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Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Living a Jewish Life

October 24, 2021 | by Leah Bat Chana

My eating disorder is the elephant in the room in my marriage and is a constant in my life.

I stare at the luscious spread of pastries arranged elegantly on the Shabbat table. Chocolate chip cookies, honey cake, carrot cake. I want all of them. Not a sensible portion, but all two dozen cookies and every bite of both cakes. These desires overwhelm my thoughts as I play with the bits of leftover salad and vegetables on my plate.

I nudge my husband and make eyes with desserts. He knows the drill. Sample all of them, eat most of it, and leave a few nibbles over for me.

The meal ends and I’m left straining to justify how taking the second slice of challah was alright. I don’t honestly believe it, but I try to reason that it is Shabbat after all and that it’s not only okay but actually sanctioned on this holy day. Then I try to concentrate on being grateful for the God-given abundance. Grateful? How can I be grateful for something that causes me so much pain?

Me eating disorder stemmed from a feeling of lack of control.

I’ve been battling an eating disorder for at least six years now. It’s a form of anorexia. Though I would eat, I’d then compensate with excessive workouts to burn the calories. It started with cutting out white flour and switching from walking to running, and eventually spiraled into five hours of exercise a day and a very limited no-carb diet.

The years of abusing my body in this way and restricting my calorie intake eventually led to parental interventions, therapy, and medication. It was through this process that I learned – and am still learning – that these behaviors stemmed from a feeling of lack of control. I couldn’t control that I lost a client at work, a friend broke plans with me, or that all of sudden the 405 was filled with more traffic than Waze indicated. But I sure could control how many HIIT classes I took at the gym in a day, how many teaspoons of olive oil I’d “allow” myself to cook with, or how many berries I’d eat in my yogurt.

Food Fantasy and Binge Eating

Despite the restrictive behavior, I fantasized about food constantly. My Instagram feeds were populated by cooking, baking, and food decorating videos. On my miles-long walks, I would pop into groceries stories to ogle the cakes, cookies, even just a can of frosting. At restaurants I’d fixate on the dishes I desperately wanted before ordering the lowest calorie item on the menu.

This self-inflicted torture eventually led to another disorder: binge eating. An eating disorder is something nobody likes to talk about or wants to admit to oneself. It’s the elephant in the room in my marriage, and is a constant in my life. But now living in the food-centric lifestyle of the observant community, finding comfort at any Yom Tov or Shabbat meal is nearly impossible.

Jewish culture is not only surrounded by food, it is obsessed with it.

I quickly learned that Jewish culture is not only surrounded by food, it is obsessed with it. The laws of keeping kosher mean that I always have to look over nutrition labels, where my eye fixates on the calorie count. Knowing what blessings to say before and after eating means I must say a blessing that reminds me that I’ve just ingested another serving of carbohydrates. If I want to honor the Sabbath or Jewish holiday in the ideal way I should eat bread. All this is just for putting food in my mouth. Don’t get me started on kashering dishware and ridding my home of chametz, leaven, before Passover.

The one tool I could use to combat a day of overeating was a trip to the gym. On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, when exercise goes against the spirit of the day, I’m left sitting in my apartment staring at my Schwinn stationary bicycle while my husband is at synagogue. The days of rest are torture for me.

Shabbat Challenges

Don’t get me wrong. There is so much about Shabbat that I love. I love lighting the candles. I love the refuge from my hectic work and the incessant texts from my boss. I cherish the undisturbed quality with my husband and friends. And I love that one day (God willing) I will have a family that will experience a set and unquestioned time of no electronics. There is so much about this lifestyle that has made my life richer. I connect profoundly to songs, prayer, and I love hearing my husband elucidate ideas from the Torah. I love asking him difficult questions and watching him squirm. (He usually finds a good answer, even if I don’t agree with it.) He has opened up to me about some of his most intimate struggles and how his path to observance has helped him make so much progress.

Sometimes I feel empowered, but sometimes I feel like a fraud.

Though that is inspiring, his struggles weren’t triggered every Friday night and festive meal. For me, it's a high bar for entry and I have to suffer it silently. I can share my struggle with my closest friends, but I don’t want to diminish their joy and the way they like to feast. And for new families that are eager to host us, I certainly don’t want to bombard them with my difficulties for a first impression.

Healing Path

I am trying to use Judaism to help me heal the way it has helped my husband. I am trying to be a more connected, mindful person with blessings, allowing myself to be grateful for the food I’ve just eaten. I am trying, though usually failing, to limit my indulgences to only Shabbat and holidays. I am trying to reach out to God for a solution to all of this.

Sometimes I feel empowered, but sometimes I feel like a fraud. I see the women around me at shul each Shabbat, in such intense concentration and connection some of them reach the point of tears, and I wonder if I will ever get there. I am sure they all have their struggles, but I cannot imagine theirs plague them 24/7 the way my demons plague me.

I’m sure God gave me this challenge for a reason, and during my times of calm reflection I can contemplate how this is good for me. And I know certain requirements can be avoided with the council of an authoritative rabbi. But when it is 10:30 at night and my husband reaches for my hand on the walk home, I just wish I could fully be present with him instead of ruminating on every kugel square, side dish, and lemon tart I wish I had left on the serving tray.

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