Religious girls: study belies stereotype
The article “Thin is not a mitzvah for religious girls” appeared in the Jerusalem Post April 2 (by Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, an observant woman herself). Probably someone other than the reporter gave it a misleading title, giving the impression that religious girls tend to be or like to be fat. But the actual article reported on a study emanating from Haifa University that was quite complimentary to the national religious sector, with the researchers finding that
The more religious the girl, the less her drive for thinness, the higher her perceived self-esteem,
observant girls are taught to internalize traditional values such as modesty and simplicity rather than beauty and appearance. “Jewish tradition praises internal characteristics and traditional principles and not beauty,” said [Prof] Letzer. “Instead, religious girls focus on a strict lifestyle and observance of the commandments.”
Note that this study did not come out of Bar-Ilan University, YU, or Touro College (institutions founded by religious Jews) but from that bastion of free-thinking, Haifa University.
In contrast, I would like to cite two writers from the religious/haredi sector who have described an over-emphasis on thinness in these sectors. (1)Leah Kotkes initiated a series on the subject of eating disorders in the haredi magazine Mishpacha, Jewish Family Weekly-English edition. (Not available on the internet) The 3 features in the series ran in 2005/5765 and were proposed, researched, and written by Leah. Part 1: The Tip of the Iceberg, March 16; Part 2: Me and My Shadow; March 23; Part 3 The Family Affair, March 30. This series is an example of community self-criticism and attempted self-correction, to the credit of Leah Kotkes and Mishpacha Magazine. Even though the phenomenon of anorexia is marginal, the religious community is taking steps to ensure that it remains marginal, and writes about it in a balanced,non-sensational manner.
(2) Shmuely Boteach recently complained in his Jerusalem Post Purim column about “Shallow men and the women who suffer” where he made the following observation:
I know a 20-year-old Jewish girl who developed a dangerous eating disorder because her very religious parents told her that unless she lost weight the type of yeshiva student they wanted her to marry would not take her out.
He called for a change in attitude:
It is high time that rabbis started giving sermons from the pulpit exhorting single men in the congregation to be gentlemen and reward women for developing the traits that Judaism truly values like compassion, wisdom and goodness. While physical attraction is always important in marriage – both for men and for women – Jewish leaders must begin inspiring future husbands to judge their wives’ attractiveness by considerations beyond flesh alone. For if we fail, we’ll continue seeing Jewish women feeling permanently insecure about their “imperfect bodies” rather than taking pride in their generous spirits.
Now, the results of the Haifa University study indicate the situation is even worse in the non-religious sector. So perhaps the religious/haredi writers I mentioned are being too critical of their own sectors.
Many of the commentors in my original post below noted that the J Post headline was prejudicial,and therefore they thought the article would also be negative. On the other hand, several respondents were right on the money when guessing the contents of the article, which was very positive.
The U.S. Congress passed a law called “No child left behind” related to education. In the hassidic enclave of Kiryat Sanz Netanya where I live, when it comes to marriage, “No child is left behind” — there is a 99.5% marriage rate. Girls grow up confident that no matter what their physical attributes are, their parents and the community will enable them to marry and to find “shidduchim.” This is true also for those who have physical and fiscal challenges; for those too thin or too heavy; for those with mental or emotional disabilities (There are retarded young people who marry and the community provides enough support systems to enable them to function, even when children come along).
Now there is a story for the Jerusalem Post.