Let’s take this concept of internalization and perception a bit further by looking specifically at the delicate and influential age of adolescence for the Jewish orthodox female. Adolescence, in general, is an age where overall there is a higher propensity for developing disordered eating and/or eating disorders. Adolescents are looking to discover who they are and where they want to go. They are the most uncomfortable with themselves, as they try to find themselves and assert their independence, but are not quite sure where they are and where they want to go. A balance must be achieved, then, between their perception of this internal struggle/conflict of what is expected of them and their own wants, needs, and desires.
Adolescence is also a time when a person develops and solidifies their relationship with G-d and yet, is also a time when spiritual growth and development are especially trying and confusing, as the adolescent struggles to balance what they have been told and what it is they believe. There are mental health and educational professionals who reveal that it is during adolescence that it is most difficult for a young girl to have a solid, intrinsic, and spiritual relationship with G-d. There is greater difficulty for the adolescent to connect with G-d at this age when the perception is that multiple rules and regulations are being demanded of them. This state of confusion or misperception that is experienced by the adolescent has been documented to express itself via cognitive bias or dissonance against one’s own weight and size, ultimately leading to food and/or eating issues.
Further, culturally in our communities, many times our daughters are expected to mature and grow up quickly, taking on more responsibilities and household duties than other secular teens their age. Girls are asked to care for younger siblings, babysit whenever possible, get summer jobs from a young age, help with housework and Shabbos prep, as well as complete hours of homework to ensure academic success. Compounded on top of these extra responsibilities, is the stress of having to get ready to enter seminary and start on the path to shidduchim. This can make the girls feel as if their own individuality or distinctiveness is compromised or worse, not allowed to develop and/or blossom. And sometimes, these expectations can lead to feelings of a lack of control in certain areas of the adolescent’s life, necessitating the need for her to take control in other areas, very possibly leading to food and eating issues.
Adolescence is undoubtedly a delicate, stressful, and complicated life stage. It is so important for parents, teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, as well as Rabbis to understand the unique issues and challenges adolescents face.