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Anorexia and My Need for Perfection

Anorexia and My Need for Perfection

I had to be the skinniest, the prettiest, and the smartest. Otherwise, I was nothing.

by

“I felt alone. I couldn’t tell anyone because I was ashamed of what I was going through. In my community, eating disorders are seen as a materialistic, self-induced plea for attention and popularity. Especially anorexia. I wanted to hide, to disappear into myself even more. And that just caused me to lose more and more weight, while hating myself for who I had become.”

It is hard to believe that the frightened, vulnerable girl who wrote this was me.

The summer before eleventh grade, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. It all happened so suddenly it didn’t seem real. I had the ideal life. I was at the top of my class in school, I was popular, and I was the perfect daughter. I couldn’t have anorexia. It didn’t fit my image.

By the end of tenth grade I began thinking about losing weight. I was struggling with a friendship at the time, and was feeling abandoned and lonely. I began to question my whole identity, and my conclusions were always the same; I wasn’t good enough. I turned to dieting to help me find stable ground. Growing up, I had read about fad diets, saw the flawless models and celebrities in magazines, and heard the constant need to lose weight all around me. It seemed like the perfect outlet for me to release my worries, to occupy my thoughts, and to help me gain control over my life. I knew I could succeed at losing weight, and during a time when success in anything else seemed hopeless, my whole self-worth depended on it. Ironically, it was my attempt at gaining control that ultimately made me lose control.

I was too focused on hating myself and my shortcomings to have time for friends and family.

It began with food restriction. Every week I eliminated a different food group, and eventually I was left only with pure exhaustion, unable to function. It was then that the truth finally became clear. I woke up one morning, and knew there was something wrong with me. My mind was bombarded with thoughts of food, and calories, and thigh gaps and collarbones. I was on the scale after every meal, and again after each trip to the bathroom. My worth was based solely on the amount of space I saw between my thighs. Despite reality, every moment felt like a new pound gained. I would see the scale drop three ounces, down to a measly 100 pounds, yet I saw a monster when I looked in the mirror.

My diagnosis only worsened things. I saw my anorexia as my defining character trait and fed off of an imagined competition with others. I had to be the skinniest, the prettiest, and the smartest. Otherwise, I was nothing. I had to be perfect. The next few years were a blur of therapy sessions, doctors’ appointments, nutrition counseling, and self-imposed isolation. I was too focused on hating myself and my shortcomings to have time for friends and family. I was trapped inside my own mind, controlled by a part of me I never knew existed. I wanted the torture to end, and at times I wanted my life to end.

After many, many months of intense introspection, professional help, and family support, I eventually turned a corner. I was still struggling but my rational side was fighting back. During this period, I became more religious, and found comfort in God when no one else could comfort me. I started a new school my senior year of high school, and created a new life for myself. I thank God every day that I was strong enough to overcome anorexia, and finally have arrived at a place of self- love and compassion.

Societal Triggers

Unfortunately, eating disorders are a reality many people face. In America alone, at least 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder, anorexia being the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. Approximately every hour, someone around the world dies as a direct result of an eating disorder. And sadly, these numbers are only rising, especially among young children (1). Whether it is anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, those who suffer are under constant attack and critique in the media, their communities, and our societal culture as a whole. However, from my perspective, it is our societal values and ideals that have encouraged these eating disorders to begin with.

There are two main approaches researchers take with regard to eating disorders (2). One approach places the blame for the disease on the sufferer, as a result of personal choice and genetics. The other approach blames society and its values as a catalyst for eating disorders. Although research and my personal experience definitely suggest that biology and individual choice can intensify eating disorders, I would like to suggest that it is our culture and the ideals it places upon us that trigger them from the start.

We live in a culture that encourages materialism. It teaches us that who we are as humans does not matter, that instead our worth is based on our looks; whether someone is fat or skinny, has dark or light skin, long or short hair, blue or brown eyes. Every part of the human body is scrutinized and there is always a new way to make it ‘even more’ perfect. What most of us are just now beginning to realize is that this ‘ideal’ human body is unattainable. It does not exist. The beautiful models seen in magazines and on billboards are airbrushed. The celebrities on TV wear spandex and pounds of makeup. Companies actually fabricate new types of imperfections simply in order to create new products and raise sales.

All of this leads to a supposed ‘new and improved,’ beautiful, and perfect human being. Unfortunately, every decade there is a new ideal created by society. Advertisements display a new look, companies unveil new products, and the public quickly leaves the old fads behind, scurrying after the new ones to try and attain this new ‘perfection.’ This is a result of our society’s flawed focus. We are always trying to become someone we are not. And in our culture today, we are trying to be skinny. Very, very skinny. And sadly, the Jewish community is not exempt from these pressures.

The initial cause of an eating disorder can vary. It could be the result of a traumatic experience, a difficult life situation, or even difficulties among family and friends. However, it is society that has given us this outlet to cope with problems. We turn to our culture’s obsession with food and bodies. Regulating our eating gives us a way to find control when we feel out of control in other areas of our lives. The underlying issues are ultimately manifested in our need to be perfect.

Creating Change

As a society, how do we prevent this problem from progressing? We must change the fundamental values of our society. We must free ourselves from the restraints of this shared ‘ideal’, and replace it with a set of values tailored to our own personalities, interests and aspirations.

We must come to value ourselves as worthy human beings based on our abilities, talents and character, not on our bodies.

The biggest step we can take as a society is to become aware of this social problem. Only then can people begin to see the influence our culture has on eating disorders, and fight to change it as a result. As someone who has struggled with the pressures of society, I know it is almost impossible to ignore the culture in which we live. Changes must be made. Advertisement agencies must stop airbrushing their models. Designers must hire models with healthy BMIs and replace the emaciated girls on the runway. Television shows and magazines should stop focusing on weight loss and fad diets, and focus on being healthy. Granted, these changes are occurring in many areas, however the focus has now moved to curvy women, thereby shaming all women who do not have curves. It has jumped from one extreme to another. Society should not focus on any body type. It should focus on being healthy. It should focus on balance, and teach us to never live to the extreme.

On a personal level, we must each come to value ourselves as worthy human beings based on our abilities, talents and character, and not on our bodies. Judaism believes it is the soul that is our essence. We are all created in the image of God, and all have the potential to contribute to the world in different ways. Our external differences are simply another manifestation of our uniqueness on the inside. And every difference that we see is fashioned by God. I am now grateful for the way I look, different from everyone else, because it serves as a constant reminder of my individuality.

We have an obligation to respect our bodies, as they are the guardians of our souls and a reflection of who we are on the inside. Our bodies are inherently beautiful because our souls are beautiful. We must never forget the unique Godliness that we all possess, and remember that the differences between us all make us beautiful.

As a society we must ensure that future generations are able to be happy with who we are as individuals. We need to teach our children to be thankful for being alive, and for every part of our body that works the way it should, quirks and all. We need to believe that the way we look, the way we were created, whether we have brown eyes or blue, whether we have curly or straight hair, whether we are thin or full-figured, is exactly the way we are meant to be.

  1. Eating Disorder Coalition For Research, Policy, and Action. Eating Disorders Coalition, n.d. Web.
  2. Russel-Mayhew, Dr. Shelley. "Eating Disorders and Obesity as Social Justice Issues: Implications for Research and Practice." Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology 1.1 (2007): n. pag. Print.

December 20, 2014

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 7

(7) MESA, August 10, 2015 1:48 PM

I hereby call on all shadchanim (professional or not) to do the following: if a man says that he wants a wife who is a size 0 or 2, tell him to go home, grow up, and come back when he has his head on straight. OK, you may be nicer than that. But you get the point. There are men who demand that when searching for a wife and that's incorrect. Not only should he be looking for middot tovot and good values and not judging by looks, but he has to know that good health comes in all shapes and sizes. There are plus-size women who are NOT actually overweight but who are simply built larger and/or who are very athletic and have lots of muscle mass. Men should be looking for wives who are healthy. Period.

(6) Anonymous, December 22, 2014 10:57 AM

not all of the facts are correct

"There are two main approaches researchers take with regard to eating disorders (2). One approach places the blame for the disease on the sufferer, as a result of personal choice and genetics. The other approach blames society and its values as a catalyst for eating disorders." The first sentence here contains an age-old myth regarding EDs that has in recent years proven to be completely untrue- that EDs are a personal choice. There isn't a single respected practitioner working in the field today who believes in that theory. More and more research studies have shown eating disorders to be the result of biologically-based based brain disorders- ie, similar to other illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and OCD. It is dangerous to further that myth by publishing it here- it just adds to the shame a sufferer undoubtedly feels and can lead to a delay in diagnosis/treatment. No one chooses the HELL that is an ED. No motivational speaker ever stood up on a stage before thousands of people and said "having an ED made me the happiest person in the world". In a sense, the ED chooses you. So please, readers, know that no competent professional working in the field today will think you are responsible for choosing to be sick. Don't let that stop you from reaching out for help.

(5) Anonymous, December 22, 2014 5:13 AM

Thank you

Thank you for speaking up on behalf of us girls who feel alone in the fight. Thanks for trying to explain this battle as something other than just an expression of vanity or that it's "our fault" which only causes more self hate and guilt. There should be more people like you who are willing to share your story and hopefully destigmatize eating disorders In the jewish community so that girls who suffer will be able to get the help they need instead of backlash from those who see this illness as "materialistic" or a need for "popularity". And thank you for shedding some light on the progress that is left to be made for everyone, on their own level, to see themselves as Hashem sees them, as beautiful neshamos Kol hakavod to you for your courage and may you go michayil el chayil!

(4) Ellie, December 21, 2014 7:23 PM

So true

The view point of those around us affects all we do...

I'm so happy that you've reached a point of health and self acceptance..... Thank you for sharing it with us...

(3) Riva, December 21, 2014 5:33 PM

What a brave and eloquent article about a challenging subject. I wonder if there is anything we as fellow Jews can do to help bring about these societal changes?

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