My cousin, Rob, recently visited my aunt at her New England home. She asked him a seemingly simple favor: Could he help with some yard work? But when it comes to Jewish mothers, there are no simple questions -- anyone who's ever had their mom look them up and down, eyebrow cocked a barely perceptible millimeter, and proclaim/inquire, "Is that what you're wearing to dinner?" knows this all too well.
Rob headed out back to rake the leaves. It was a warm day so he stripped off his shirt before digging in. When confronted with his bare torso, my aunt calmly commented in her thick Boston accent, "My, you're getting round."
Then, the very next sentence: "When you're finished, come inside. I made you pie."
I imagine Sally Struthers' pained, empathic voice narrating: "All around the world, countless other young Jewish women and men are suffering this same experience. Guilt. Passive-aggressiveness. Love offered in the form of baked goods. But for the amount of money you spend on a Skinny Vanilla Latte, you could help a Jewish child break free from the grip of Jewish neuroses. Pick up the phone now and call 1-800-HERE, EAT."
To be Jewish is to have an eating disorder. For some of us, the issue was as blatant and in-your-face as the neighborhood bully. I remember one close friend growing up whose mother was forever berating her for being fat, slapping down her requests for hot dogs and cheese fries before the words could even make their way to our TGIFriday waitress's ears. Then there is just the day-to-day stuff of living amongst Jews: Neuroticism. Pressure to succeed. Perfectionism. Hypochondria combined with a strong desire to either produce a doctor or marry off a child to one. Mothers constantly on the Grapefruit Diet or Weight Watchers or uching in the bedroom mirror. A total and complete lack of personal boundaries. (Not even the hottest Beverly Hills plastic surgeon could erase the scar caused by my father bringing a 16-year-old me into the kitchen as a date arrived, opening up the gigantic medicine cabinet stored in our cupboard, handing me an aspirin and telling me, "I want you to take this pill, put it between your knees, squeeze really hard and don't let it fall until you come back home tonight." I was a virgin, BTW.) Oftentimes there's an emphasis on looks: Of course inner beauty is what matters, but yes, we will get you that nose job for your graduation present. All of this lays a fertile groundwork for feeling like complete and total crap about the way we look, not to mention a woefully distorted view of who we are as individuals.
Add to that the societal struggle to conform. There's a reason Victoria's Secret is epitomized by long/lean-limbed Germans and bedroom-eyed Frenchwomen; there's not much of a demand to see Mayim Bialik in a thong bikini. While Jewish fashion designers -- Calvin Klein, Zac Posen, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren (nee Lipshitz), Anne Klein (nee Hannah Golofski) -- rule the runways, try Googling "Famous Jewish models," and you practically hear e-crickets chirping. Shalom Harlow and Bar Rafaeli are pretty much it. (One sign of progress: Heeb Magazine just published its first-ever Jewish swimsuit issue, titled "The Ladies of '69″ -- as in the current Hebrew year of 5769 on the Hebrew calendar. Yes, I report this as "progress" with my tongue shoved firmly in my cheek.)
As a 5'11" woman with blonde highlights, I've heard my share of "That's funny, you don't look Jewish!" comments. This is generally said as a compliment. If I had a quarter for every time I was asked my last name for confirmation of my Jewess-ness, I could fund the ethnic rhinoplasties of a dozen JDate lifers. In my opinion, Jewish women are the authority on this body image stuff -- Jews invented the word zaftig and live lives peppered with proverbs like "Worries go down better with soup" and the ever-uplifting, "Eat and drink for tomorrow you may die." From lifetime Weight Watchers memberships (WW -- founded by a Jew!) bequeathed to us at birth to guilt-sopped relationships with our mothers to post-pregnancy body image...our holidays alone are enough to put a girl on Lexapro. We force ourselves to fast from sundown to sundown on Yom Kippur, our day of atonement... but sitting in a stifling hot synagogue for seven hours wearing pantyhose while thinking back on all the ways we effed up over the year can make a girl hungry! Then we gather together to "break the fast," resulting in a massive group binge the likes of which have not been seen since my junior year of college. We are a people who, on Passover, celebrate the freeing of our ancestors from slavery by noshing on throat-scalding horseradish and dipping parsley -- the bastard child of food garnish everywhere -- in homemade salt water. Year after year we suck off the symbolic tears of the Hebrew slaves. Then, we enjoy the fatigue and moodiness which come from eight days of denying ourselves any type of bread, pasta, oatmeal -- it's like going on Atkins (he was a Jew!), but instead of losing weight, you get constipated. Oh, and we are commanded to slaughter a lamb and wipe its blood on our front doors in order to protect our older brother from being slain by a passing evil spirit. Is it any wonder we have issues?
Following the release of my first book, Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image, and Re-imagining the "Perfect" Body (Da Capo, 2007), I embarked on a 14-city college tour as well as a 7-city Jewish Books Fair tour. I'll never forget the freshman at one Midwestern Big Ten school who sat sobbing in her chair after the bulk of her school's Greek system had cleared out. She didn't have an eating disorder, she assured me, but practically everyone in her (entirely Jewish) sorority did. "If I have to hear another girl tell me she's gonna stop eating and just do coke for a week so she can fit into her bikini for Spring Break, I'm going to kill myself." she told me, tears dripping down her face. I was stunned... not just that so many nice Jewish girls were snorting coke to stay slim, but that she had the strength and resolve -- at that point, at least -- to resist the peer pressure.
At various Jewish book fairs -- whose organizers no doubt invited me, a writer whose book had nary a mention of Judaism in it, because of the inextricable link between Jewish women, food and body image -- I was offered countless deli sandwiches prior to speaking and showered with questions from concerned moms, many in attendance with their daughters. Some wanted to know how to stave off an eating disorder in a toddler who already is refusing bananas because they have too much sugar. (Hint: Stop talking about bananas having too much sugar in front of her.) Others approached me afterwards soliciting referrals for therapists because their daughters were overweight but had such pretty faces and so much to offer and losing 30 pounds would help them so much.
This Wednesday and Thursday, I'll be speaking on a panel for Jewish Women International's Brain Power for Girl Power Think Tank in Chicago and Detroit. The conferences take an intergenerational approach to solving the problems girls face in our society and culture, with a focus on eating disorders, drugs, alcohol, cutting, and other self-harming behaviors. Some hot-button areas: Do more Jewish girls suffer from eating disorders and if so, what aspects of our culture serve to muck up our relationship with food? If tales of girls servicing boys sexually at younger and younger ages are true, why is that? This is the most tech-savvy generation in history; what role do technology and the media play in this and how can we use these mediums to our advantage? Teachers, social workers, doctors, stay-at-home-mothers and more are gathering because we recognize the need for a dialogue surrounding these issues. Stay tuned for the results.
Until then... you should go get yourself something to eat. You really are looking a little thin.
Follow Leslie Goldman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LeslieGoldman