Can we have a more balanced, more realistic approach to eating, dieting, and body size? Our readers continue to share their perspectives
For the longest time, the mirror was my accomplice in my deceit of self. I only used the bathroom mirror, where I could only see my face. I didn’t have to see the wreckage I’d done to my 400-pound body.
Yes, the numbers on the labels of my clothes told me my size, but if they had elastic, I could “cheat” into a smaller size. Cheat is a nasty little word. It sounds as if you’re getting away with something, when you’re really harming yourself. The few times I actually tried to diet, I would invariably “cheat” and eat things that were not “allowed,” then figure, “What’s the use?” and go back to my old eating pattern.
You see, I’d found early on that if I steadily ingested large quantities of carbs and sugar, I didn’t feel my feelings as intensely. I’d developed this unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with my life. Of course, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, as I was just a child but it helped… for a while. Until it didn’t.
I kept using the only tool I had to cope and kept getting bigger, which brought on more psychic pain. There was no way out. I was going to die. Let’s not forget my parents’ promises of all kinds of wonderful things if I would just lose the weight. And all those reminders that no one was going to want to marry me because I was so fat. I think I’ve painted the picture bleakly enough. I heard the message, loud and clear: If I’m fat, I’m unlovable.
So, what happened? How is it that 25 years ago I met and married a wonderfully sweet man who was able to see me for all that I am despite my size? A little over 35 years ago, I found Overeaters Anonymous. I don’t recall how I found out about OA or how I got to my first meeting, but I knew instantly that I’d found people who understood my inescapable need to shove food into my mouth to push down the feelings. OA gave me a way out of that insanity.
In OA I was introduced to concepts and tools that allowed me to take a step back, take a pause, take a look, and clear away the wreckage of my past. The most amazing thing of all is that OA introduced me to the Power greater than myself that could restore me to sanity. Through that ultimate loving relationship, I became chozer b’teshuvah.
Understanding that I’m a beautiful child of Hashem allows me to be in acceptance of myself as I am and be grateful for everything in my life today. I’m able to ask Hashem, “What is Your Will for me?” and sit quietly to listen.
What does this have to do with my weight? Turning my will and my life over to Hashem allows me to ask what foods and food behaviors are in my best interests. Hashem’s unconditional love encourages me that I’m on the right path; if I continue to do my hishtadlus to take care of the body He gave me to house my soul, He’ll take care of everything else. So far I’ve lost 140 pounds. I’m no longer a slave to my food cravings. I live daily in an attitude of gratitude and try always to radiate Hashem’s light.
I’ve unlearned that lesson that slim means lovable. Instead, I’ve learned that true love doesn’t measure you by the size of your body, but the size of your heart.
Still Not at Peace
I’ve been reading the Smoke and Mirrors conversation with interest, since weight and body image are often on my mind. I noticed that in most of the submissions, after a journey of struggle, most of the women came to a place of acceptance of their body and their weight. They seem to all have come to the realization that our bodies don’t define us and we need to ditch the negative pressures and judgments.
One notable exception was “Stuck as a Teen” where Chana Goldberg shares that she’s still “fighting with myself.” Personally, I identify much more with Chana Goldberg than with the rest of the writers who seem to have arrived at a place of peace and contentment with food and their bodies.
Even though I would describe my body as very average, I feel like I would look better if I could shed a few pounds. This struggle is something that takes up headspace. Even though I don’t think it’s the correct mentality, I definitely conflate being thin with being beautiful, and I’m always trying to lose my “extra weight” and feeling defeated when I make “bad” choices with food. I put those words in quotes because even though I know intellectually that I look normal and it’s healthy to indulge in moderation, I grapple with this all the time.
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel totally in control of my eating or if my body will ever look the way I want it to. But unlike most of the other writers, I’m not at peace with that and it pains me. I’m just adding my perspective to the conversation to give voice to other women who might be struggling on one hand with wanting to be thinner and on the other hand feeling vain and immature for not having a healthier attitude toward weight.
Damage of Diet Culture
When I was starving in pregnancy from hyperemesis gravidarum, I was physically so weak that I was unable to take care of myself. My blood was full of damaging toxins due to starvation. So many around me, including my OB, thought I was so lucky and congratulated me for losing weight! Mind-boggling.
It’s really upsetting that people are so deep in diet culture that even when someone is clearly unwell, all they can think about is that weight loss was attained, so the person must be healthy. (As a side note, once I began eating normally again, my body reacted as it does to any famine or diet, and the weight came back, and possibly even pushed up my set point.)
I’m blessed to have found HAES and Intuitive Eating several years ago, and am healthier and happier as a result, even if not thinner.
I’ve been blessed with a healthy appetite and robust build. I matured early, making me big for most of my childhood and adolescence. My mother was generally kind, usually responding to my complaints of “I’m fat!” with “Well, now there’s more of you to love!” but occasionally she, or other family members, did say things like, “Stop eating so much!” “Watch what you eat!” (These comments are poison. Really. Today we know that this isn’t a metaphor.)
At 12, I discovered that if you suck in your stomach and reduce your food intake you will look skinnier and lose weight. Though I was never anorexic, I did lose my cycle (and I was at a weight that no one would say is too low for my height). My father used to humor me by cutting my slice of challah very thin and then peeking through it before passing it to me.
That stage of my life lasted around two years because my father connected me to the depth of spirituality available in our chassidus. The spiritual bliss I experienced at the tish and davening lifted me out of the limited, small place where weight and food obsession is possible.
In my community, weight is a nonissue when it comes to shidduchim, unless either party is seriously obese, and yes, I married the skinniest boy that can possibly exist, 130 pounds at 5 feet 10 inches. I gained ten pounds after my wedding, trying to navigate my way through the cooking and serious meals of shanah rishonah. Pregnancy and postpartum added lots of cushioning. At first I was able to lose the weight, but then came baby number four, five, and six….
Failing to pass my third trimester sugar test in my most recent pregnancy, and the weeks of finger-pricking that followed, have been a real wake-up call. My father has diabetes, and his mother and her father died from diabetes at relatively young ages (without their feet, Rachmana litzlan).
Thirty-two is young, but it’s not 20 anymore, and my body was not doing well with refined carbs and dairy. My body turning “apple shape” was not just an aesthetic problem that flattering styles could take care of — it was telling me what I could face if I didn’t get serious about eliminating these personal poisons from my diet.
It’s hard. It really is. But within a day or two of cutting out white flour, sugar, and milk, the spare tire around my waist started shrinking, my acne started disappearing, and I felt much better. I talk to myself like to a toddler, saying the rule in a monotone, simple sentence. “No white flour, sugar, and milk,” sometimes adding empathetically, “It’s hard, but you’ll be okay. You really will.”
Someone shared a pasuk with me “tzaddik ochel l’sova nafsho — a tzaddik eats for the satisfaction of his soul” (Mishlei 13:25) that helped me form a healthier attitude. When I feel like I need to eat more, but I know that I ate enough, or I want to eat foods that I know will really damage me, I try to remember: I don’t have to feel full or indulge. “Are you satisfied?” I ask myself. Satisfaction does not only mean physical, but emotional as well. If the answer is yes, I just keep repeating — tzaddik ochel l’sova nafsho, eat for satisfaction. If not, perhaps an herbal tea, one square of 85% dark chocolate with a warm, cinnamon, almond milk drink, or another healthy treat will do.
My new habits produced solid results. I passed my sugar test (yay!!!) and when I went to the doctor, instead of gaining weight, I measured one pound less!
To keep my craving pregnant self happy, I stock treats made out of very simple wholesome ingredients that I make myself (thanks, Rorie Weisberg!) and my plan is to stock my freezer with these relatively healthy indulgences for postpartum. Of course, the mainstay of my diet should not be muffins, even healthy ones, but I know my limits when sleep deprived.
My approach is not for everyone. Everyone needs a system that works for them. I can eat potatoes and corn in moderation, but not white flour, sugar, and dairy. I would always be obsessing — another slice, or not? Should I eat a small treat at this simchah? Is a small treat one miniature or three?
Traveling from a “fress” mentality to an “obsession about weight and self-punishment” train of thought to an “emotional, spiritual, and physical healthy equilibrium” is a journey. But I’m trying.
Single and Overweight
I’ve been struggling with my weight for over 15 years, when I started the journey of dieting. A journey that has killed me emotionally and has made me gain even more weight. Every time I went on a diet, I would lose weight. Eventually I’d go off the diet and gain that lost weight plus additional weight.
At the beginning I didn’t define myself by my weight. Yes, I was a little overweight, but that didn’t change who I was. But being in the shiduch scene for so many years has changed that. I’ve become someone who hates my body and despises myself. I’ve started to believe all the lies that the shadchanim/family members/ kind friends have fed me.
It’s hard enough being single. But being single and overweight is impossible. Everyone blames me for being overweight. Although I’m a talented person with exceptional qualities, all anyone sees me as is overweight. Nothing else. Not my kindness and sensitivity, not my friendliness and depth, not my strength and passion in Yiddishkeit. All that means zero when you’re overweight.
When you see shadchanim and the only thing they tell you is, “You need to lose weight,” that kills you. What do they think? That I don’t know? That I don’t own a mirror? And when this happens again and again and again, seeing shadchanim becomes a nightmare.
Because this is all some shadchanim see, when they suggest me to someone, they bring their bias in and ask them if they’d date an overweight girl. Please! Why not mention my qualities first and let them decide? Why ask the guy I’m dating if my weight bothers him?
It’s a tough journey. Knowing that I am being judged makes it hard for me to attend simchahs (as if it isn’t hard enough as it is), walk in the streets, and even be seen in public. I’m embarrassed to eat in front of others. How could I eat if I’m overweight and looking for a shidduch?!
I realized that something had to change. I entered therapy to try to deal with my weight. But before we could even attempt to work on anything, we had to first tackle my battered self-esteem and self-hate and self-blame, the lingering trauma from all those involved.
I had to work so hard to face this topic, to try to not hate my body and myself, but to try and love myself despite the extra pounds. To stop blaming myself for being single and for being overweight. To try to find some realistic way to stay healthy — and if the pounds shed themselves, then great. I have to accept myself first and foremost and switch off the voices of all those people trying to “help” me.
I’m still on the journey to recovery. It’s a tough battle but I’m fighting. Slowly, ever so slowly, the outer world’s view is fading. I’m learning to see myself for who I am. I’m realizing that I am still a worthy person even if the world doesn’t think so.
If I could give messages to the world, they’d be this: Look at the whole person, not just their weight. Shidduchim are difficult enough — please don’t crush a single’s self-esteem. Support them, love them, and see their worth. If you change your view, the shidduchim you suggest and the way you do it would be vastly different and might even cause some more shidduchim to happen. But as I remind myself constantly: Shadchanim are not to blame for my being single, or even for the indescribable pain they’ve caused me — they were just G-d’s shaliach. I’m in the Hands of the One Above.
Who Am I Now?
When I flipped to the feature Smoke and Mirrors, I paused. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that articles about struggling with your size apply to me. This never happened to me before—that I’d look in the mirror and be dissatisfied with what I saw.
See, I am — I always was — that natural size zero and a half. Jewish fashions are made for people like me. I never counted a calorie or exercised for weight loss in my life.
Then I was blessed with a pregnancy. A friend warned me: The worst is when you stop fitting into your clothes anymore. The worst?? It was a total joy. I had the cutest maternity wardrobe. I looked great, I felt great.
And then I had the baby. For the bris, I innocently pulled out one of my sheva brachos dresses. I couldn’t even get it on. I ended up wearing a maternity top, a borrowed skirt, and feeling yuchy. But hey, it would take me six weeks to get back to myself, right?
It didn’t. It’s been a few months and I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that Nothing. Fits. Anymore. I’m not the size I used to be. Maybe I never will be. It’s disorienting, maybe even scary. I go into the stores and the dresses don’t fit right. Who am I now?
I have friends, neighbors, sisters, who are obsessive about losing their baby weight. I could do the same thing; maybe I’d get my old size back. But I don’t want to jeopardize my nursing, I don’t want to prioritize my looks over my health. I don’t want to dread what another pregnancy and birth would do to my body instead of embracing these incredible brachos with joy and gratitude. Losing size zero dresses are a small price to pay for being a mother. I know that.
Still, my fingers slow when I reach the article — then I quickly flip past it. I just can’t read it, it scares me. Who am I now?
Size Four’s Not the Goal
I’ve always been average weight, slim, perfectly okay with myself. Recently, though, I had a miscarriage. One day I was coming into work at the is-she-isn’t-she stage of pregnancy; the next time I came into work was three weeks later, sans baby. I’d hardly eaten due to lack of interest and appetite.
I received an overwhelming number of compliments from all my colleagues on my skinniness. My skin was sallow, my ribs and hips poked out through two layers of clothing, I looked gaunt and felt awful. All I could think was, “What’s the matter with everyone? Our society must be crazy! I do not look good! I’ve never looked worse!”
Size four should not be the goal. Health should.
How Can We Expect Change?
Coming from the other side of the mechitzah, I think there are a couple of points to add to the discussion.
A number of people mentioned the issue of shidduchim and being told (in highly insensitive ways) that no one would ever marry them if they didn’t lose weight. It’s going to be hard to change that mindset if experience bears it out. If girls considered to be of “non-ideal” physical appearance (and I hate the way I wrote that, even with the quotation marks) in fact do have a harder time getting married, then indeed our girls will continue to relate in unhealthy ways to their bodies. As an amateur shadchan, I’ve had multiple boys — erliche bnei Torah — reject suggestions on the grounds that “she’s not my look” or some similar euphemism.
Our boys need to be educated not to place undue emphasis on appearances if we want to make any progress in this area. And moreover, they need to be taught the often-overlooked truth (as reported by mental health professionals) that whether or not someone will find his wife beautiful depends much more on the quality of their relationship than the size she wears. My own experience confirms this 100 percent. If boys internalized these points before developing fixed ideas about how they want their wives to look, and acted accordingly, there would be a chance for girls to let go of some of their stress about their weight. But we can’t suffice with educating our girls to be accepting of themselves when reality punishes them for doing so.
In the Grip of the Bully
In high school, I was always on a diet. My weight fluctuated, but it was always within a healthy range, nothing out of the ordinary. But after high school came seminary. And when people related to me stories of how they had gained so much weight throughout their years in seminary, it really, really scared me.
And then I started seminary. I was suddenly lost in a crowd. Crazy peer and academic pressure made me lose confidence in myself. Nothing about myself made me feel like a person that deserved to be respected. Living in a dormitory gave me no privacy. Everything felt so out of control.
I remember the day I decided I was going to grasp for control again. It would be something that would make me feel special, different, noticeable. I was going to not eat. I would be the one who always succeeded on a diet. Girls would look up to me as successful. When they ate out of boredom, I would sit and watch them eat, the feeling of success that I was able to restrict filling me up inside.
But pretty soon, that sweet feeling of control became ugly, grew beyond my control. It wasn’t me deciding anymore that I wasn’t going to eat. It was a bully inside my head, convincing me that I was unworthy and undeserving. I tried to fight myself, but fighting my brain was an impossible task. I was always cold, freezing, clinging to my hot water bottle for some warmth.
Eventually, the seminary caught on, and I was sent home. The bully in my head had just been supplied with more ammunition. I was pounded with thoughts that I’m not normal, incapable of taking care of myself. Being told this by some senior members of the staff before I left made it worse.
And the embarrassment. The deep embarrassment. That everyone was talking about me, whispering behind my back. About how I was unable to be a regular girl in a regular seminary. I hid from the world and society.
Now I was home. And the eating disorder was getting stronger and stronger. I kept tightening and tightening the grip of control that I had, until I was barely eating enough to keep me alive. I ran away from treatment, convincing myself and my parents that I could deal with this alone. I was a shell of myself. My personality disappeared. My whole life was centered around trying to eat the little that I could. It was a nightmare.
Then I hit a low of 80 pounds. That was it. I was referred to hospital to start the refeeding process. I had to be monitored. I switched over to only Ensure. But I still did not succeed in completing my meal plan. Out of desperation, I would try to bang my head, and my father had to hold me down.
My parents were distraught. Where had their fun-loving, talented daughter disappeared to? Who was this monster that had invaded their daughter’s brain? And so it was decided to bring me overseas, where I would have a fresh new start. Maybe I would respond to treatment better there. Maybe the bully would be silenced, out of its familiar territory.
And so, I was brought to Israel. I was in a terrible state. I was emaciated. My face was green from bruising. I’d hit rock bottom. The only place I had to go was up.
I think I realized how sick I was when I was admitted to hospital because of refeeding syndrome, a dangerous illness that can occur when a malnourished body gets food again. I was attached to a heart monitor and wasn’t allowed to get up. And there I found people who really cared, and wanted the best for me. Being in a strange country with a strange language was extremely challenging, yet it was fresh and different and got me interested in living again.
After that, I was transferred to a ward specializing in eating disorders. It was a long, long journey, working my way up to a sufficient meal plan, agreeing to go on medications that could help me. There were nasty times, like feeding tubes, yet there were so many moments of triumph. When I had a meal instead of an Ensure. When I drank a fruit smoothie at Zisalek. When I was able to talk at a meal. My team at the hospital was so, so supportive. And with them, I learned to trust myself again. And to love myself again.
My journey is definitely not over yet. Every meal is still a fight. But thank G-d, I’m out of hospital and building my life once again. Being independent is scary, and crazy as it may seem, I sometimes miss the shelter and security of hospital. But I know that I can’t live like that always. I’ve got to keep fighting. Every bite that I take pushes the eating disorder into a corner and forces it to shrink. Even when I’m completely overwhelmed by tasks that seem so easy for everyone else and yet are a struggle for me, I know that I’m winning.
I couldn’t do this without my amazing treatment team. They help me realize when it’s my eating disorder talking and when it’s truly me. Together we fight and slowly defeat this manipulative illness, this disease in my head.
And I hope that one day I can say I won.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 726)
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