Addressing a small audience of Orthodox Jews last month, Aliza Stareshefsky talked about the time in her life when she would make herself throw up after every meal. When she was struggling with her eating disorder 15 years ago, Stareshefsky said, very few people in the Orthodox community talked about anorexia or bulimia. “I thought I was the only one,” she said.
Stareshefsky shared her story at a July 19 parlor meeting in Manhattan, organized by the Orthodox Union to raise funds for the first documentary on eating disorders aimed at a Torah-observant audience. The educational film, with the working title “Dying To Be Thin,” will start shooting at the end of the summer; when the movie is complete, DVDs will be sent to schools and synagogues affiliated with the O.U. in the United States, Canada and maybe Israel.
Stareshefsky met the movie’s producer, Elisheva Diamond, a year ago, and immediately agreed to speak on camera and to help with fundraising.
“I was stunned that there was somebody willing to do this in the Jewish community, that there was somebody out there willing to admit that we have a problem,” Stareshefsky said.
Diamond, a psychology student at Queens College, said that many parents in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community are unaware of the long-term consequences of anorexia and think that girls simply “grow out of it.”
“I felt a big part of the problem was an education problem, an information problem, particularly with parents,” Diamond told the Forward. Combating this attitude is what drove her to create her film, as an educational tool. Diamond, who is now on the O.U. board of directors, has worked closely with O.U.’s Young Leadership Cabinet since she launched her project last year. The O.U. organized the fundraising events and agreed to give Diamond a matching grant. The director will be Rick Magder, the O.U.’s director of media and broadcasting.
One of the challenges for Diamond and her team was to create a documentary that would be culturally appropriate for a religious audience. Existing movies about anorexia show women who are not dressed according to Jewish laws of modesty. In this context, it is easy for Orthodox Jews not to identify with girls wearing jeans and tank tops, Diamond said. The eating disorder survivors and family members interviewed for “Dying To Be Thin” all come from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox backgrounds. Therefore, it will be harder for parents to be in denial and claim that eating disorders are not a problem in their community.
Although there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that eating disorders are more prevalent among Orthodox Jews than in other communities, there are specific aspects of the Orthodox way of life that may help sustain eating disorders. These issues were addressed at last month’s parlor meeting.
“There is something about the Orthodox Jewish culture — not the Orthodox Jewish religion but the culture — especially in the United States, that fosters… tendencies toward anorexia,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, vice president of the O.U., at the meeting.
After Weinreb’s speech, clinical psychologist Esther Altmann asked the audience what part of the Orthodox culture could lead to eating disorders. A young woman immediately mentioned “shidduch,” or matchmaking.
Very often, young men looking for brides in the Orthodox community call a girl’s parents and ask for her dress size. “If it is anything over an eight, forget it,” Abraham Twerski said. Twerski, founder of a drug-and-alcohol treatment center in Pennsylvania, wrote a book about eating disorders called “The Thin You Within You.” “Girls have become probably even more body-image conscious in the Orthodox community than in the general population,” he said.
Wanting to predict what a young woman’s figure will be when she turns 40 or 50, some men go as far as asking what the size of the potential bride’s mother is. This obsession with physical appearance has led to an increase in eating disorders among middle-aged women.
While matchmaking is the most obvious part of the Orthodox culture that fosters eating disorders, medical specialists have found other relevant explanations.
Ira Sacker, a doctor who has been treating anorexic and bulimic patients for 25 years, suggests that eating disorders are one of the few means of rebellion for Orthodox girls who live in traditional environments. In these ritualized families, one of the few things girls can control is their food intake.
Moreover, Orthodox women have certain pressures that are not commonly found among the general population, such as the need to get married at a young age. Some experts argue that anorexia will allow these young women to keep adulthood at bay by not getting their period, thereby delaying marriage.
In a 2002 study on Jewish Orthodox women who participated in a day treatment program, Ida Dancyger, a clinical associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at New York University’s School of Medicine, writes that several women felt threatened by the potential for an early marriage and that this pressure became a factor in their refusal to gain weight.
Finally, Orthodox communities are characterized by secrecy and denial when it comes to mental health issues. This silence is precisely what “Dying To Be Thin” wants to end.
The stigma of having an eating disorder prevents many young women from seeking professional help, because they don’t want anyone to know that something is wrong. Furthermore, having a family member with an eating disorder can make siblings less marriageable, according to Sacker. This situation encourages families to keep such problems secret.
But left untreated, anorexia can become chronic and lead to premature death. In fact, anorexia is the leading cause of death among females aged 15 to 24 in the United States, according to 2003 data from The Renfrew Center Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to the treatment of eating disorders.
Diamond says that although in the past 10 years, efforts have been made in the Orthodox community to prevent domestic violence and drug addiction, there has been little progress in the field of eating disorders.
“Dying To Be Thin” will run about 20 minutes and will include interviews with eating-disorder survivors, and with rabbis and medical professionals. The film’s format will make it easy for principals and teachers to show it to parents when they come to school.
“Through our parlor meetings, we have already started educating,” Diamond said. “People who needed referrals have reached out to us.”
The young producer, however, envisions many more years of activism to come.
“We need programs to educate young children, teachers and rabbis,” she said. “I don’t intend this to be the end. I see the movie as the first step.”