In 1979, as a freshman at Penn State University, I began my descent into anorexia. Within a year, I had become bulimic. I would stay bulimic until I was 45 years old. At the time, I had no idea those words existed or what an eating disorder was. They were simply behaviors I engaged in like breathing to get me through each day. The act of binging and purging for those few seconds made me feel like a whole person. Like I would finally be accepted. Of course when those few moments had passed, the overwhelming shame of something I did not understand filled the void. The shame of my dirty secret. A secret I would keep for 27 years.
In 1979 there was no eating disorder awareness for men or women. The golden voiced singer, Karen Carpenter had not yet passed away from complications related to anorexia, a disorder that has the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. Her untimely death would bring eating disorders in the national spotlight in the pre-digital era. The flipside is that it also brought the eating disorder gender stereotype to the masses. The thought that eating disorders were limited to women only. This was an easy stereotype to believe. Men simply did not discuss such things. Men were leaders. Men were the bread- winners. Men watched football on Thanksgiving and led the Passover Seder. Men did not starve themselves or stick their fingers down their throats.
Much has changed since then. Gender roles have equalized on many fronts. Eating disorder stereotypes however have not kept up. Despite the fact that about 33 percent of those suffering from eating disorders being male, we are much less likely to seek treatment and still often suffer in silence and shame. Afraid to reveal our dirty secret only to be thought of as crazy or “feminine.” To be told, it’s all in our head and to just eat more. Of course, we know that for men or women, eating disorders are not a choice.
These issues can be a particular problem during Jewish Holidays. It certainly impacted my eating disorders at various points in my life.
While I did not grow up in a particularly observant Jewish home, there were Passover Seders over my grandparents. There was sporadic Yom Kippur fasting. Unfortunately, there was also a difficult relationship with my mother that entailed fat shaming and other types of verbal abuse related to my intake of food. As a teenager, words like fat pig and dumb bunny were regularly thrown at me like daggers to my self-image by my mother as her mother had done to her. These things often run down through generations. I became depressed. I began eating more. I became an obese eleven-year-old. Then the weight-based bullying and fat teasing began at school. I began to see a different person every time I looked in the mirror. A fat, dumb bunny that was not deserving of love or friendship. Moving towards that fateful day at Penn State when I would “take control” over my life using the only thing I felt I had control over, food.
As I entered my sophomore year at Penn State with full blown traditional and exercise bulimia, the eating and fasting aspects of the Jewish holidays weighed heavily on me.
Unfortunately for me, holiday fasting was not about religion. It was about feeding into my body image issues. The legitimate reason became an excuse to starve myself. Stuffing myself at a friends Passover dinner became a trigger to purge. As is very common for those who suffer from eating disorders, every thing becomes a justification for the behavior. An entirely created world in which I became my thoughts. Believing the only way I would ever be accepted was to engage destructive disordered eating behaviors.
As we go through the Jewish Holidays where both eating and fasting are important, it is important to keep in mind that eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect both men and women. Jews and non-Jews. Boys and girls. Even old guys like me. The other thing that does not discriminate is the shame and loneliness. If you suspect that your child, spouse, or friend may be having issues, the best thing you can do is provide an atmosphere of love and trust. So that when they ready to drop that wall of shame we put up around ourselves and seek help, you are there for them. It’s their choice to seek help but it’s your choice to provide the love and trust that will influence that choice.