We discussed the religious risk factor considerations last week and so I was going to move on to the next category of risk. But, based on the response to my last post, I have decided to delve a little deeper into this topic.
The relationship between religion and eating disorders is both complex and multifaceted. One particularly difficult area pertaining to adolescent girls is the perceived focus on externals. One of the vital messages we work hard to convey to our children is that your identity as a person, as an orthodox Jew, is not tied to your appearance, rather it is based on your neshama, that internal connection between each person and G-d. However, too often the cultural norms and expectations communicated to our girls are internalized and perceived as something else entirely. For example, consider our shidduch system. Girls start talking about marriage and their shidduch prospects from a very young age along with a clear expectation that in order for a girl to get married she must be thin. In fact, often the message given over to the girls is that they should be a specific size, overshadowing any middos or academic achievements. This emphasis is the antithesis of the message we work hard to impart, and can lead to confusion and mixed message perception, thereby increasing risk.
Another example can be found with the concept of tznius. Many girls struggle to understand how tznius connects them to G-d or fulfills them spiritually, as some of the laws of tznius necessitate an external focus and specificity. While the focus is intended to support their internal connection, the message often imparted is that the external, physical look of the person is more important and relevant. So, while the intention of tznius is both positive and constructive, sometimes girls can negatively internalize its message, thereby creating negative and biased cognitions that do influence and affect disordered eating and eating disorder risk.
Sadly, for many adolescent girls the message that “in order to be good you have to look good” is what they are perceiving and internalizing. This leads to confusion around why they are being judged by their appearance, if externals are truly not significant in the way that internals are. The message communicated becomes “sure, character traits and middos are appreciated, but it is the physical, outward presentation that is truly valuable” as it gets a lot more attention, focus, and praise. And this, unfortunately, is the message the girls acquire, ultimately increasing their risk not only for disordered eating and eating disorders, but for many types of mental health issues and illness.
Clearly, it is not religion that is communicating these mixed or confusing messages. Rather, it is the way the message is imparted and how it is understood by the girls that raises risk levels for them.