Monday, January 26, 2015

Starving to Get Married

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon (Jerusalem Post)
‘I only want to date girls that are a size two’. This is a statement burned into my memory. It was made by a young Yeshiva student over 20 years ago about the type of girl he wished to marry. This was of course not the only thing that was important to him. Obviously the things that are important to any serious young man about to embark on his future as a family man were important to him too. But if a girl was even slightly above that dress size, it was a non starter for him. He eventually found what he was looking for, became a Charedi Rosh HaYeshiva in Israel, and recently made a wedding for his oldest daughter.

I bring up this anecdote to point out what has become one f the most distressing problems of our time.  From an article in the Jerusalem Post
Food is such an integral part of Jewish ritual that it would seem impossible for the young Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox to hide the fact that they are starving themselves due to eating disorders (EDs). Potentially fatal anorexia is apparently growing among the observant in Israel and the Diaspora. 
As noted, the focus on how thin a girl is – is not limited to the secular or even Modern Orthodox world. It affects everyone living in the 20th century that is influenced by western culture. If a young woman is even a few unnoticeable pounds overweight, she may very well be overlooked by potential Shiduchim. And this problem is not new – as my 20 year old anecdote shows. Which kind of undermines all those attempts at insularity from the world outside. But that is another matter.

Anorexia Nervosa has become an increasing problem in western culture. It is a problem that no doubt affects the Orthodox Jewish world as much as it does the rest of the world. A person suffering from this disorder (usually female but not always) has a distorted body image. When they look in the mirror, they see someone that is overweight, no matter how thin they are. And they start down a road that can potentially be fatal – by eating at starvation levels. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Now I should quickly add that cases of anorexia are usually a function of another mental disorder. 50% of anorexics suffer from depression. But I can’t help but feel that the culture of our times contributes mightily to this disorder. How can it not when society worships the prototypical female body type of a young Hollywood celebrity. This worship filters down into even the moist insular community. Which is why a young Charedi Tamlud Chacham can reject any date under a size two. From the Jerusalem Post
When men are offered a shidduch, the first thing many ask for is the girl’s height, weight and dress size. This is a more powerful an influence on the observant than TV, the Internet and models, as they are less exposed to this…” 
Ideally, anyone with half a brain should know that dress size is about the least important feature one should be seeking in a woman. This is not to say that physical attraction doesn’t matter. Of course it does.  But to put so much emphasis on it the exclusion of even the slightest deviation from a specific dress size shows that there is something terribly wrong in our world… not unlike the rest of the world.

I realize that not everyone has this ‘standard ‘for their Shidduchim. There are a lot of young people that get married to a variety of body types. Both in society at large and in Orthodoxy. But I believe it is far more common than we are willing to admit. And I’m not sure we can do anything about it. To quote the perverse comedian Woody Allen when he was asked how he could divorce his wife and marry their step-daughter, Soon Yi: ‘The heart wants what it wants!’

Many young women understandably come to believe that being ‘fashion model’ thin is about the most important thing she can offer to a potential Shidduch. And thus be more susceptible to an eating disorder.  A distorted body image can precipitate clinical depression in someone that has a predilection to it.  And anorexia may be the condition that results.

I think we ought to be better than that. How to instill the kind of emotional maturity in our young men that will not look so much at dress size is the $64 dollar question. We can educate intellectually and spiritually. But how do we educate emotionally?

In the meantime there is a huge problem that often ends up with a fatality. And that needs to be addressed.

A few months ago I hosted an advertisement about a new organization called Merkaz Female. It is headed by Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, someone I know fairly well from Chicago. He is an innovative young educator that has made Aliyah and saw a need. Rabbi Jablon was perceptive to this problem because of personal experience. His oldest daughter, Leah, suffered from it.  Rabbi Jablon, Leah, and his organization are now a feature story in the Jerusalem Post.  A major part of the article is an interview with Leah. She discusses her personal experience with anorexia. I think it ought to be read by everyone.