I read yet another inane article yesterday about eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish community. I have been hesitant to write anything on this topic because I am concerned about portraying Orthodox Judaism in any type of negative light. I did a tweetchat about it for the Academy for Eating Disorders months ago, and I was very conscious of putting a positive spin on Orthodoxy in general. However, there are some things that need to be said.
I have read about a bunch of alleged reasons for the spike in eating disorders within the Orthodox Jewish community. There is the matchmaking process where girls are expected to be extremely thin in order to be a desirable candidate for marriage, the concept of food being a central part of Jewish culture, thoughts on how the rules of modesty affect body image, and the unrealistic expectations thrust upon a young Orthodox wife to be perfect in all realms of her life, including her dress size, after bearing multiple children.
With few exceptions, pretty much every article that I have read on this topic is a pop psychology analysis of what factors or attributes in Orthodox Judaism cause eating disorders. I equate this line of thinking with wondering what factors or attributes in the culture of Eastern European Jewry causes an increased risk of breast cancer.
In my opinion, what is most relevant regarding this topic is rarely addressed, which is that people with eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish community are not getting the treatment that they need. This is partly because the stigma, secrecy, and embarrassment surrounding eating disorders dominates all else. In certain Orthodox communities, an eating disorder (or any other mental disorder) can leave a “black mark” or a blemish of sorts on the family. There are so many flaws with this mentality that I don’t even want to address it. Suffice it to say that I find it revolting that anyone would sacrifice the health and life of a family member to preserve the “reputation” of one’s family.
In addition, there may be an unfounded concern that sending one’s daughter or son for eating disorder treatment may lead to some type of compromise on religious principles. My take on this particular concern is that I would rather have a living, healthy child than any other alternative. Religious principles pale in comparison to the life of my child.
While I am hesitant to say that the matchmaking culture and the need to be a size 0-4 in order to be considered desirable in the Jewish dating world contributes toward the spike in eating disorders, I am quite comfortable saying that this culture encourages sweeping eating disorders under the rug, out of view of prospective husbands. It is easiest to do this when you ignore that eating disorders are a problem in the Orthodox Jewish community to begin with. Eating disorders? What eating disorders? It reminds me of small children who think that if they cover their own eyes, then no one else can see them.
Here’s where I say “what the hell”?? How is it possible that we Orthodox Jews, with our heightened sense of compassion and morality, are eschewing getting help for our children with eating disorders out of some misguided sense of religious preservation at best and cultural conformity at worst?
There is no concept more important in Judaism than preserving human life. It takes precedence over pretty much everything else, which is why I find the attitudes connected to ignoring and avoiding the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish community to be so puzzling, perplexing, and out of character.
Guess what? Eating disorders carry the highest mortality rate of any other mental disorder. And guess what else? People with eating disorders suffer terribly. Imagine if your child had an illness that caused him or her horrific pain and you ignored it. You just turned a blind eye and pretended that it didn’t exist. In my book, that is nothing short of reckless endangerment, gross negligence and blatant indifference to human life.
I understand the rationale behind keeping our communities insular; however, when it comes to seeking the best eating disorder treatment available, the insular culture is dangerous. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that generally speaking, on a global level, few Orthodox clinicians are truly qualified to treat eating disorders. They are not familiar with the current evidence based treatments. No one in their right mind would choose a grossly unqualified or underqualified Orthodox doctor to treat a family member’s cancer over a highly qualified non-Orthodox or non-Jewish doctor; however, when it comes to mental illness, there is a general reluctance to leave the cocoon of the Orthodox professional world. I am saying straight out that this is a huge mistake, and it is potentially life threatening. Cultural sensitivity can be cultivated, cultural issues can be resolved, kosher food can be procured, and religious concerns can be addressed in most treatment settings. We should not be compromising on the best possible care for our children by waving the banner of religious piety while our children suffer. Or die. Shame on us.
I am doing exactly what I didn’t want to do here, and I can’t say that I am comfortable doing it, but I think that a call to action is vital if we want to keep those eating disorder statistics in the Orthodox Jewish community from spiking even higher.