Religious girls: study belies stereotype

7 bNissan
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.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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7 Responses

  1. Moe says:

    “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.”

    It’s fine to be critical, as long as it’s constructive. The problem is being critical when presenting the case to the public media. This is an issue that should remain within the community, for community introspection. There’s no reason to “hang out the dirty laundry” by sharing this with the media. The only purpose that serves is selling papers, and embarassing us. Embarassing someone, or in this case a community, is never the approach for bringing about change.

  2. Edvallace says:

    Consider the source please before quoting it.

    “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.”

    Pulleeeze! Is that THE reason she’s anorexic? Do you really believe that such a statement caused her disability? There are many factors that contribute to a girl’s become bulimic or anorexic and a statement like that demonstrates a patent lack of familiarity with the issue.

    There is no question that parents must be careful of the messages [implicit and explicit] that they send their children about weight. But how many parents make ridiculous statments like that and are otherwise fine, upstanding, and loving parents?

    Is there a problem of Anorexia and Bulimia in the frum community? Yes! As someone who has experience in dealing with it, I can tell you it’s present. Is it worse or even equal to what goes on in general society? As someone who is involved with college kids on an almost daily basis, I’d venture a guess that it’s not even close. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deal with it but it does mean we shouldn’t blow it out of proportion.

    Shmuly Boteach does exactly that.

  3. Menachem Lipkin says:

    First of all, Kol Hakovod to your community. Those are amazing marriage statistics! (I have a daughter about to enter the “parsha”.)

    While the Jpost article does appear encouraging, it’s very skimpy on actual information about the study. The article says that they studied 320 girls in “state religious schools for girls”. That would appear to exclude Chareidi schools. If so can the findings in Mamlachti Daati schools be extrapolated to Chareidi schools? The implication would be that the situation in Chareidi schools would be better as the article says that the study found, “The more religious the girl, the less her drive for thinness.” But it’s not clear.

    Also, in general we know that religious Jews generally suffer less of societal ills than the general population. However, what usually concerns us is how we’ve changed over time. So while our divorce rate, abuse rate, drug-abuse rate, etc., may all be lower than the general population, we know that these problems are all affecting us more acutely now than in the past and thus these issues must be addressed.

    Both my daughters’ high schools in America, one MO and one BY, addressed the issue of eating disorders with the girls and parents. The professionals who work in the field know there is an increasing problem in this area. (Maybe it’s different in America than here in Israel?)

    It’s always nice to have confirmation that we’re in better shape 🙂 than secular society, but we should not use that information as an excuse to mask a problem that also affects us and requires attention.

  4. HILLEL says:

    So, we have one more piece of anecdotal evidence that the Torah life is healthier, mentally and pysically than the secular life.–It does not pay to imitate the gentiles.

    Baalei-Teshuva, or prospective BT’s, take note!

  5. Neviah T. says:

    Just wondering: is this reflective of a cultural gap between American and Israeli Charedi communities?

  6. easterner says:

    so what do we make of reports of bnai tora telling shadchoning the dress size must be in the far low single digits?

  7. Aaron says:

    Interesting article. Doesn’t surprise me that religious girls would ‘say’ this, but I’d bet (and I know of) a ton of young ladies don’t ‘believe’ it.

    The synagogues and churches have sadly down played outside beauty ( I am not saying that is the only type of beauty that matters). But external beauty exists, it’s there, it does matter to a point – it catches everyone’s eye, every single day.

    My opinion is just that there is soooo much empahsis in these religious institutions about inner beauty, they refuse to even mention outside beauty. This is sad and doesn’t do any good to help and support women. Not discussing a topic doesn’t mean it just dissapears or becomes unimportant.

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