Opinion: The Secret Anorexic War – The Skinny On Being Skinny In Shidduchim


waistBy 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.

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  1. While one should not go to extreme on being ‘skinny’, lets remember that a wife has the achrayus of helping the husband. He needs ‘pas bsalo’. If his wife can do something about her looks, then she should — of course without endangering herself, but within reason she must make herself appealing.

  2. This is certainly a serious issue, and one that does not get enough attention in the frum world. Rabbi Hecht is to be commended for raising it.

    However, to blame boys for desiring mates who are “skinny” as the cause of this problem is (a) unfair and (b) impractical.

    As a rule, men, even yeshiva bachurim, are, lulei demistafina, more attracted to women who are thin than heavy. While there is such a thing as “too skinny” it is harder to come by than “too heavy.”

    But in the world of dating (shidduchim or otherwise) it is unseemly to comment on such things, so it is often left in the hands of parents to inform the shadchanim. In reality, shadchanim should know this already. I knew a very respected shadchan in Monsey who told a girl point-blank that she had to lose weight if she hoped to get married. This is not an insult; it’s tough love.

    That some girls take it too far and develop eating disorders is unfortunate and we must strive to prevent that from happening. But even if it becomes “politically incorrect” to inquire ahead of time as to the girl’s weight, boys will take one look at the girl, refuse a second date, and find some other excuse.

    Whenever my mother, who is involved in shidduchim, wonders how a boy can tell after one date that a girl isn’t for him because “it just didn’t click,” I explain to her that the boy wasn’t attracted to the girl, but didn’t want to come right out and say it.

    My suggestion would be that everyone needs to eat more healthfully and exercise. That, lulei demistafina, is THE solution. Because even after marriage, especially after kids, the “skinny” girl suddenly puts on sixty pounds! And what of the husbands? They act as if their bodies don’t matter at all!

    Bottom line: Eat right and exercise. Even a woman who is larger can be very attractive if she is in good shape. Not everyone can be skinny, but most everyone can be healthy and fit.

  3. There are many things in our Orthodox community that make it even harder for our daughters than for girls (and adults!) in the outside world. First, as the author discussed, our absurd and unnatural emphasis on “skinny” in shidduchim. This obsession, in which even a size 8 or 10 is considered unacceptable, IS PERPETRATED BY THE PARENTS– often the mothers! Then there is the very nature of our lives, with every Shabbos and yom tov revolving around food and meals. Finally, there is the fact that the Orthodox community is years behind the rest of the world in terms of education and openness in discussing these issues. The “stigma factor” (keep quiet or you will ruin your chances for shidduchim)is often as great a nisayon as the illness itself, and certainly keeps many sufferers from getting the help that they need. In fact, while anorexia leads to more deaths than any other single psychiatric illness, it is also possible to conquer, with the appropriate help. I personally know of at least a dozen young women who suffered severely from anorexia or bulimia in high school, who are now happily–and healthily– married, with children of their own. Within our community, Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser has been involved in this issue for years (he wrote an excellent book about it) and last month the Orthodox Union, in conjunction with the Renfrew Center, sponsered a day long conference on Eating Disorderes in the Orthodox world. The Renfrew branch in NY now has a program specifically geared to Orthodox women. There are many things that we as a community can do; abolishing the stigma surrounding eating disorders and educating ourselves and our children about how to recognize–and ultimately prevent– them, is the first and most important step.

  4. #1, I will be kind and say that you clearly do not understand the nature of anorexia or other eating disorders, rather than accusing you of being part of the problem. No one chooses to be anorexic, nor does this simply happen overnight. Young women don’t KNOW they are endangering thenselves, they simply slip over the edge during their attempts to conform to a specific ideal of beauty. As long as people like you define “make herself appealing” in terms of weight, and guys are looking more for trophy wives than for an “ezer k’negdo,” all our daughters are in danger.

  5. Give us the thin, trim, fighting machine men that are available on the market.. Where are they hiding?

  6. You guys have no idea what it means living with a woman that has this terrible terrible sickness. She may be skinny. But she’s also self centered, arrogant and crazy in many many ways. If you want a true Aishes Chayil, and raise a normal Yiddishe family – make sure that this person gets help, and realizes that she has a physical and mental sickness. Unfortunately… it’s a disease that is not noticed until it’s much too late and difficult to deal with. While doing your homework, also look up ‘bulimia’.

  7. after 10 years of marriage and 5 kids or so many women gain weihgt anyway so there goes that and why is it ok for a man to be heavy but for a girl it is totally unacceptable. stop looking at the eternal

  8. Mr. Srullowitz,
    I have noticed that you frequently use the expression “lulei dimistafina.” I am beginning to wonder if this is a made-up “Aramaic” phrase. Would you be kind enough to please define it for us? Please explain what the shoroshim in each word are as well.
    Thanks so much!!

  9. Att. #7.; It’s not that it’s ok for a man to be fat. And it’s ok for a woman to be skinny. It’s terrible for a woman to be bulimic or anorexic. It’s a sickness that needs serious attention. This sickness makes you irrational or be a good spouse and mother.

  10. It is possible to for boys to be anorexic and be bulimic! It’s not just girls! There is just a higher percentage of females that are anorexic!

  11. to #8:: lulei dimistafina means if i werent scared it is used in the gemorah when a tana or amoira wnts to argue with someone who they feel is greater then them they preface by saying lulei dimistifina if i wasnt scared i would really say this but since so and so is greater then me i wont argue note this usally still means that they hold what they hold but out of respect for the other they dont bash him

  12. Anorexia nervosa is more than a “mishugas” or even a psychological disorder. When the person’s weight falls below a certain point, or other metabolic imbalances develop, the person develops psychological symptoms that are actually caused by the physical imbalance and starvation.

    Psychotherapy will then have no effect until the person is hospitalized and refed until balance is restored. If not treated, anorexia nervosa can KILL, and does in many untreated cases.

    Our cultural obsessions – largely picked up from secular culture (who says we aren’t getting Americanized?) – are not just unfortunate. They’re a matter of pikuach nefesh.

    (Material taken from DSM-IV-TR – the “Shulchan Aruch” (lehavdil) for psychiatrists and clinical psychologists).

  13. There is no question that boys put too much emphasis on looks. This is a result of western media. This can only hurt the boys as they may have chosen their wife based on the wrong criteria. To say that this hurts the girls is a mistake. The author assumes that since UP TO seven percent of women will have an eating disorder AT SOME POINT IN THEIR LIVES, therefore seven percent of his daughters class have anorexia, largely because of boys targeting skinny girls. The goverment statistics dont apply to our community, rather by us it is closer to Five percent. Knock it down to three percent because some will only experience this later in life. Of that three percent, maybe one in ten are affected because Of prospective spouses looking for skinny. The overwhelming majority of them are suffering because of the western model for what a girl is supposed to look like,and other psychological issues that they may have. The author clearly has an axe to grind and figures he will get peoples attention by blowing this totally out of proportion. We estimate that one in north of three hundred girls (.3 %)are suffering as a result of boys looking for skinny. Every jewish girl is precious and it doesnt matter how few of them are suffering. I try look at it as if my own daughter was one of them and my heart bleeds for them. It is important to understand however, that obesity kills more people than anorexia, and OVERALL it is not a bad thing for girls if boys want skinny. In other words. To solve the eating disorder problem, the correct approach would be to work with each case individually, rather than change boys mindsets. It would be beneficial for boys to be less makpid on thin, but this does not make the OVERALL quality of life for girls worse than it would have been if boys did not care for thin girls. While I have your attention I may remind you that there is something that causes boys to overrate thinness.This thing is also the cause of most problems our society is facing today. Please trust me. I am trained in this field and unlike the author, I have no negias whatsoever. It is called the learning gap. When a percentage of boys that should be working are encouraged by society to stay in yeshiva, they have to kill time by watching things or hanging out in places that encourage them to want thin girls more than they would have if they would spend their time productively. A project for the class, ( to borrow Tzippys line ) Think of any random issue you are going through, and see if you can link it to the learning gap. Im sure that with some depth, one in five of you will be successful. 20 % is a high number to be linked to one problem. Please read my previous letters on the learning gap.

  14. To #7:
    Always look at the eternal. That’s the key to life. What I am about to do, does that help me acquire nitzchios or not? That’s the question you should always be asking yourself (yes I realize that it’s a typo).

  15. Lulei demistafina means “Were I not afraid.” It’s a phrase used by many of the Biblical, Talmudic and halachic commentators when they want to say something controversial. They say, “If I were not afraid, I would say…” and then they say it. Its a signal of humility, as if to say, who am I to propose such an original idea.


  16. Im looking for a thingirl. I know your not supposed to judge a book by its cover , but your also not supposed to live with a book . As far as girls getting fat after they get married so whats the difference. Well guess what if I marry a skinny girl at least there is a CHANCE That she will be skinny later. On the topic, why do girls have a heter to gain weight like that, A guy can only marry one girl . Your asking for trouble. when guys were able to marry two girls ,wives probably felt more pressure to stay skinny.
    Political scientist is right again. this helps more girls than it hurts .

  17. Its better not to try to outrun a fat cop because he is more likely to use his gun. People who are fat or not pretty themselves account for most of this opikursos that boys shouldnt want pretty. Looks are a choice just like all other qualitys. you are born with a certain set of cards and it is your bechira to improve it or lose it. Granted some people have an easier time but thats the same thing with midos or any other quality. people are predisposed to be nice or not based on their nature, friends, family, etc. they can upgrade or downgrade however. same with looks. you have what to work with and its your choice from there. I know it requires less work to just blame guys. but its untrue and nothing will change.

  18. If you follow my comments you will notice that I am guilty of two great sins . I work and Im looking for a skinny girl. Just ONE of those sins should be enough to lock me up for a long time. Truthfully Im embarrassed to be part of this society. But like unwanted family I just learn to deal with it.

  19. Why is the writer talking about girls over boys. Because twice as many girls have it? Hello? Twice as many girls have all anxiety disorders! Look it up! Im not trying to bash girls. they have plenty of stuff over boys, but my point is that this authors premise doesnt even start!

  20. Allow me to point out that in many, perhaps even most cases, anorexia starts long before a girl is dating, often when she is a pre-teen. Obviously, those cases are not the result of boys wanting thin girls. Also, you will rarely hear of a boy who wants a size 0, but will often hear high school girls boasting about being able to fit into one, or trying to become that size. If you want to place blame, perhaps look at a society (mothers, girls, marketing campaigns by frum stores) that puts too much emphasis on the externals.

  21. silly bochurim. don’t air all your hirhurim to the public. we all know what you want, we wanted the same. but trust me you don’t want a skinny bulimic girl instead of a heavy healthy, eidel one. she’ll make you miserable. even your yetzer hora will agree to this.

  22. Not all boys need thin girls. I could tell you a few girls that I know recently who are about size 10-14 who just engaged. They are beautiful girls, but just not size 0 and their chassanim had the right priorities!
    Not every boy is asking or looking for superficiality. And if they are, I’m not impressed!

  23. I just came across these posts, so don’t know if anyone is still following….
    Fyi, whoever mentioned about the gemara times when people had more than one wife, it was actually desireable in those days to have an overweight wife! It meant affluence and an indication that there was adequate food! Interestingly enough, it was considered “healthy looking”.
    The American culture has since gotten to us. In the last century, the models and actresses have gotten thinner and thinner, and while women aspire to be like them, men have “changed their taste” to desire that.
    Even if a male prefers a girl who is not skinny, he is embarrased by what his friends will say if he marries her. But it is a double standard, as overweight guys are not embarassed to ask to be set up with thin girls.
    Someone else asked how a married woman “has the right” to gain weight after several kids and years of marriage. If you were a woman, you would understand that the body changes with pregnancy and women go through hormonal changes. Once weight is gained it is hard to lose before the next pregnancy sets in, etc. Just think that someone who gains 50 lbs in 10 years, gains 5 lbs a year which translates into overeating by approx 340 calories per week.