Content warning: eating disorders
I was 13 when puberty hit and my body seemed to change overnight. My breasts developed first: double Ds, then triple. My hips rounded. Suddenly, I had curves. This new body was mysterious, distressing, but what made it worse was that I seemed to be the only one changing. My friends remained delicate and small, wore dainty bralettes; by the end of 7th grade, I had outgrown anything Victoria’s Secret offered.
I felt gawky and awkward, a young girl trapped in a foreign woman’s body. Teachers pulled me aside and gave me sweaters to wear over my uniform blouse. Modesty was a virtue at the Orthodox all-girls school I went to, and my body, they made implicitly clear, did not fit its parameters. At the end of 8th grade, when I won a writing contest hosted by a local museum, the school newsletter published a picture of me at the awards ceremony with one glaring addition: a black bar over my chest. I cried for days with the shame of it, wishing to disappear. The solution came to me instantly: I’d go on a diet.
Always a perfectionist, I applied myself to dieting with the same intensity and fervor I applied to everything else and discovered that I was, in fact, quite good at it. I could rattle off the calories in a bagel, the grams of carbohydrates in a bowl of pasta. Chips were verboten, as was ice cream and bread. I ran religiously, fitting in runs between trips to the mall, cancelling plans in favor of working out. It was becoming excessive, but no one was too worried. This was what teenage girls did. They dieted; such was the standard initiation process into life as a woman.
My friends began catching up to me during freshman year of high school. I was no longer a woman in a sea of girls — we were now in it together, all hips and thighs and thunderous moods. This helped; feeling less alone, I gradually began to let go of my obsession with shrinking my body. I didn’t always love it, but I promised myself I’d never try to change it again. I knew it was too risky.
But I felt pressured to conform in other ways. At school, they preached early marriage and babies. I wondered if that was all I was good for. “Oh, you’re such a feminist!” they’d laugh when I’d question these things. But I was serious: Did I have any innate worth as myself, without the labels of future wife and mother? In classes, we spoke about restraint: from non-kosher food, from eating for the sake of pleasure, from casual sex. Hunger was an animalistic thing, something to be tamed. I, hungry for more — for a career, for a life not defined by others’ expectations of me — was toeing a dangerous line. My teachers told me I was too opinionated, too contrarian. I knew what they really meant: I was, in every way, too much.
Judaism is a religion that honors hunger. Holidays revolve around family meals, we bless the food we eat, and so many of our communal memories are tied to culinary traditions. Our culture is lively, expressive and joyous. But if you are hungry for something else, that appetite will be admonished. I desperately wished I could be as happy and complacent as my classmates were. My need — for more, for growth — began to represent all of the ways I had failed my upbringing. And so slowly, I turned on my body’s most primal expression of need: hunger.
It started subtly. I began to eat less. But this time, unlike in middle school, it spiraled rapidly: I replaced whole meals with cigarettes, went whole days without food. My hunger was elastic; I pushed its boundaries further and further. How long could I hold out for? How much could I deny myself? I felt high, powerful, better than those around me. I felt a sense of control over myself I had been denied for too long. I began to think I did not need food to survive. In fact, I did not need anything — love or softness or pleasure — the way other people did. This was ironic; that I could feel both so unworthy of food and heady with power, with my ascetic capability to take things too far.
Here is the thing: In some people with a genetic predisposition to it, hunger releases powerful chemicals that make you feel energetic, almost manic. It has been hypothesized that this is an evolutionary adaptation from the caveman era; starvation-induced energy gave food-deprived hunters and gatherers the necessary stamina to keep seeking out sustenance. Unfortunately, this feeling is also addictive, which is how it becomes a thing you need more and more of, until it is a thing you cannot control, until you have developed an actual phobia of food and eating, until it is a voice in your head that tells you you cannot eat and you have no choice but to obey.
I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. I was addicted to starving, enslaved to the voice in my head that told me eating meant failure, weakness. It didn’t matter how far I went; I needed to go further. Eating disorders are often accompanied by body dysmorphia. To the disordered mind, any extra tissue on the body — in fact, having a body at all — signifies life and health. When you are trying to shrink from life, you will do whatever it takes to erase yourself. This was now a compulsion: I had to shrink down to bone.
There is only so long a body can survive without nourishment before it gives out. I was bone-deep cold, black-out dizzy when I stood. I lost my period. I had nightmares about eating, my hunger haunting every moment. I knew I had a problem, but I was too deeply enmeshed to understand the depth of it. My voice got quieter, my smile disappeared. My eating disorder wanted me to shrink in every way and I, terrified of taking up space, listened.
When I was diagnosed with anorexia, I didn’t believe it. My doctor told me that my heart was giving out and I needed to go to treatment. My rabbi told me I had an obligation to eat the non-kosher food they’d serve there, that any food was permitted to save my life. That night, I laid in bed and cried, listening to my heart beat slowly in my chest. I didn’t want to die, but I was terrified of everything recovery symbolized: not just weight gain, but taking up space — my own space — in the world. I’d have to acknowledge my hunger and need, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready.
At first, I vacillated between recovering and turning back to my eating disorder. Eating felt like losing control; eating non-kosher food felt like turning my back on the community I’d tried so hard to fit into. But slowly, I began to view it as an act of rebellion against my eating disorder. With every forkful I ate, I was moving past the confines of an illness that had tried to diminish me in every way. Eating a cheeseburger meant choosing life; every bite of shrimp scampi was an act of freedom. As I regained my strength and my personality, I remembered who I was: not a girl who valued smallness, but a girl who valued life.
The number of people who suffer from eating disorders is alarmingly high in the Jewish community — in one Orthodox girls high school in Brooklyn, one in 19 girls had an eating disorder, at a rate of about 50% higher than the general population. Eating disorders aren’t a choice, but environment plays a huge role in how they develop, and I suspect that the pressure of the Eshet Hayili deal — of being the all-around perfect Jewish wife, mother and woman — has something to do with it.
It’s time for the narrow, restrictive definitions of what it means to be a Jewish woman to be redefined. Let’s start teaching girls that their value lies not in their modesty, purity or family size, but in their character traits, talents and capabilities. There’s a world of girls out there who need to hear that it’s OK if they don’t fit the mold, that they don’t need to shrink any part of themselves to conform.
Recovery is not linear. I battle ED thoughts every time I eat; I’m terrified of one day relapsing, of spiraling down again. My eating disorder whispers to me, reminding me of how good it felt to exert control, of how much safer it felt to be small and invisible. But I remind myself that shrinking almost killed me, and that I have a life to live beyond fitting in. And while I haven’t quite embraced my hunger, I’m learning to accept it. It’s not just keeping me alive. It’s opening me up to life.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to the NEDA Helpline for support, resources and treatment options.