Religious Girls, Thinness, and Social Expectations

As a follow-up to Shira Schmidt’s post about religious girls, weight, and self-esteem:

In one area I think we do a lot better than the non-Jewish world, and that has to do with social expectations in high school. Stephanie Wellen Levine, a non-Orthodox journalist, spent a year studying high school girls in Crown Heights (Lubavitch-town) and found that they had nothing like the cattiness and cliquishness of high school girls she knew in the non-Orthodox or non-Jewish schools. She reported that most of the girls did care about clothes but to a much lesser extent than in the public school she herself had attended. She also found that the heavy girls were just as socially popular and accepted as the thin girls—again, unlike the situation in non-Jewish schools.

What she found in Crown Heights squares with my own experiences teaching in a girls’ high school in Miami—not Lubavitch but of course Orthodox. The girls’ popularity and happiness and confidence do not seem related to how thin or heavy they are. On the other hand, everyone would rather be thin, that’s a fact.

Among girls and women, in my community at least, thinness is not much of a social issue, and Baruch Hashem for that. Most girls do try to look nice and are fashion-conscious, but I’m proud that these external factors count for relatively little socially, and that most of the girls care more about character and higher values.

When a few of the girls in our middle school, 7th and 8th grade, started dieting unnecessarily and worrying about their weight obsessively, some of the Judaic teachers gave them classes emphasizing health and nutrition. This seemed to help enormously and the diet fad quickly ran its course. Of course there are a few girls who really do need to diet!

It does seem to be true that yeshiva guys nowadays want extremely thin girls—and at the same time, it’s also true that we have more chubby girls than ever before—more chubby guys, too. My impression is that the obesity epidemic overtaking America is affecting the religious Jewish community, as well. And at the same time, the contradictory emphasis on extreme thinness in the fashion magazines is also affecting us, willy-nilly. (Both the desirability of being very thin and the high rate of obesity may be more of an issue in America than in Israel.)

What to do about the young men—and very often, their mothers!—who put an extreme emphasis on thinness—I do not know. I think these young men have been affected by the outside world when they least realize it. Pictures glimpsed on the covers of magazines at the checkout counter, images picked up from the surrounding Kultursmog—these have led some of our finest bnai Torah to develop an unnatural and unrealistic expectation of what their brides should look like.

And what do they think their bony, wraith-like brides will look like after they’ve had a few children? Are these young men going to be like the men at the time of Noah’s Flood who—the Talmud says—kept one wife for procreation and another for beauty?! Do they think their wives—or they themselves—will escape the ravages of time?

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7 Responses

  1. Jon Baker says:

    Well, hmm. I’ve been noticing some of my neighbors’ daughters, who were not particularly thin in high school. I wonder if there is some kind of EY vs. US thing.

    First off, my sister and her daughter are both obsessed with thinness – my niece was underweight for the IDF, and they had to pull some strings to get her in. Israel is, if anything, even more obsessed with thinness. So one friend’s daughter, who came home from seminary her usual solid (not fat) self, went on a big diet, got engaged, and now her face is filling out again. Her fiancee isn’t particularly skinny, either.

    Her classmate, who lives next door, didn’t bother going on the diet, and also got engaged about the same time. She didn’t go to Israel for seminary, she stayed here in Brooklyn.

    I realize you can’t generalize from one or two examples, but still…

    My mother, too, not particularly religious at the time, went through one brief thin phase, met Dad, then a few years later stopped smoking and got big again.

  2. Rivka W. says:

    “What to do about the young men—and very often, their mothers!—who put an extreme emphasis on thinness—I do not know.” Well, one possibility is for shadchanim (far from all, but quite a number, IME and that of friends) to stop telling each woman who is not naturally slender that unless she loses weight, they will not help her find a shidduch.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Jon,If your niece was going into the IDF, which the UO and DL rabbis both oppose, then we are not really talking about very serious orthodoxy. You can’t be the Jon Baker that I know as a kid in Beachwood, could you?

  4. Menachem Lipkin says:


    Just FYI, Midreshet Lindenbaum has a Hesdar program specially tailored for orthodox women. You can see more about it here

  5. Dov W says:

    It’s important that a woman is attractive in the eyes of her husband and it’s vital that a husband does not feel short-changed by his wife’s appearance (to a certain degree the same is also true in reverse).

    We need to accept the unfortunate reality that criteria of beauty from Paris, Milan etc. eventually establish themselves, to a greater or lesser extent, within the Charedi population. To whatever extent those criteria are established they cannot just be wished away. Denying the thinness factor in marriage is unrealistic, wrong-headed and has the potential for marital disaster.

    Rather, young men and their parents should avoid setting artificially and unnecessarily high expectations and avoid putting over-emphasis on physical beauty. Yes, as people vary, so do their needs and they need to be realistic about those needs. But expectations play a significant role. It’s one thing to look for attractiveness and quite another to insist on stunning beauty.

  6. Yakov Eric Ackland says:

    What all the various posters on this thread and on Shira Shmidt’s original seem to be doing (unconsciously) is “normalizing” unhealthiness and physical unattractiveness. This is little different than saying “Our children are stupid, ignorant, and rude, but they have high self-esteem, so lets not educate or reprove them.” Or, “Almost all people litter, so rather than stigmatize anyone who does, let’s agree that littering is okay.” It is like the rationale of the original Reform movement, when they abolished Hebrew from the liturgy, “As most people don’t understand Hebrew, and as it is hard to learn, let’s abolish the requirement.” Rather than raise people up to the standard, they eliminated the standard. Thusly has this thread thus far been an impassioned plea for physical mediocrity, so that no one need feel they have to change their ways, and improve their health as well as their appearance. Lowering the bar is not a Jewish mode of thinking, and taking care of one’s health is a Jewish (and non-Jewish) moral imperative.

    It may well be superficial for men (and women) to focus solely on the girth of a potential spouse, but it is anything but shallow to note that, like with the rest of America, and in some ways, perhaps more so, the typical Orthodox diet is a health abomination. Any excess (non-muscle) weight on one’s frame indicates an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic ailments. Any calorie-rich diet and exercise-poor life which is rife with cholesterol, fat, animal protein, refined sugar, refined flour, refined oils, refined salt, fried food, preservatives, and synthetic flavors and colors, and which is also low in fresh raw fruits and vegetables, is bound to produce unhealthy, unattractive, heavy, short-lived, short-breathed people. We’ve known for centuries, as Maimonides wrote of, that the key to longevity and health is systematic caloric restriction. In the twentieth century this was verified in myriad studies, and when restriction is paired with high nutrient intake, life and health are extended even further. Furthermore it has been shown that heavy people have significantly lower life expectancies than thin people. Knowing these facts, selecting a thin, health-conscious (one can be thin, without being the latter) spouse is not superficial but super-smart (assuming that the spouse is also sweet, kind, generous, bright, stable, etc.) (Not that this is at all why yeshiva bochurs prefer thin women.)

    I think it good that in Toby Katz’s middle school, they taught classes in nutrition — but if the nutritional prescription that is taught doesn’t cause people to lose the excess weight, it isn’t the right prescription: and most main-stream dietary recomendations are well off-target. And it is very hard to keep to a healthy diet in an unhealthy culture.

    Our Shabbos culture of two obscenely big meals consisting of every sort of unhealthy food mentioned above, every Shabbos (like a double Thanksgiving meal every week,) is a prescription for sickness and overweight. (Not that we eat spartanly or sensibly during the week either.)Go to any shul for Kiddush, and find men, women, and children shoving cake in their face for breakfast! (And washing it down with schnaps and/or soda.) Then they go home and have fatty meat, more sugar, white-bread, and more alcohol. Maimonides called the gluttonous “wicked”, and admonished us not to dine with them. Yet we are a generation of gluttons. The proposition that calories don’t count on Shabbos is patently and perniciously false. That a bag of potato chips or a side of beef is marked kosher, doesn’t make it healthy.

    Anyone who eats with the proper intent of nourishing one’s self, and who looks past what tastes best to what is actually best, and who restricts herself to what is best cannot remain overweight. (The bulk of one’s diet should be fruits and vegetables, though whole grains and legumes are also good.)

    Yes, the diet mentality can be destructive, but if the community had healthy standards, virtually no one would be fat. Being fat is unnatural, as are dieting, and having low-self-esteem tied to being fat. The overweight among us are victims of our dysfunctional eating culture (American and Jewish.) I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings here. I am saying though that health is not separate from character and ethics: it is ethically irresponsible to eat unhealthily, and both individuals and the leaders of our society need to mobilize and change. One in two people in this country die from heart disease, which is completely preventable (and usually reversible) through a low calorie, high nutrient vegetable based diet. Billions of dollars are spent on medical care necessitated by atrocious eating. The personal and social costs of our culinary cravings are simply immense.

    Great. Jewish women are happier and more comfortable as overweight women than are gentile or secular women. I’m glad their self-esteem isn’t tied excessively to their appearance, but their health, and the health of their children are inextricably tied to it, and so long as we ignore this fact, we’ll have a big problem.

    Don’t just accept that we’re growing fatter and unhealthier. Don’t ‘spin’ this sad state by saying that we’re more spiritual and less superficial than others (or that we ought to be.) And don’t speak of people being genetically destined to be overweight -for it just isn’t so: it just takes eating the natural foods which we were designed to eat, and entirely eschewing those which we weren’t.

    The epidemic of overweight and obesity among the Orthodox is a chillul Hashem, and is more of a serious health issue than is smoking. We have a moral imperative not to do anything unnecessary that will harm ourselves or shorten our lives, There is no greater good in eating the junk we eat: we’re blinded by our addiction to eating, and to the unhealthy yet tasty foods that we choose to eat. Pleasure is what drives us rather than wisdom. The Orthodox, like most people, truly live to eat rather than eat to live. Which incidentally, is the name of what I think is the best most scientifically grounded book on nutrition out there, “Eat to Live” by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, which one can find in almost any bookstore. Other books on nutrition, health, and weight-loss, almost as good, are by Dr. Neal Barnard, Nathaniel Pritikin, Dr. John MacDougal, and Dr. Dean Ornish.

  1. April 6, 2006

    Mind/Body Connection…

    A recent article in the Jerusalem post linked modest dress with better body image. Apparently religious Jewish -Israeli girls (I don’t know if this would apply to other religions) focus their attention on their skills as future wives and mothers……

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