By Rabbi Shea Hecht
I recently spoke to a man from out of town who was looking for a shidduch for his son. Of course, I inquired as to what were the important qualities that his son’s prospective life-mate should have. When number one on the list was that the girl be “skinny” I wondered to myself: Is this the son’s obsession or the parents’ obsession – and have they passed this “skinny” obsession on to their daughters…?
If statistics can be believed, we have a serious problem. The American Psychiatric Association reports that up to 7% of all girls will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime. That means that out of my daughter’s class of thirty girls, two of them will watch their physical and mental health slip through their fingers because of a destructive relationship with food.
Eating disorders overwhelmingly afflict women and appear at adolescence. This illness takes the form of an obsession with consuming or avoiding food to extremes that devastate physical, mental and emotional health. It’s easy to dismiss an eating disorder as a meshigos, a willpower issue or what have you. The truth is that an eating disorder has the devastating ability to undermining all elements of a young woman’s life – more so, perhaps, than any other health issue.
For a young woman who is struggling with these issues, her outlook on work, school, family and her self image depends solely upon what she has or has not eaten. The notion that she could make sound decisions regarding shidduchim and marriage should be dismissed altogether. It’s not merely that the eating disorder is an ugly footnote in the story of her life. Rather, every chapter of the girl’s life is a mere footnote in a horror story where food, eating and self image are themselves matters of life and death.
While many factors contribute to the onset of an eating disorder, popular culture is certainly very influential. We are constantly bombarded with ads and messages that both overstate the importance of physical perfection and paint an unrealistic, unreachable image of “beauty”. There’s little question that a young woman’s exposure to popular and celebrity culture can strongly affect how she feels she is supposed to look, and ultimately contribute to an eating disorder.
Even more influential: parents who are overly critical of their children and intentionally withhold affection risk their children developing overly harsh and critical view about themselves. For a young lady who is unable to devise a strategy to deal with a wounded feeling of self worth, obsessive control over her diet and personal habits make an excellent substitute.
Adding to the suffering is the invisible nature of an eating disorder. Where someone fighting an addiction or illness can find the support of their loved ones, a young woman with an eating disorder usually struggles alone. They are “masters of disguise”, meticulously hiding any sign of their behavior and suffering in extreme secrecy.
Our well-being is our only resource that ensures that we’ll be able to fight another day for what we want and need. With a healthy mind and body we can realize our potential. Without it, we are unable even to hold the good things already in our hands.
Especially today, as popular culture has infiltrated our communities, we owe it to our young women, our families and community to watch for signs of eating disorders. If we can identify the red flags in our daughters’ behavior and know where to find effective help, we can fight to keep them safe and win.