Thursday, December 25, 2008

Judaism and Eating Disorders

By Lisa S. Lenkiewicz
Connecticut Jewish Ledger - December 25, 2008

Stop worrying, and meet me at the water cooler
In many offices, the hot topic of conversation is L'affaire Lewinsky. Not at the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.
All day long we bump into each other at the water cooler, but it's not to chat. We are too busy forcing down our eight glasses. 
On any given day, someone in our office is on a diet. (Most everyone that is, except for the men, who seem able to eat what they want.) The method varies - some are doing Weight Watchers, others, the no-carbohydrates plan, or the cabbage soup diet. I'm on a plan also, although the nutritionist I see would correct me and say, "You're not on a diet, you're just eating healthily." (He can say what he wants, but not having many fats and swearing off my beloved chocolate sounds like a diet to me.)
At this place where I am learning how to "eat healthily," I often run into Jewish women I know from all walks of life. "What's going on here?" I wondered. "Why are so many of us having to fight to shed pounds? Do Jewish women struggle with weight issues more than other women?"
In the spring edition of Lilith Magazine, there was an interesting article titled, "Why Jewish Girls Starve Themselves." The thrust of the piece was about the high rate of eating disorders among Jewish women, discussing how issues of food, body, sexuality and appetites are "used and confused in attempts to deal with interpersonal relationships, or to deal with pain" - including second- or third-generation Holocaust trauma. I don't know much about this psycho-speak, but I was intrigued by the title of the article.
The flip side of overeating is the obsession with being thin. Too often lately you hear of young girls who decline dessert or birthday cake, saying they are watching their weight. One 8-year-old girl was heard complaining her thighs were too fat. When I was her age, I'm not sure I knew where my thighs were.
We all have our excuses about how we ended up this way: When we were young, our grandparents constantly urged food on us; we had to clean our plates out of guilt for the "starving children in Africa;" it's in our genes - Jews don't drink, we like to eat. 
My excuse has always been having two pregnancies close together and three operations in two years. I did try to fight the battle of the bulge. I bought the "Stop Kvetching and Start Stretching" exercise video. I bought the video starring Gilad, that handsome Israeli who leads aerobics classes at exotic locales in Hawaii. I have a Richard Simmons tape. But when my doctor said my stomach muscles were shot, that was just the excuse I needed. No pain, no gain they say? For me it was, yes pain, and yes complain. I simply stopped doing the situps, and voila! The pain went away.
I looked to our Jewish texts for some guidance on shmirat haguf (guarding the body). Solomon wisely counseled, "He who guards his mouth and tongue guards himself from trouble" (Proverbs 21:23). In other words, one who refrains from gluttony and guards his tongue from speaking except for what is necessary, stays out of trouble. Good advice.
"It is advisable for one to accustom himself to have breakfast in the morning." This suggestion is from the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) under "rules concerning physical well-being." Our sages must have been right - every diet plan I've seen stresses the importance of eating a good breakfast. The Shulchan Aruch also says that it is best to omit one meal during the week, in order that the stomach may have a rest and its digestive power be strengthened. Not the advice my nutritionist would give - something to do with metabolism and storing energy - but it might be worth trying, nonetheless.
Although statistics indicate eating disorders are prevalent among Jewish women, there still is reason for optimism. The therapist who was interviewed in that Lilith article said Judaism is a potential cure for dysfunctional eating, what with our religion's "enormous potential for renewal." I do believe in teshuva - that we can turn, change and do better. If I fall down in my weight management from time to time, well, tomorrow is another day.
So, no guilt over that Hershey bar my son magnanimously offered up from the goodie bag he got today. Tomorrow, I'll be first in line at the water cooler, I swear.
Lisa S. Lenkiewicz is managing editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger in West Hartford.

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