July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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‘V’Nishmartem Meod L’Nafshoteichem’: Body Image in the Orthodox Jewish Community

Part I

Tehila arrived in my office for her initial therapy appointment, head cast downward, shoulders slouched, body contorted inward, her 6 foot frame shrinking before me. Why, I wondered, would such a striking young woman not stand proud and tall? As our sessions progressed, I became privy to Tehila’s battle with inhabiting a larger body. She felt as if she protruded everywhere. Tehila would consciously slouch to appear shorter and occupy less space. Tehila yearned to feel less visible, more delicate, and to be more petite like her peers who seemed to attract shidduchim and dates effortlessly.

Body image, one’s subjective picture or mental image of their own body, figures prominently in our consciousness as human beings and particularly as Orthodox Jews. Our perception of the bodies we inhabit governs countless aspects of our lives: our physical posture, how we interact with others, our relationships, mood states, the way we present ourselves to prospective employers, as well as our comfort with intimacy. The following statistics underscore the significant connection between body image and self-esteem: Nine out of 10 women say they will not eat and risk putting their health at stake when they feel bad about their bodies. One in two women were more concerned about the appearance of their bodies than the pandemic lockdown. Sixty three percent of women identify weight as the primary factor determining how they feel about themselves, figuring even more prominently than their family, school, or career. Ninety one percent of women are unhappy with their bodies and want to lose weight. A recent study conducted by the Dove foundation found that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful!

While the average model is 5’ 9.5” and 113 pounds, the average woman in the United States is 5’3” and weighs 166.2 pounds. This is the greatest discrepancy that has ever existed between the real and “ideal” body. Ninety six percent of girls and women do not meet that ideal. Even the 5% of women who are genetically “blessed” with the “perfect” body may grapple with body image, disordered eating or other mental health issues.

Perhaps most alarming is the growing number of children and adolescents battling damaging thoughts that precipitate this disorder. Seven in 10 girls admit to being less confident in their decisions and less assertive when they are feeling insecure about their bodies. One in two young Australians admitted that their negative perception of their body has prevented them from raising their hand in class. Eighty one percent of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical study in 2014 which discovered that between the years of 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders increased sharply by 119% for children younger than 12 years of age. Another study demonstrated that adolescent girls are more fearful of gaining weight than getting cancer, confronting nuclear war or losing their parents.

Girls and women often perceive size, like weight, as defining their identities. Their food intake and the number on the scale determine whether they are “good” or “bad.” These concerns influence their self-worth such that body esteem becomes synonymous with self-esteem. There is an assumption that life would be infinitely better, and people would be much happier if they just lost___ pounds. The media conditions highly impressionable children to believe that if they manage to closely simulate the body type of actors, models and singers that appear on television, in movies, in magazines, etc., they will similarly enjoy popularity and apparent happiness. While the media and lucrative diet industry play a significant role in shaping American women’s perceptions of their bodies, within the more insular religious Jewish circles where the media is ostensibly less conspicuous and influential, women are still enigmatically plagued with a distorted body image, and, consequently, debilitating and potentially fatal eating disorders. They develop these through an alternative drama operating within their own communities.

A harrowing study conducted by Dr. Ira Sacker in Brooklyn found that one out of 19 Orthodox Jewish females was diagnosed with an eating disorder, a rate 50 % higher than the general population (NEDA, 2022). Due to the pressure of securing shidduchim and the stigma of mental illness in the Orthodox Jewish community, eating disorders are often shrouded in secrecy, vastly underreported and untreated (Bachner-Melman, 2019). Research demonstrates how eating disorders become increasingly severe and difficult to remedy the longer they go undetected and therefore untreated (Fichter, Quadflieg, & Hedlund, 2006). The prevalence of eating disorders among the Orthodox female cohort, distinguished otherwise by its emphasis on inner beauty, spirituality and modesty, prompts the clinician to identify proactive ways to combat it.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to transform our bodies to shift how we feel about them. In fact, studies demonstrate that even individuals who lose significant amounts of weight after undergoing bariatric surgery typically struggle to mentalize their slimmer physiques. The notion of body positivity, feeling positive about our bodies at every size, can prove challenging in American society. Still, it is an important goal considering that 25-70 % of our bodies are determined by genetics. We cannot change certain aspects of our bodies, but we can alter our beliefs and attitudes about our body. In Lisa Sobo’s Ethnography, The Sweetness of Fat, she depicts how in numerous African cultures, larger bodies are considered more beautiful and signify affluence and sociability. There are “fattening camps” designed for girls and women who are excessively thin, since the person inhabiting an overly thin physique is deemed unappealing, asocial, impoverished and sickly. I have treated numerous Latina patients who strove valiantly to attain plump bottoms, wide hips and more voluptuous chests to enhance their beauty. Even in the Jewish culture, some males express a preference for a more zaftig partner.

Another concept, body neutrality, involves reframing our relationship with our bodies. The body is not something to love or hate, but we can conceptualize the body mindfully, with gratitude, and accept it for what it is. There are times when we are going to feel happier or less happy but that is expected. It disputes the notion that our value is contingent upon our appearance and places less emphasis on appearance. Body neutrality highlights the ways in which our bodies enable us to experience the world. The body then serves as a “vehicle” or “instrument” through which we experience life rather than an “ornament” or “trophy” to be admired.

The second part of this article will share tips on improving one’s body image.


Shira Aliza Silton received her BA from Brandeis University, an MA in Clinical Social Work from Columbia University, an MA in Jewish studies and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Social Welfare and Policy at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Silton has been working as a psychotherapist for over twenty years providing individual, couples,’ family, and group counseling in English, Hebrew, and Spanish. Currently she works as a Senior Therapist and Outreach Program Director at Yeshiva University’s Counseling Center with undergraduate and graduate students and has a private practice on the UWS,

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