Saturday, April 08, 2006

The White Rose: Eating Disorders in (Orthodox) Judaism

I am very disturbed by recent articles that have been published under the titles, 'Thin is not a Mitzvah for Religious Girls' and Religious Girls More Comfortable with their Bodies. While factually it is possible (although I question that) that there may be a correlation, I think that articles like these do not serve our community well. After reading such an article, one may come away with the impression that one's child is "protected" or in some way immune to negative comments, peer pressure, body image, or feeling negatively about their weight, and this could not be farther from the truth.

Anorexia and bulimia are eating disorders that affect everyone, regardless of faith, race or gender, and therefore a study involving "320 religiously observant Jewish girls" is nothing to write home about. Using this study to talk about the many ways in which Orthodox Judaism has done away with glamorized versions of thin girls is completely ridiculous. It's not time for anyone to pat themselves on the back. Our community needs to be more open when it comes to eating disorders, for such topics are very much taboo in the religious world- people do not want to hear that their children suffer from these kind of disorders, they do not even want to believe that they are real. In the very heavily marriage-conscious Orthodox world, anorexia and bulimia are considered secrets, deep, dark skeletons in one's closet that cannot be addressed publically. This is a terrible thing.

Would you believe me if I told you that these concerns were never touched on, never discussed and never talked about while I was at Templars? Somehow our compulsive tzniut observance rated higher on the list of speech topics than our personal health. The only reason I am familiar with the concepts of anorexia, bulimia and the like is because my mother is a nurse and she purchased many reading materials about such topics for me. Denying that such a problem exists in the Orthodox community, or believing articles that claim such a problem has somehow bypassed our community due to our religious observance is unsafe and very damaging to a child who does suffer from either of these eating disorders.

I am so disturbed by the fact that people are treating these articles and studies as the undeniable truth that I am compelled to repost something I previously wrote, The White Rose.


The White Rose

This is for an Anonymous person- someone I know, and didn't know before. And someone who has made me a better person simply because I have now known her.

This is for someone I know who has suffered, in the past, from an eating disorder- anorexia that developed into bulimia. She is better now; she is well. She is doing beautifully, keeping busy and happy and possibly even stressed. But this is what happened in her past, a topic that is not often discussed within the parameters of the Jewish community, and certainly never discussed at that point in time.


She was the youngest of three daughters. The first daughter was the good child, a perfect one who could do no wrong. Ever since the time she had been a baby, she had never caused her parents a moment's worry. She did not walk until the age of two, and therefore never was under everyone's feet. She barely cried. She followed all the rules her parents laid down, went to school and was happy there, then went on to seminary. She was also, however, overweight.

The second daughter was the rebellious one, the one who broke every rule her parents laid down, who caused the most worry and trouble, who lashed out at school and was a daredevil. She was the one who got attention, who was noticed. She, too, attended a certain high school.

The third daughter- Anonymous- was lost in their shadow. She had gone to a very closely-knit elementary school, one where she had known everyone in her class very well, and more so, her parents had known everyone else's parents. There were only eleven children in her grade. From this elementary school, however, she was thrust into the chambers of torture- a high school that would have a grade of eighty students, twenty of whom would be in her class. She was going to attend that high school simply because both of her sisters had gone there before her- she had no choice in the matter. She wore hand-me-downs from her sisters- again, she had no choice in the matter. She never really seemed depressed or unhappy around the house, because she was the performer, the one who smiled and amused others. But in truth, she lacked coping skills- and she was thrust into the ultimate training ground- high school.

There she realized that her elementary school education had not been that good, and she was failing classes miserably. But not only was she failing her classes, she was suffering from tremendous culture shock. From a close-knit community of eleven to a grade of eighty, she again felt lost, invisible, forgotten- a loner who lacked the ability or capacity to make friends. There was no way for her to interact with the other girls in her grade- she did not know what to say, how to act, what to offer them. Luckily, her second-oldest sister was in high school with her as well, so for a time Anonymous hung around with her sister's group of friends. But then the inevitable happened- her sister graduated, and went on to attend a seminary in Israel. Anonymous was shattered. Now she was truly alone- one sister in Israel, the other one attending college. She, the third, the only one remaining in an unfriendly and hostile environment.

She knew a boy. There was a certain boy who she was very much attracted to, had been attracted to since elementary school, even. He was extremely popular, had many friends, and was very attractive. He hung out with her group of friends (from elementary school) but visited her every single Shabbos (Sabbath) during the break between the afternoon and evening prayers. She felt singled out in some ways for his attention, because he would never visit anyone else during that time, even though they lived much closer to him- only her. However, at the same time, he had become cruel and angry because his father and his stepmother had given birth to their first child. He lashed out at Anonymous. He continuously mocked her, teased her, told her she was completely ugly and that he would never even consider going out with her. However, she was very attracted to him and wanted the attention he lavished upon her, even if it were negative. She liked him very much- even loved him- and accepted his cruelty. Not only was he verbally abusive, but he was even physically abusive. He hit her in the middle of the street once- and a neighbor saw. Her parents forbade her to have anything to do with that boy ever again.

During the stress of her high school years, Anonymous had lost a few pounds. And she liked it. She felt ugly and unlovable, and the boy she liked had only enforced that impression of herself. She really wanted to be pretty. So she decided to adopt a diet- a diet she had created for herself, a diet that would cause her to lose weight so that she would become pretty- not beautiful, not gorgeous, only pretty. She would skip breakfast in the mornings, then eat two Snyder pretzels along with either a Coke or a Snapple for lunch, and eat a very small dinner. Her parents didn’t notice what she was eating/ throwing out because they were never home for dinner. Her younger brother came home at 4:30, and he ate dinner then. Her older siblings were away. She came home at 6:30, would take what she wanted for dinner, “nuke it in the microwave,” then eat it. Nobody noticed because they didn’t eat dinner as a family. And her diet was truly working- nobody would have noticed it at all for a long time.

There was one other experience she had with this boy she really liked. One Shabbos he came over to her house and they were in the kitchen together. The boy acted really nicely to her and was very sweet. Then he took a fancy white paper napkin and formed a rose out of it. He offered this rose to her, then said, very sincerely, then he thought she was right, and that they should go out. She began to cry, almost sobbing with joy. That was when he threw himself down on the floor with laughter, told her how ugly she was, and said it would be really funny if they ever went out. His offering the white rose to her was all part of a cruel and malicious joke. But even then, she went with him the next day as they walked and he pushed his sister in her baby carriage, and she went with him when they went shopping. She was being treated abusively but at least she had some contact with the boy she liked so much…she didn’t realize that he was treating her badly, because she thought herself completely lovely and unlovable- and he was very fond of telling her that.

Then, one day, she fainted at school. They took her to a doctor, and the doctor noticed that she looked ill- her color was off, her blood was lacking certain nutrients (what can you expect from a Coke and Snyder pretzels every day?) and that there were problems. These were the first signs of the anorexia she was going through. Every single day she was weighing herself on the scale, looking to see whether she had lost weight. However, nothing was really enforced at that time.

This then led to Pesach (Passover) vacation. Her mother had noticed that her daughter was too thin and unhealthy, and had whispered about her to the other mothers at the Passover table. They all watched her, and Anonymous felt obliged to eat. But once she began to eat, she ate and ate, continuing to gulp down food. Her mother was obviously delighted. But when Anonymous went upstairs, she watched her older overweight sister undressing, and she began to imagine the food she had just eaten sticking to her body in all the places that her sister was overweight. She felt disgusted with herself and really sick. So she went to the bathroom and made herself throw up. The first time was very difficult and very traumatizing, but it got easier. She began to eat very well in front of her family, and then would throw up her food later. This gave her control. She felt as though this was one thing that she could control- she couldn’t control her clothing, or her school, or her lack of friends, but this was hers to do with what she willed.

But afterwards she went to her nutritionist/ therapist (her father had grasped there was a problem, enough to make her go see them) who instantly recognized she had bulimia. The reason why was because there were certain swellings around her jaw/ mouth, telltale redness and tenderness that showed him what she was doing. He told her that she couldn’t keep on abusing her body, and she resolved to stop throwing up for a while. She was able to stop herself for two entire days. But then she gained back four pounds very quickly- because she had lost weight very quickly and her metabolism had slowed down. When she began to eat again, the “false weight” she had lost returned. This made her extremely scared, so she resorted to making herself vomit again. She wasn’t one of the people who binged and purged, though, because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to make herself throw up everything.

One night she had a terrible fight with a member of her family. Afterwards she rushed upstairs to the second-floor bathroom, while the members of her family watched TV, and violently forced herself to vomit. She did it violently, angrily, to the extent that after she had vomited she began to cough up blood. Her revenge was taking its toll on her body. Her days of vomiting- to the point of retching, or simply vomiting up nothing, only air- were hurting her badly abused body. She was scared, but not scared enough to tell anyone. The next day, she developed pustules/ burst blood vessels all under her eyes. She put on a hooded sweatshirt and dashed out of the house, catching her bus to school without letting her family members look at her. Even then, she felt that in the end she would be pretty.

She sat on the back of the school bus, but her friend sat next to her. Her friend noticed how ill Anonymous was looking, and told her so. Anonymous shrugged it off and simply said she was tired. The friend followed Anonymous around school all day, and watched when Anonymous coughed into a tissue, and the telltale stain of red blood spread across it. Then the friend dragged Anonymous to the payphone (these were the days before cellphones) and tried to call her therapist. Anonymous, however, would not give her friend the number; instead she sat and sobbed, weeping and screaming about how she hated her friend so much, hated her for this betrayal. The school administration had the phone-number, and gave it to the friend. Anonymous had been suffering horrible cramps and pains in her stomach all day. Anonymous’s sister came to pick her up and took her to the hospital, where it was determined that Anonymous would be an outpatient rather than an inpatient. But she had said something as she sat weeping in school- she had asked, “How did this happen? How did everything spiral out of control?” That was the first time she had admitted she was not in control of the situation.

Anonymous was slowly treated, because the eating disorders were really the scar over the greater pain and hurt- the fact that she was ugly, unloved, had a very low self-esteem and simply hated herself. She went through emotional therapy and learned to understand nutrition and her diet. She learned slowly that the people who had told on her were really her true friends. She was always weighed backwards so she wouldn’t know how much her weight was at, but at one of her lowest times, she weighed in at under 90 pounds…and she is 5”5. After a long period of time, she learned to cope, to begin again.

But she had ruined her body. Her esophagus was red and swollen and had abrasions or pustules all over it. She developed acid reflux. Her intestines at one point in time were strangling one another. Her body was raw, attacking itself, killing itself from the inside. Her therapist had told her that if she continued to abuse her body, it would hurt her back. And that’s what it was doing.

Even after Anonymous returned to normal and overcame her eating disorder, she still went through a very difficult time, a time of depression and hatred and anger, a time where she had to fight with God. Then, after intervention and miracles, she began to crave stability and to recreate her life- to learn to live for herself, to love herself, to find the good things in herself as well. A time to learn to understand the goodness of her friends- friends who knew everything about her and had stood by her anyway, had helped her. A friend who had overheard her vomiting in the school bathroom, and who had told on her.

Even now, Anonymous is not normal. For a time she had lost her period- thank God, she regained it. Every morning she must take four or five pills simply so that she can eat her food and keep it down, and sometimes when she is stressed, she cannot keep her food down even if she tries. She had to have emergency surgery several times. She cannot simply wake up and eat in the morning- she must live with her body, the body that is hers and will not change.

Anonymous knows intimately what it means to have an eating disorder. She knows the signs, the obsessive discussion about food, binging and purging, over-exercising to the point that one is trying to outrun something, to run from their demons, to exercise and imagine food floating off of her. She knows the distinctive odor that suggests someone is bulimic. She knows personal stories, people who rally to her as a symbol of strength. She does this- she talks to us, to teenagers- so that we may learn to understand, and to feel for her and the others who have been in these situations- to feel for those beautiful people who only wanted to be pretty, who wanted to do away with their ugliness.

Anonymous is very brave to speak about this. She was advised not to, because people were worried she would never marry because of this. But she decided she could do more good than harm, that she could help others, that many could learn from her and her words. She felt she could be the one who could understand. She put others before herself- and she knows that her husband, whoever she marries, will need to understand that this is and was a part of her life, and is integral to what she is today, and what she finds important- what she believes in.

As I heard Anonymous’ story, I was very deeply affected. I have always been an Empath, taking other people’s pain for my own. And though this happened ten years ago, and Anonymous is better now, I feel the pain of the girl who wanted friends, the girl who only wanted to be pretty, the girl who was given a white rose only to have it rudely snatched from her and ripped to pieces. The girl who was treated as though she were worthless. I felt as though it had happened to me, as though I had been there with Anonymous, as though I had watched her. I cried, when I returned to my room, cried in my room as I was racked by feelings and emotions- feeling the pain Anonymous had gone through. It was more than understanding, more than a speech, more than a lesson. It was a person’s life- a life, a human life that had been hurt, a beautiful woman who had been victimized. It hurt me because I was her, in that moment. I felt as though we were one.

We all asked Anonymous questions afterwards. There were three answers she gave that I felt very deeply. One: she would never allow her daughters to play with Barbie dolls. This is because Barbie dolls are unnatural. If a Barbie doll were to be proportional to a real human being, that human being would be crawling on the floor- because the limbs, as they would be made, could not support her. Two: Her youngest daughter would always choose her own clothes, never have to have hand-me-downs. Three: She would always eat dinner as a family. Not just to check up on what her children were eating, but to bond- to make sure that nobody ever felt unloved.

As I heard this I struggled not to weep- I did not want to make her sad. I cried in my room, because this is what my mother had done for me. My mother forbade me to play with Barbie dolls- I disliked her for it. We always eat dinner as a family, and my younger sister always gets clothes that are not just mine- she feels special, and different. I never understood how lucky I am until I heard Anonymous describe her life and what had happened- the very opposite of the beauty that fills my life.

And yet I tell you, Anonymous- you have touched me very deeply. I cried for you, upstairs, cried for you and the pain you went through, cried for the little girl you were, cried for your soul and spirit and the way you felt. Cried because of the white rose. I cried because you were and are so real in this moment- because I feel you inside me, I feel as though I have seen you and known you, as though you are somehow mine and belong to me. I feel as though I had been with you- had seen everything that had ever hurt you. And I draw your pain away from you, and cry for you, because I have seen it- I have lived it- I have lived your pain in your story, I saw the fingers snatching away the love, stealing the white rose and making a mockery of it.

And I swear, just as your sister swore that when she makes a million dollars she will buy you an entire wardrobe of clothing so that you will never need to be an imitation of her again, I swear to you, Anonymous, that you will have your white rose. One day you will be given your white rose, Anonymous, because you are too beautiful and wonderful a person and you have suffered too much to be without it.

You say you have met people who are prejudiced against you because you had an eating disorder. And I say shame, shame to those people who do not feel for you and cannot see the little girl only wanting friends, only wanting to be pretty. Shame on them for the way in which they behave.

You’ve touched my heart, Anonymous, and you will touch many other people’s when you write your book- the book in which you will write about your story, and the stories of others. Your actions have changed me, and they will change others. I lived with you, as I spoke, I saw you and felt you. I love you, and I wish you all the good that I may bestow upon you. I want only happiness for you. I want you to have the richest life possible.

I want to give you your white rose.

You will have it, Anonymous. One day, I swear you will.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Ezzie said...

Woah. Powerful.

Sarah Likes Green said...

very powerful post. thank you for sharing.

there is so much to respond to something like that but for now i think i'll just let it sink in, maybe read it again.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Chana: Anorexia is commonly thought of as the "thin" disease; of someone wanting to look thin -- and therefore this thesis that an Orthodox lifestyle results in less girls with this problem was presented. (since ostensibly, there is more focus on personality than the external).

However, there is another aspect of anorexia that has nothing to do with the desire to be "thin", rather the craving of a person's control over their body.

When a person feels that their life is so out of control, and they have no influence over their fate -- anorexia is a solution which some people use.

Self-starvation (mistakenly) gives a person the feeling that they are in control of at least one aspect of their lives, despite the serious side-effects.

Unfortunately, an Orthodox lifestyle doesn't have anything to do with successfully meeting the challenges a person faces or with counteracting some of the root causes of anorexia.

Don't pay too much attention to this study -- it must have been a slow news day, and someone was looking for a "feel good" article, regardless of its connection to reality.

FrumGirl said...

I went to a Bais Yaakov-type school that did address the issue of anorexia nd bullemia. I suppose it could be discussed more in depth, but in orthodox circles which are so shidduch conscious as you say, it is hard to even detect.

I disagree with the Barbie doll thing. I suppose that each parent will do what they feel is best for their children but that is just pointing finger at the most minute reason why someone would do this to their bodies.

Very powerful post, Chana. I felt anonymouses pain through your words, and I got tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing this with us.

kasamba said...

Chana; You are obviously a very special person.
To feel so deeply for another person is something not everyone can do.
Unfortunately, there are new victims to this 'be thin or be nothing' perception and that is mothers of shidduch age daughters. Suddenly, the new shidduch question following, "what size is the girl?" Is "what size is her mother?" Scary,huh?

Tobie said...

One really shocking thing that happened at Templars was that there would be girls that the student body all tacitly knew were anorexic. I was always a little bit out of these social/gossip circles, but sometimes a friend would just casually say, "Oh, I saw X in the bathroom throwing up." And it would totally blow my mind. I never knew if these rumors were true, and thank G-d, the people were never ones with whom I was close or classmates, but tha idea that somebody could have this problem and all her friends would know about it and nobody would do anything....

Anonymous said...

In two of your last 3 posts you have found something to be "very distrubing". You really got to chill out, youre 17 years old.

Chana said...


Pick another word if you don't like "disturbing."

On the contrary, it is because I'm 17 that I still find things disturbing. One desensitizes as one grows older.

Tobie- I was never in on that group, either, but I too was troubled when I heard people casually remark on things like that...

Kasamba- That is scary...

Frumgirl- I'm glad they talked about it by you. :)

Looking Forward said...

orthodox judaism doesn't emphasis physical appearance?!

um maybe along time ago! anyone who suggest any diffrently is living in lala land, because with all this shidduch conciousness i know of a girl who already at 14 was being told she was too heavy she would have to lose weight in order to find a shidduch when she was older... the most appauling thing about it was that i was extreemely attracted to said girl and didn't give a care that she was over weight, or even liked it to some degree!

seriously this whole shidduch craze with it being a boys market and all, i don't know if there is anything ever that is more capable of producing anorexics and bulimics, not to mention judaisms obsession of control and how it controls large portions of your life, practicaly the only thing left for the girl to control at times is her weight.

seriously anyone who even pretends that anorexia is not going to happen in the jewish world really is fooling themselves.

and at the topic at hand, who ever that boy was, i really really hope he lived a misserable life for what he did to her, because he is pure evil, and i like some other commentators here wish i could give her that white rose, and leave it with her. it really hurts to hear stories like that.

Anonymous said...

Eating Disorders unfortunatley are not spoen about enough by any race or religion

Anonymous said...

"Anorexia and bulimia are eating disorders that affect everyone, regardless of faith, race or gender,"

It *can* affect anyone, but the ratio of men to women is extreme, and heterosexual men to women even more extreme. It's not regardless of race; White middle class kids are at greater risk by a wide margin (and having lower middle class parents, being first generation in college is a risk factor).

Anonymous said...

Exceptional article! Could you followup on this particular matter?