June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I like to keep a lookout for a familiar response when I speak in groups, especially to adults: a raised eyebrow, crossed arms and even heads shaking at times whether while maintaining or avoiding eye contact—because discussing health can lead to a lot of confusion at best, and defensiveness at worst.

As an eating disorder, body image and mental health psychotherapist I work not only with clients but I often speak to students or adults at various institutions. I speak as a survivor, advocate and now, in my main role, as an expert/professional on the subjects of awareness, prevention and coping. And in doing so, I provide research and statistics which support my weight-inclusive and anti-diet approach. There is always, inevitably, the question of how this approach applies to health and the pursuit of weight loss for health reasons. And when I answer, I encourage listeners to notice their internal reactions—body responses, thoughts—and to be curious about my answer: Health is a very relative term.

And so as we come together in this very special Women’s Health issue of The Jewish Link, it is important that we define, or perhaps redefine, health. The way we understand the word health can depend on context, environment and the individual. One person’s healthy choice can be unhealthy to another: taking a walk daily for someone looking to heal an ankle injury may not be healthy. Health can then be loosely defined as an individual’s various systems functioning in a way in which s/he can thrive. These systems include the biological or physical as well as the mind and soul. The Rambam, who was also a physician, promoted the importance of healing the soul just as much as healing and caring for the body.

Too often, people justify choices based on health when in reality, the choices being made actually lead to further stressors which not only impact stress hormones and symptoms in the body, but also impact the way the person sees him/herself and is able to function in daily life. For example, if a new mother wishes to breastfeed, as this is viewed as healthier, but in trying to do so feels disconnected from her child and others, is unable to take care of herself, or is in ongoing physical pain, then the healthier choice would be to find an alternative means of feeding her baby.

In the context of my work I describe the way that diets fail for 95% of people and that the deprivation mindset leads to guilt and a cycle of restricting, binging and overall being mean to oneself. I supplement this information with the way correlation, not causation, can be misleading and that health cannot be determined based on size. (Enter the body reactions I noted above.) Healthy does not mean green foods; healthy means eating intuitively as we were born doing and the sometimes arduous process of relearning how to do so.

When we are able to accept that health can be defined differently in different frameworks, then perhaps we can begin to explore the way we each engage in our lives and what we are doing to nourish ourselves and what choices may be unhealthy. Typically women, especially in our circles, feel such a sense of pressure to do it all. Wear all the hats—wife, mom, homemaker, worker, PTO president, friend, daughter, sibling, volunteer—and to do so in a seamless manner while also taking care of ourselves. It’s impossible. Even for those of us with one or two identities or roles are pushed and pulled in various directions and may cope with the pressures and sometimes contrasting expectations by finding a means of coping that can be maladaptive (food struggles, exercise addiction, substance use, binge shopping, isolation) and other internal struggles (Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, etc.)

We try so hard to be what is demanded of us as well as the person we want to be and it can feel like at any moment the straw of expectations will break our proverbial backs.

But what if we started by asking ourselves: What is healthy for me?

This does not mean that any challenge in life should be ignored in the name of health. I am also by no means suggesting we ignore the pursuit of health. It means that there is room to lean in to asking for help from others, pushing “pause” on a particular endeavor, or approaching a situation by engaging with self-kindness. Then, perhaps, you can change patterns that are long overdue for a shift.

If each of us can create space to accept that health to me may look different from what it looks like to you, and we can abandon judgment, then we might create a world where we wear numerous hats while also connecting more to ourselves and others. A world where my habits and choices are specific to what my body, mind and soul need and not what is based on pressures, misinformation or the belief that there is a quick fix to having it all. Start with asking yourself what is healthy to you, and recognize the importance of challenging the expectations. We can all be kinder to ourselves—and one another—as we recognize our needs and pursue health and healing.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Zucker is an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a metro New York consultant at Monte Nido. Zucker is honored to now serve on the board of Atzmi. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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