Orthodox Girls and Eating Disorders

rugalech The Washington Times published an article on eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish community. Julia Duin writes:

Staff members at Renfrew, where 12 percent of the patients are Jewish, said they noticed an uptick in Orthodox clients in recent years.

The main pressure, they said, is on the Jewish mother, who is responsible for keeping a kosher kitchen (a mammoth amount of work), providing a generous Sabbath dinner and dessert for not only her household, but various guests who wander in at any point during a Friday evening.
Jewish holidays are the worst, they said, as the amounts of food required take weeks to prepare. A woman’s worth often rests on the quality of her cuisine.

Well, I may not like it but there is a lot of truth to that last line.

The Orthodox Union got so concerned with this trend that it produced a film, “Hungry to be Heard,” warning viewers to watch for signs of these afflictions, particularly among teenage girls who feel their looks aren’t good enough.
In Orthodoxy, I was told by Adrienne Ressler, one of the panelists, the Orthodox girl wants to be chosen “by the best groom and by the best groom’s family.”
“So the pressure is to be very thin.”
In some cases, the prospective groom’s family not only wants to know the girl’s dress size, but that of her mother, so they can project what the potential bride will look like in 18 years.
“Sometimes, they put a girl’s health records online,” she said. “It’s like buying a horse. I think women can be silenced in that community. The eating disorder is the red flag.”

Many factors lead to eating disorders in the Orthodox community, and most of them are universal. I think the best thing mothers can do for their daughter is to exercise and eat wisely and share why it’s important. But when women talk about diets, and complain about the way they look, their daughters (and sons) get the message.

Related: Putting Food in Perspective (at Cooking Manager)

Teens, Sex and Eating Disorders: Interview with the Therapy Doc

Photo credit:Roland


  1. Thanks for raising this critical issue. Sadly, it’s all too real. For instance, when their son started to date, our relatives were shocked that the first thing each shadchan told them about each girl was that she was thin. The girl’s midot, character, brains, values, etc. were all considered to be of secondary importance.

    But I confess to being amused by the line about the “various guests who wander in at any point during a Friday evening.” If we had guests popping in uninvited all nightlong, I’m sure we’d be under lots of stress too…:-)

    Shabbat Shalom!

  2. Our pediatrics practice has a lot of Orthodox patients, ranging from modern to very right wing. I noticed my daughter’s pediatrician stressed that her weight was appropriate and she shouldn’t be dieting. (We hadn’t said anything about dieting). This practice also stresses vaccines and has notices explaining why vaccines are safe & necessary and they will not continue to treat a family that refuses immunizations. I think that there’s a deliberate attempt to address issues that arise in the Orthodox community because of social pressure or ignorance.

  3. Eating disorders in teens are an alarm sign of an underlying problem (just like drugs and violence). Since food issues are not stigmatized in the Orthodox community, it’s the easier path to travel for a troubled teen.

  4. Thank you for sharing this information!

  5. observer says

    I read the article. And while it is true that there is a problem in the Orthodox community, most of the article is simply inaccurate. Weeks to prepare food for Yom Tov? Medical records on line for everyone to comment on? Food the only topic of conversation at the table? I don’t know where these items came from, but they are NOT reality based.

    The issue here is that if you want to find a solution to a problem, you need to understand the parameters of the problem. We don’t know how prevalent the problem really is. Beyond that, and more significantly, if you don’t have the facts of a situation right, you are not going to come back with an appropriate solution. It reminds me of the time my mother took my sister to the doctor for recurrent headaches. Without ever asking about her diet he gave my mother very strict instructions to cut down on her fat intake in general and especially butter and meat. The thing is, we almost never ate meat, my mother cooked pretty much everything we ate (no fast food etc.) and she cooked very low fat, and my sister would not touch anything greasy, creamy or fatty. In fact it turned out that her real problem was poor absorption because she wasn’t getting enough fat…

    The bottom line is that if we are going to get to the bottom of this problem, we had better start taking a fact based approach. Denial won’t work, but neither will over-broad, even fictitious, generalizations about any sector of the community. Does over-emphasis on a prospective Kallah’s dress size play a role? Probably. So, trying to get people to develop a healthier perspective should be useful. On the other hand, a campaign to prevent people from putting their daughter’s medical records on line is about as useful as a campaign to ban teleporting.

  6. observer, I have to disagree. Weeks–think of Pesach and the month of Tishrei with 11 days of Shabbat/Yom Tov, not counting chol hamed (in chutz laaretz). It’s easy to end up with ten or fifteen people at most of these meals—all it takes is two or three married children. And some people spend months, not weeks, preparing for Pesach.
    Food the only topic of conversation–at most an exaggeration, definitely not fictional. It depends where you go.

  7. I agree with Observer that much of the article is speculation and some of it is plain fiction; it certainly doesn’t qualify as “good science.” Yes, there is a rising tide of eating disorders in the frum communities. Yes, some of it stems from the absurd requirements made by boys, or more correctly by boys’ mothers, for shidduchim. Precisely how large a problem we have is not known because, like other problems in Klal, this problem is kept as a “secret.”

    No, the only topic of conversation at our dinner tables is not food, food, food. No, we are not all obsessed with food and its preparation. What you credit to food preparation when you point out Pesach MII is not preparation per se, that is, actual cooking–buying Pesach products in the weeks before Pesach is about kashrut, about finding what you will need when it is available, is about trying to spread the cost of Pesach across a few weeks rather than facing a huge bill in the days before Pesach, is about spreading out the work of shopping. The huge work of Pesach is the cleaning, not the cooking. The yom tov lasts one week? So. And if it weren’t yom tov would you not have the same three meals a day that would need to be eaten?

    There is also this, which the article does not address. Eating disorders, some of them, are about skewed body image. But there is also the key element of control. Many of those with eating disorders use food as the one area where they can be in total control, unlike the rest of their life. For many frum young women the only real control that they have is over what they eat. They are marginalized in community life. They are told over and over precisely what they must do and when they must do it or they will face ostracism or no shidduch. Since they are told to disappear from public life they carry that out to the nth degree–they literally starve themselves and disappear in reality.

    Eating disorders is a complex problem and deserves more than a puffery piece in the Times. Blaming eating disorders on having long yom tovim where we serve “holiday” meals is not only a vast over-simplification, but does a disservice to those who are ill with these conditions and could use some solid, real science to help them out.

  8. I honestly don’t see why so many women believe they must serve many elaborate dishes in order to please everyone. My husband grew up in a family where money was scarce; they ate meat once a week, and to this day the Shabbat meal is very simple (couscous and vegetables with chicken or rice and fish, perhaps a simple cake for dessert). The emphasis is on a wholesome meal, and that no one should get up from the table hungry. I feel very fortunate to have entered that family. :o) I do love to cook but no pressure!

    Oh, and uninvited guests? I think this borders on rude. There was one time when a lonely new neighbor invited himself to our house for Shabbat evening meal, but he was considerate enough to bring his own food!

  9. observer says

    MOI – it does take weeks for most people to prepare for Pesach, but that is NOT about the food, at all. I live in the kind of community where tons of guests are the norm, and I know NO ONE who spends weeks preparing for Tishrie in advance. So, yes, this IS fictional – even if there are such individuals, any claim that this is the way a community typically operates is nonsense.

    As for the issue of food being the only topic of conversation, I can only say that this is totally untrue in the general way of the segments of the Orthodox community I have been in. Again, could it be that there are exceptions? Of course, but the idea that this is typical is silly. At least in the “ultra Orthodox” segment of the community, which seems to be primarily wht she is talking about.

    And the on-line medical records is simply made up from whole cloth.

  10. observer says

    ProfK: “Blaming eating disorders on having long yom tovim where we serve “holiday” meals is not only a vast over-simplification, but does a disservice to those who are ill with these conditions and could use some solid, real science to help them out.”

    Exactly! Let’s get a handle on what is really going on, then we have a chance of doing something about it.

  11. I can manage to prepare as many as 3 seders on Erev Pesach (the extra is for an almana we help out). Yes, I take off from work to do it, but I also have time to learn the mishnayos of korban pesach with my children in the afternoon. And my wife and I (we both work full time) manage Tishrei between us without going bananas either. Anybody who is cooking for weeks ahead of yom tov has a problem.

    My girls have told me that on their Israel programs there was a dramatic difference in the incidence of eating disorders between the NY girls and the “out-of-towners”. I don’t know if that is true across a larger sample but if it is I would look to the fact that frumkeit is far more of a competetive activity in NY than elsewhere.

    • This is the kind of argument that will never be completely resolved.
      The author took a bunch of issues and put them together to make her dubious point. As I said I don’t think overemphasis on food is the true cause of eating disorders, and like ProfK said we don’t know if there is an increase in cases in the first place. But I see an awful lot of unhealthy eating habits in the Orthodox community starting with big kiddushin, sheva brachot, weddings, etc. And yes, people do talk about food a lot, and many do prepare weeks in advance for yom tov. I don’t start cooking, but I start making room in my freezer and buying supplies, and I know people who cook and freeze. Like before Pesach, the preparation is not all food-related, and I don’t think I’m obsessed with food. But preparation for yom tov meals is a huge amount of work and not everyone pulls it together the afternoon before. I have no idea how this would affect someone with an eating disorder.

  12. Far from being obsessed with food we could look at those who begin yom tov preparations weeks before a yom tov as hyper-organized. They know what their schedules will be like the few days before a yom tov and they set up their life so that they won’t be rushed or overly-taxed erev yom tov. Making room in your freezer a few weeks before a yom tov is not being obsessed with food–it’s being organized. Shopping a few weeks before a yom tov so that all items needed are in the house and available when you have time to cook is the sign of a good balabusta.

    By the way, there is a mistaken assumption that those with eating disorders have a hatred of food and avoid eating whenever possible. There are some like this but they don’t fall in the majority. Many with eating disorders have an unhealthy absorbption and obsession with food. They weigh and measure their food to the 1/100th of an ounce. They plan their eating well in advance to guard against having to eat what someone else has prepared. They are finicky in the extreme as to what ingredients they choose in cooking. Far from being uninvolved with food they are overinvolved. Some don’t eat much but they agonize for hours about the shopping and preparing of what they do eat. And yes, in many cases, they would rather starve, should they find themselves stranded somewhere with none of their own food available to them, than eat “regular” food not prepared to their over-exacting requirements.

  13. ProfK,
    I agree, it’s usually organization and not obsession. But her statement that people start cooking weeks before YT is not fiction. As to its effect on eating disorders, I can’t comment.

  14. I don’t know if it correct to blame anorexia on shidduch prospects. That would make it seem to be something one deliberately plans rather than a disorder. As for those who want to be assured a thin bride who stays thin, they may as well learn the facts — metabolism does slow down with age, so most people who retain their normal eating and exercise habits will put on pounds as they reach middle age, even without factoring pregnancy weight gain into the equation.


  1. […] Mother in Israel wrote about a disturbing topic: Orthodox Girls and Eating Disorders. Unfortunate but very important to discuss. A friend (who struggles with weight and food issues) […]

  2. […] Orthodox Girls and Eating Disorders 2nd question: Clarification: There is a difference between the book and the paradigm.  The book is written for a very specific audience, who like to read books……….. The paradigm, which is used during counseling is appplicable to all.  for example, when I work with a 14 year old…….. 3rd question: Yes.  If parents have good intentions, can feel remorse about what happened and will for change, my approach can help a parent see the situation and the child in a different light, and learn to respond appropriately. But if there is cruelty for its own sake, or the parent is blinded to his own behaviour, we would need to add to that a more direct form of intervention to heal the parent first. 4th question: Removing the child from the home, as a first step, as is commonly done in the US, is counterproductive.  There are 2 parts to the abuse, one is the physical side, and one is the emotional side, the damaged attachment.  when severing the connection with the abuser, that means that the child has lost the only attachment he has, even though it’s toxic.  That leaves the child hopeless because grieving and healing can only be done within the context of a healthy and operating attachment.  I recommend, at the first suspicion of sexual abuse, to find a way for the child to build a healthy attachment with someone else close to the family like an aunt or a grandmother. This attachment should gradually replace the toxic attachment, until the child feels safe enough to share what has happened. [To illustrate, Dr. Neufeld leaned on one foot and then the other, to illustrate how the child transfers his connection.]  Once a healthy attachment is in place then there can be legal inervention as neccessary, and removal of the toxic parent if required. 6th question: The approach I use is intuitive.  There are many therapists around the world that are intuitive and use similar approaches.  The problem is that what is intuitive doesn’t have words and can’t be passed on.  I’ve created the words to make conscious of what is intuitive, to creat a collective consciousness for all using this approach, so we can join together to change the way children and understood and treated. Another question to add:  what is the main difference between your approach and the existing approaches? The existing approaches are behavioral.  They focus on form, not development.  Skinner, Adler (popular in Israel), Locke, Watson and other behaviorists all recognized the importance of self-worth and attachment. The problem with their approach is that they advocate withholding these things until the child behaves appropriately. The child have to earn their attachment thorough good behavior. The problem is children need to be flooded with affection and attachment from the beginning. If you withhold it you might get the desired behavior but you also arrest the development of the child’s full potential. […]