I am writing this piece from Café Aroma in Israel, where I am working and vacationing. Part of the work I will be doing here includes visiting Agam Hospital where I volunteered, and speaking in colleges and seminaries. I will be presenting my program to a number of schools, and rather than focusing on my eating disorder psycho-educational program, I will be delivering my body image workshop.
When I first booked my trip, the intention was purely about taking some time off. After thinking about it, I realized it was very important for me to reach out to seminaries as gap-year is a highly vulnerable time for students. When a young woman decides to spend the gap year in Israel, there is often a lot of weight talk. Students hear their friends talk about the weight they gained, or about disordered eating habits. This may cause worry and concern on the part of the students, and also their mothers. The year in Israel is meant to be a time when an individual grows intellectually, spiritually, and in his/her sense of self. While this becomes the focus of the student, the film Hungry to be Heard, produced by Leta and David Lenik for the Orthodox Union, someone talks about overhearing a mother who had visited her daughter for the year in Israel. The ywere at a restaurant and the mother could not stop commenting, in a highly derogatory way, on her daughter’s appearance and weight gain.
It is understandable that mothers and students want to prevent tremendous weight gain, but what about extreme weight loss? I know of at least 10 cases where eating disorders came into full bloom during the student’s year in Israel. During the gap year students are away from home—some for the first time—and that the year is akin to their first year in adulthood—where they are expected to be independent and mature exponentially. Seminaries are wonderfully accommodating to these changes, but some young women (and men) have difficulty dealing with the changes and pressure. An eating disorder may develop as a way of coping.
I am in no way saying that every girl who goes to seminary will have an eating disorder. And, in many cases, students do indeed keep their weight at normal levels. But there are numerous cases and many students who need to go home in the middle of the year because of the severity of their disorders. Seminaries are now bringing in staff and speakers to address the issue and help students who may be experiencing symptoms or thoughts regarding weight and shape. While it may seem normal for students to comment on their weight and joke about how “disgusted” they are with themselves for eating so much pizza, etc., we should not sit back and normalize these behaviors. Students should be reminded of their inner qualities and positive strengths, especially during this time of growth. When parents call their daughters and sons, they should refrain from asking too much about weight gain and instead ask about gains in spirituality and sense of identity.
It is best when parents can equip their children with a positive sense of being that does not require a particular weight. This can be difficult in our culture, but should not be considered “hopeless.” When I speak to students and individuals of all ages about body image I remind them that while wanting to have a particular appearance is all fine and good, their main focus with regard to self-judgment and worth should be their character.
If a student begins to drastically lose or gain weight, seminaries tend to get involved to find out why. An extreme weight loss or gain is most likely related to something occurring on a deep emotional level. For a student in seminary it may be a result of feeling homesick, confused, or pressured. The student may begin to eat less or more as a means of comfort, control, or a way to cope. While the school’s involvement can make all the difference, it is important for parents and friends to understand this. Again, this does not mean that any weight gain or loss is the beginning of an eating disorder, but extremes should be noted. More important is the student’s mood. As discussed previously, mood is often a telltale sign of a deeper psychological occurrence in conjunction with food behaviors.
I will speak to students and schools in both Israel and America on these issues and more, but as a community we should keep in mind how students can be affected, gap-year or not.
For concerns or questions related to these topics or my speaking engagements, please email informationtvc_gmail.com
By Temimah Zucker