men and women are struggling with eating disorders. A Canadian study done in 2008, showed that 25% of surveyed Jewish women and girls had eating disorders that merited treatment. Jewish people are at a significant risk for eating disorders.
Jewish life and culture puts a lot of pressure on eating habits, body image, and food. We have holidays devoted to eating and solemn days devoted to fasting. While it is easy to get a heter (a rabbi’s exemption), to not fast when it is unsafe and triggering, with that comes the need to explain, the otherness that comes with needing to practice differently, and the religious guilt of not partaking. The tradition to fast, while holy as it may be, can be viewed to the vulnerable mind as another end all be all in the pursuit of perfection. I can only be worth forgiveness, redemption, or having answered prayers if I don’t eat.
As Jewish women, conversations about our bodies are endless. Whether it is what you should be wearing or what you shouldn’t be. It constantly feels like conversation is always coming back to our physical bodies. How many times were the standards different for a girl who is curvier, like me, when it came to what was considered tzanua (modesty), I was young, but I was aware. My body, while covered, was a topic of conversation.
Additionally, our own social culture within the Jewish community creates a confusing image of body and food. Whether it’s Bubby telling you to eat more, since you’re young, while your mother is telling you to slow down on the nosh or your Bat Mitzvah dress won’t fit, being a young Jewish person is a confusing experience when it comes to food. Couple that with pressures to fast in order to be “the best” Jew starting at such a young age, and it is no wonder our community is challenged with rising numbers in eating disorder diagnoses.
Yet, with every dating panel and advice column, no one talks about addressing this issue. No one tells you how to bring it up, when the time is right, or how to introduce the topic in a way that is sensitive to oneself. No one tells you how to respond when a person shares this with you or how to discuss what this means for your relationship going forward.
The Modern Orthodox community has been working toward preventive action against eating disorders in our community. In-patient clinics across the country are offering Kosher food due to Jewish advocacy and programs are opening in heavily Jewish areas. While there are programs and support out there, it is not enough. The pressure to look a certain way and the casual discussion of body and weight are still ever present in the Orthodox world. Still, as we move toward prevention, we must also support those who have recovered or are in recovery. We need to talk about how to confront this reality, how to support and respond to someone going through this, and how to be a community that listens to one another.