Seminar Focuses on Disordered Eating in Jewish Community

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Back in January, toy giant Mattel debuted a new model of its most famous doll: Barbie.

No longer would Barbie be stretched long and skinny with body measurements that would be unhealthy if she were real, but instead she would come in new sizes — petite, curvy and tall.

The move was a way to combat controversy and criticism that young girls emulate the doll, which many believed was leading girls to follow unattainable beauty standards due to Barbie’s exaggeratedly thin physique. Often, there was speculation that it led girls to later develop eating disorders.

Sarah Bateman, the Renfrew Center Foundation liaison to the Jewish community, said there is a perception to blame the media — like Barbie — when it comes to looking at the societal prevalence of eating disorders, but that’s not always the case.

The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness attributes many factors that could lead to developing an eating disorder aside from just the media, such as biological factors and genetics, social factors, psychological factors and interpersonal factors — and eating disorders do not only affect women.

Eating disorders affect the Jewish community as well, which is why the Renfrew Center — established in Philadelphia in 1985 and the largest eating disorder treatment network in the country — is holding “Feasting, Fasting and Eating Disorders.” The seminar for health and mental health professionals on May 25 at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue will provide tools and resources for treatment, with special attention to cultural sensitivity.

“There’s been a lot of buzz about eating disorders in the Jewish community in the last few years,” Bateman said, “and we definitely try to give an overview of what we know, what the research has shown, what our experience with treatment has shown us, but we also try not to focus on the negative. We try to give all attendees tools they’ll be able to use in the treatment process, and finding the positive in Jewish rituals and turning what’s been perceived into tools they can use.”

While some studies do suggest that Barbie leads young girls to feel uncomfortable with their bodies from a young age, Barbie is only one example, and the pressure to obtain the “perfect” body is only one factor that could lead to an eating disorder, according to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness.

In the Jewish community, there are other factors that could lead to disordered eating, and the Renfrew Center has worked to provide treatment that assesses those needs.

“We’ve created programming that’s sensitive to all Jewish patients,” Bateman said, “regardless of where they fall on the religious spectrum.”

The Renfrew Center has 16 outpatient centers around the country, including Philadelphia. It provides different levels of care and treatment for patients with a focus on meeting the unique needs Jewish people may have.

“The truth is we don’t know that it’s worse in the Jewish community than in the general community,” Bateman said. “What we know, and I know, is that there’s often different reasons and there’s a need for culturally sensitive practice.”

Looking at practices common in the Jewish tradition such as fasting and laws of kashrut, there are many factors that could lead to eating disorders. Those same factors could affect treatment as well.

According to a Washington Times article, health experts say “eating disorders are a serious, underreported disease among Orthodox Jewish women and, to a lesser extent, others in the Jewish community, as many families are reluctant to acknowledge the illness at all and often seek help only when a girl is on the verge of hospitalization.”

The seminar will feature topics such as “Exploring Jewish Observances and their Clinical Implications” and “Blending Rituals and Traditions into Treatment.” The latter will focus on “an awareness of Jewish themes and their connections to eating disorders” and rituals and traditions that could have the potential to “enhance eating disorder prevention and treatment interventions.”

Seminar topics will help professionals integrate that knowledge into treatment resources.

For somebody who observes Shabbat, Bateman said as an example, it’s like having a big holiday every week with a focus on food and family and a change in their schedule.

According to an article from the National Eating Disorders Association, “eating disorder thoughts and pressures tend to be stronger during holiday times. The individual might ‘save’ her calories during the week in order to indulge at the Shabbat or holiday meal; however, this usually leads to either bingeing or further restricting.”

“That can be a challenge in the treatment,” she said, “and needs concrete planning and understanding in order to build coping skills and manage it and maintain healthy recovery.”

Bateman hopes the seminar will help combat misconceptions and assumptions when it comes to eating disorders.

For example, many people think adolescents are most affected by eating disorders, which isn’t always the case.

Bateman, who has been practicing social work for more than 10 years, has her own private practice with a focus on eating disorders. She said that most people she sees are 25 and older.

However, there are no research studies on adult Jewish women in America, she added. “Research is expensive, and so far it hasn’t happened.”

The media also plays a role in common misconceptions people may have about eating disorders.

“I’m a big fan of not blaming the media,” she said.

She led a group once of women who were treated for eating disorders that included an Orthodox woman who had never seen a movie and does not keep magazines in her house. Other women in the group kept using examples of people that they see in the media, and she responded she had never seen them “and look at me, I’m still sitting here with you guys.”

“It’s easy to blame it on the media,” Bateman continued, “but there’s a lot of back and forth and there’s never one answer. There’s a lot of different facets, it’s never one thing.”

She is hoping the seminar will help people understand the wide scope of eating disorders.

The Renfrew Center has held similar seminars in Philadelphia before and Bateman hopes attendees will connect with the ideas and learn.

Participants can register at renfrewcenter.com.

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740

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