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Zaftig: (of a woman) having a full, rounded figure; plump

After a lifetime of sneaking sweets and feeling shame, I've figured things out. Can we rescue our daughters from this obsession with weight?
My 18th birthday, and my brothers' joint celebration graduating from grad school and college. In the picture from left to right, my future sister-in-law Tamara, my brother Bentzi, me, my sister Zahava and my brother Boaz, and the perfect Strawberry Shortcake.
My 18th birthday, and my brothers' joint celebration graduating from grad school and college. In the picture from left to right, my future sister-in-law Tamara, my brother Bentzi, me, my sister Zahava and my brother Boaz, and the perfect Strawberry Shortcake.

On Sunday, May 14th, 1989, before anyone woke up that morning, I snuck out of the house and walked one and a half miles down Queens Boulevard – a road more like a highway – that I had always found intimidating as it has 8 lanes of traffic. I was the first person waiting in line that Sunday morning to get into the Weight Watchers meeting at the Rego Park branch of Weight Watchers, ironically situated in the storefront next door to a kosher deli. It was my first meeting. It was also my fifteenth birthday and Mother’s Day. I had saved my babysitting money and paid in cash for my membership and when my parents asked me where I had been, I said I had gone for a walk. 

This wasn’t the first nor the last lie I would tell over the years about my weight. I have been lying about my weight and food for as long as I can remember. 

There was the day I ate a whole bag of Wise Onion & Garlic potato chips for dinner, and simply told my mother I had forgotten to buy them as an item on her shopping list. Or the times I would sneak into the pantry in the middle of the night and eat absolutely anything that was to hand and in the morning I would play dumb. 

I ate because I was hungry. I ate unhealthy because it was easy. I have inherited a sweet tooth that has a sense all it’s own – it can smell sugar at twenty paces and is like a homing beacon. And don’t even get me started on fried food. My mouth starts salivating just writing the words ‘fried food’. 

But why did I lie? Why did I insist that I wasn’t eating when I was? Why have I had a dozen thyroid tests? Because my mother – God bless her – wouldn’t believe that I was lying. If her daughter wasn’t eating, and she was exercising and she was on a constant diet, then why was she still gaining weight? It must be that pesky thyroid thing. 

It wasn’t.

Truly I can’t be alone, can I? How many people have had their thyroids tested? Actually prayed for an illness that would explain their weight gain? Wait! How many more have had that dream: the one in which you wake up thin and you can eat whatever you like for the rest of your life and still look like Claudia Schiffer? 

So where did this all start? I wasn’t a fat kid. I was of average size and weight, and I didn’t start gaining weight until my teens. 

What happened was a perfect storm of occurrences. At the same time that I hit puberty, my father started declaring that it was time for me to find a husband. He actually started far earlier. I only started paying attention when I started noticing boys. My dad believes that marriage is something you do while you are young and stupid, once married, you can only hope that you grow old and smart together. Nine out of ten times, in my family at least, my dad has been right. By pushing us at a young age to think about marriage, we have gotten married and been universally young and stupid while doing so, and mostly it has worked out. 

That was element one: marriage as a focus from a young age. 

Number two: I wasn’t alone. It seemed that most of my friends in my circle of modern orthodox girls in the ’80s and ’90s had parents pushing a similar agenda. Now, this was challenging as we were in an all-girls school, miles from the nearest boy. And that nearest boy, once found, should be ideally 2-5 years older than us. That way if you plan ahead, and if you were successful at making eyes now at 15, once the boys reached our level of maturity, say three years later, they would be ready, and joy of joys we could be child brides. 

The third element in the perfect storm was that my brothers were conveniently older than me at the ideal 2-to-5 year age gap. This made for the best Jewish marriage arithmetic. This is the calculation needed in order to create the perfect romantic confluence of; timing, plus worldliness, plus solvency that equals a successful Jewish marriage. 

My 16th Birthday from left to right: Me, my cousins Rachel and Nicole, my sister Zahava, my brothers Boaz and Bentzi.

My friends would beg to spend Shabbat at my house, ‘but only, you understand, if your brothers are home, but especially if they bring friends too…’. Nothing could boost a girl’s confidence more than friends who are after her brothers. And yet, if that wasn’t enough, my friends (this seemed almost impossible to me) were generally thin. I couldn’t understand it. 

How had that happened? Why were they not gaining weight like me? Had they not discovered the stash of Good Humor ice cream sandwiches in the freezer. Admittedly I was the one who bought them and hid them behind the boxed flounder my mom kept in the freezer. No self-respecting teen girl is going hunting behind frozen fish for ice cream – but by this point what is self-respect compared to ice cream? I had no chance with my brother’s friends. I was not only eating way too much ice cream, I was also the ‘little sister’. 

During my gap year between high school and college, my friends were always out, spending time with my brothers’ friends. Again, how did this happen? My brothers’ friends, in a bid to keep their heads and not incur the wrath of said brothers, stayed far away from me. The threat was real; one brother has black belts in a variety of martial arts and the other one is the intellectual superior of, basically, everyone. I had no chance. I would get as far as the front door to the boys’ apartment when they would good-humoredly laugh, allow my friends in and promptly close the door in my face! I would then spend an evening in Jerusalem alone, where my choices were falafel from Melech HaFalafel, or Carvel (back in the day, they had Carvel in Jerusalem; they knew me by name).

Sitting at a table outside Bank HaPoalim, sadly licking my ice cream, I penned my first book: ‘The Poor Little Rich Girl’s Guide to Free Clean Toilets in Jerusalem’.

I am five foot four – short in the real world, but average for a Jewish woman. I’m of average build and cute. I didn’t know about this as a teen; that average is beautiful, that my smile and my heart were beautiful and that all I needed to be a contender was to smile and love myself. I waited for others to tell me they thought I was great. My parents are of the ‘we don’t state the obvious’ school of parenting. We won’t tell you you are – fill in the blank – smart/funny/kind if it is obvious. On the other hand, if you have a tendency towards exaggeration, storytelling, and stealing food at midnight, we will let you know about it in no uncertain terms. 

By my fifteenth birthday, I felt the pressure mounting. My friends had boyfriends, I had friends who were boys. My brothers’ friends were looking at my friends, not at me. I heard a lot about my great personality – in-speak (at least in our modern orthodox community) for ‘you have a face for radio’. 

As my friends started to pair off, I was left feeling, once more, like everyone’s friend. You know: the person you went to to get to the person you were actually after. Never once asking what it was about me that didn’t invite the same attention as others; thinking it had something to do with my weight and not that I was terrified. I listened to the media and friends who said that if I just lost 20 pounds, my face – which was acceptable – combined with the 20-pound weight loss would help me attract the much-desired boyfriend. 

Did I not lose weight because I didn’t actually want to attract the boy? Because quite frankly sitting on my own at the Cheesecake Factory or My Most Favorite Dessert Place seemed more rewarding than making conversation with a boy and figuring out what I needed to do to make him like me. I never really figured out the whole flirting thing either. 

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it – the way matches were made during the ‘90s in the modern orthodox Jewish community:

  1. The easiest: he was the boy next door. Done! 
  2. He had been your camp Shabbat-walk partner since you were 11, when your parents decided that the Poconos was where they would send you each summer while they toured Europe (or was that just me?). 
  3. You were both advisors on an NCSY Shabbaton and you locked eyes during an emotional Havdalah. 
  4. You were both counselors at Camp who had a secret rendezvous behind the arts and crafts bunk. 
  5. You were set up on a blind date that, heaven forfend, actually worked. 
  6. You saw a cute boy and moved heaven and earth to find out everything you could about him and finally ‘accidentally’ bumped into him in the lobby of a Mordechai Ben David concert. 

My year in Israel drew to a close and I was embarking on my next mile marker in the New York Jewish Modern Orthodox adventure, which is going to Stern College for Women. 

In my freshman year, I majored in Art History but in truth, like every other girl, I majored in MRS. No hazing happened in Stern – the other girls just instilled the fear of being single in me the way my parents never could. Here is an urban myth that was shared with me during my first night in the dorm: If you aren’t married or at the very least engaged by the time you graduated Stern, your prospects of marriage diminished by 50% and a few percentages every subsequent month after you left Stern. By the time you are 27, it’s basically all over and you might as well buy an apartment in the Upper West Side and give up dreams of living in Suburbia and sending the kids you will never have to Day School. These, and other urban myths, were prevalent down the halls of the dorm. 

My roommates took this seriously. Two already had steady boyfriends coming into our sophomore year. By the end of the year, both girls were engaged and by the end of our junior year, both were married. The only status symbol greater than a 3-carat engagement ring was wearing a brand new wig to Sociology class. Another roommate, determined to find her man while in school, had a blind date our first Thursday night in the dorm, and every subsequent Thursday night thereafter.

The blind dates: OMG is all I can say. The boys would arrive on the shuttle that brought them down from the Yeshiva University (“YU”) campus in Washington Heights to the Midtown campus.  The prospective husbands would stand outside, pacing up and down, looking into the lobby in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the Yiddishe Maidele (nice Jewish girl) before they committed to the blind date. This was long before Facebook and Instagram. All you had to go on is what the person who set you up on the blind date had said. The first question was always ‘Is she pretty’? By which they meant ‘Is she fat’? The second question was ‘Is she fat?’ by which they meant ‘Is she fat?’. Third question: ‘what does her father do?’ meaning do they have money’ because, if they have money, answers one and two became less of an issue. How frum is she? I don’t even know where to start with this one – a topic for a different time. 

I sadly never got the blind date call, I think there may have been a secret network (like the mafia, but headed by Jewish mothers); I just wasn’t part of it. Once more, I was worried. Was it because I was fat? The person trying to set up the blind date never got past questions one and two? And was I so fat that questions three and four became irrelevant? I didn’t know (I admit to a tremendous lack of self-awareness, that may have been the biggest issue). Because, as it turns out, I wasn’t all that fat. What I was, though, was just a bit too modern and too unpredictable to be set up on blind dates, and my mom wasn’t part of the mafia. 

My Stern friends, Barbara, Joelle, me and Leah

I had a couple of boyfriends in college, guys from YU who I met through friends who ultimately weren’t ‘The ONE’, but helped boost my self-confidence (that smiling thing really did work). As predicted (or was it demanded), I met my husband, got engaged and married before the end of my time at Stern. 

The boys on the other side of the table, Daniel – my future husband, Jon – Leah’s future husband, Larry – not Joelle’s future husband, and David – Barbara’s future husband.

What was surprising to me was that once I was married I still struggled with my weight. Any time something went wrong I would blame my weight on it. If only I was thin…well you can fill in the rest, because this stuff is painful. I joined WeightWatchers another eight times, Slimming World three times and I can see nine different diet books on the shelf. I can’t even count the number of times I have looked up diets on the internet and done the free tests to see what blood type/ body shape/sleep pattern I have that will customize my perfect diet plan. 

I chose a career working with food to mask my weight. I became a food writer and pastry chef. That way, you couldn’t blame me for being fat; it was my job. ‘Can you trust a thin chef?’ was one of my go-to lines.

On my forty-fifth birthday a year ago, I had finally had enough. Everything hurt, inside and outside. My love of fried food and sugar meant that I had to have my gallbladder removed and, when I asked for a bigger size in a shop, the sales assistant looked at her feet and mumbled something to the tune of ‘we don’t make a bigger size’.

I started a journey with a therapist and a nutritionist. One dealt with why I ate – I ate because food made the frustration go away if only for a moment – and the other helped me build strategies for losing weight and keeping it off. 

This is the first birthday that I won’t cringe at the memory of me aged 15, walking down Queens Boulevard at 8am on my birthday, waiting to be let into my first WeightWatchers meeting. Or the shame later that same day when I cheated on my diet, less than 12 hours after I started, on a slice of Carvel ice cream cake. The shame of 30 years is now gone. I no longer blame my weight for every frustration or set back. I don’t view myself as damaged because my thyroid is fine. 

The pressure we put on ourselves is tremendous, compounded by the pressure of living in this community, where so much is based on how things look. It is a potent combination for eating disorders and a distorted self-image. Is there anything we can do to make things better for the next generation? Or is this my birthday present to the world: share my story and others will look inside as opposed to the mirrors. Because the combination of our brain and the mirror are bigger liers than the 15-year-old me, who would sneak out daily to the Häagen-Dazs on Austin Street while telling my parents I had gone to the library. Look inside and find that smile, because smiles defy fat and thin every time.

About the Author
Ilana has collected many experiences over the last few decades, from interior designer to international educator, qualifying as a pastry chef and working as a journalist for a number of publications. Ilana has lived in New York, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, and Israel and settled in London six years ago with her husband Rabbi Daniel Epstein and their four children. Ilana is the Rebbetzen of Cockfosters and N Southgate United Synagogue, the Jewish Futures Director of Projects and the founder and director of Ta’am.
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