Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Every year I receive what I call an in-pouring of messages around the time of Tish’a B’Av regarding fasting:

“Am I allowed to fast?”

“What can I do instead of fasting?”

“Are food shiurim (measurements) a thing?”

“How can I talk about not-fasting with my family?”

The concept of fasting can be confusing for those struggling with disordered eating and eating disorders. These are very real, very common diagnoses and are rampant within our community, and so the notion that there are multiple days throughout the year that include an element of restriction can feel complicated at the very least.

I begin by reminding people that I am not a rabbi. I am an eating disorder expert but should not be confused with someone who can give religious legal decisions or guidance; that is not my role as a psychotherapist. I typically recommend that people reach out to a religious leader with whom they are comfortable who also understands or has knowledge of eating disorders. I always ask if the person is comfortable and can share the explicit truth with this rabbi or individual, as it is important that the question be asked in full, with all information provided. Turning to a religious figure who does not have all the information or who does not understand the nature of an eating disorder can lead the individual to receive guidance that does not meet the person’s needs.


It is important to remember that even those who struggle with other symptoms of an eating disorder that are not simply restriction of food should still reach out for support/guidance, as the mindset and symptoms of these disorders can all be impacted by changes of food intake.

Then, at times, I face the questions of how the person is supposed to work toward recovery from this struggle when the fast day almost encourages the disordered mindset. My job, as a therapist, is to first and foremost validate: Help the person feel seen. Sit with this experience. Then, I prompt for further processing: What does this feel like? What does it mean or what messages might this support in the person’s mind? Is there more to the story?

I wrote a blog piece a number of years ago breaking down this question, defining the difference between fasting and restricting (“Fasting Is not the Same as Not Eating,” Times of Israel). This piece included the important distinction of fasting on Tisha B’Av as a representation of teshuvah and mourning. In contrast, not eating when struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating serves as a coping mechanism, feels compulsive, and/or ties to the individual’s feelings of self-worth.

This day can be extremely challenging for those in recovery or challenging a disordered mindset, and guidance, therapeutic processing, and planning or coping ahead are all recommended.

But I write this piece specifically to explore the reactions and feelings of those who are not in this category, or at least don’t believe themselves to be. Fast days can really be called ‘Days of Mourning’; we reflect, actively remember, and grieve what has happened to our nation and look ahead to do better in the future. One element of these days, meant to strip away the exterior, is of course fasting. Fasting is typically uncomfortable—people are hungry, counting down the hours, waiting to fill their stomachs.

I worry, though, for those who experience a level of excitement and attachment to these days—those who “look forward” to fasting to “reset” their diets, or “feel proud” about not having eaten (unrelated to the religious aspect).

I have heard of so many people who upon the fast ending wonder if they could keep going, or want to change eating habits. Those who wonder if they should start intermittent fasting (this is a dangerous, diet-culture, fat-phobic diet fad that will harm your body and mind) because they were “able to do it” or speak negatively to themselves, thinking, “If you could fast today, why can’t you stop eating that ‘forbidden’ food.”

To me, this is heartbreaking.

Fasting is not meant to be enjoyable. It is not meant to inspire people regarding weight loss. This religious, Jewish law is not meant to encourage people to dislike themselves or tie their self-worth to appearance.

To those who experience this: you are not alone. And this is a sign that perhaps a reflection and curiosity about how you feel about yourself and ties to your appearance are necessary. Perhaps this may be a sign that it is time for support.

We are meant to fast and then to move forward. To learn from the lessons of the day, to grieve, and then to march ahead and, included in this, to eat. To live full lives untied to food rules, rigidity, and appearance as a focus.

My hope is that this piece provides insight to our community on how we may support those suffering, and pose as an opportunity for everyone to reflect on your experiences and to see whether perhaps it is time for a change. Help is out there. You are more than your relationship to food.

Temimah Zucker, LCSW, is licensed in New York and New Jersey and is currently seeing clients virtually. Temimah specializes in working with those struggling with eating disorders, disordered eating, body image dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, fear of change, grief, rigid thought patterns, and PTSD. Temimah is also the assistant clinical director of Monte Nido Manhattan and speaks/writes nationally on the subjects above.