Judaism, as a religion and as a culture, has a complicated relationship with food.
Many Jewish laws, holidays, and customs revolve around the kinds of meals we are required -- or not -- to eat. These same factors determine who prepares the meals, when they are served, and who eats them. In many cases, such as on Shabbat or following a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah, the act of eating is even considered holy. Yet, at those very same celebrations, it is not uncommon to see young women with empty plates looking longingly at the rolls in the center of the table.
You see, while food is celebrated in Jewish tradition, it is also feared, particularly by some women who feel pressured to look a certain way. Unfortunately, Judaism's ambivalent relationship with food is an inextricable part of Jewish identity. It is also the topic thoroughly studied by this year's cohort of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago's Research Training Internship (RTI).
RTI is a selective, 10-month paid internship for high school students who identify as female looking to enhance their critical thinking and research skills. Over the course of the internship, RTI participants collectively select, research, and report on a topic exploring the messages Jewish young women and girls receive -- from parents, peers, and the Jewish community at large -- about who they are supposed to be and to become. This year's RTI Cohort of eleven students decided to focus their research on disordered eating and attitudes about food in the Jewish community through the lenses of gender, Jewish tradition and Jewish law -- completing both a full-length written report and video project on the subject.
Through their research, the interns collected evidence demonstrating astonishingly high levels of disordered eating and food/body-related anxieties in the Jewish community, particularly among females. According to their research, 78 percent of young Jewish women experience anxieties around food choices, body shape or size, or weight. One in four Jewish women demonstrate disordered eating behaviors, such as denying themselves food. Most devastatingly, 62.3 percent of young women shared that they experienced criticism from parents and other family members about their weight and food consumption. Many of these young women reported feeling that they did not "deserve" to eat.
Further research revealed that issues with weight and body image are passed down, l'dor vador, from generation to generation. Specifically, RTI researchers found "a direct link between grandmothers, mothers, and teenage girls of intergenerational transmission of food/body-related expectations, criticisms, and pressures to conform to idealized beauty standards." Nearly 70 percent of the young women interviewed recounted experiences of Jewish female relatives berating themselves or others for food choices. Yet, only 5 percent of young men reported noticing such exchanges.
"Most of us experience criticism from family members about the ways we look at least 1 time per week," write the teen researchers. Furthermore, "our research is directly in line with major, peer-led academic studies that show that Jewish women suffer from disordered eating at a higher rate than any ethnic minority."
Food-based anxiety "is so deeply ingrained in everything we do as women, as Jews," affirms Stephanie Goldfarb, outgoing program director of Youth Philanthropy and Leadership at JUF. "The patterns of disordered eating and the preoccupation around food and body image is so baked into Jewish culture on so many levels that it is almost impossible to see it."
So, what do we do? How can Jews living today help bring an end to the double standards surrounding food facing women and girls in our community? The answer proposed by the RTI cohort is not one you'll often hear in the Jewish world, but in this case, the young researchers recommend a break from tradition.
"We must break the cycle of the intergenerational transmission of food and body anxiety and sexism in food spaces in order to better our Jewish community and society as a whole," they write. "In order to do so, we must educate ourselves and harness our strengths -- the best way to end this cycle is to respect yourself and know your worth."
RTI is hosted by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago in partnership with Ma'yan and the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender, and Community, and is hosted in partnership with DePaul University. To learn more about RTI and the research completed by this year's cohort, visit juf.org/teens/RTI_About.aspx.
Jenna Cohen serves as Grants and Planning Associate for Jewish Child & Family Services and is a freelance writer living in Chicago.