Food, like the air we breathe, is a basic need for life on Earth. As human beings, food is our fuel. Our source of energy. If we don’t eat, we can’t live. Simple equation. But as Jews, Shabbos, chagim and various mitzvot involve food as a central component, such that food is not just for physical sustenance.
Any joyous life milestone—a bris, bar mitzvah, chalakeh, wedding and the week-long sheva brachot, chanukat habayit and more—is celebrated with a seudat mitzvah. Furthermore, food is highly regulated within halacha: brachot before and after meals, netilat yadayim before bread and the laws of kashrus. Conversely, abstention from eating on fast days is commanded and commended. While there are many food-related reasons that make the chagim season challenging, it is even more complex for those with an eating disorder. We’re not talking about people who have one too many helpings of dessert at a Rosh Hashana meal because there’s just nothing like Mom’s homemade honey cake and, you know, it’s a tradition. People with an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating, consume or avoid food neither for physical sustenance nor spiritual purity, and generally don’t enjoy what they’re eating. The feasts and fasts, laws and customs that pepper the Jewish calendar are not the cause of the disorder but the culinary rituals and abundance of food can lead to a negative association with the chagim and exacerbate the problem. With the mass of misinformation about eating disorders, it is common for these serious illnesses to be misunderstood, oversimplified or greatly generalized. “Each individual’s perception of the world is based on experiences from early infancy and throughout life, which shape their individual world view – defined as their ‘organizing principles’.” Dr. Sara Genstil, Ph.D. in Psychology, explains her Eating Disorders Treatment Model, based on Intersubjective Systems Theory. The model helps clients investigate how past and present life experiences led to their eating disorder. It also helps them work through the various emotions that triggered this harmful coping mechanism. “An individual with an eating disorder is part of various systems, such that the degree to which these systems are healthy or unhealthy has affected their coping mechanisms and behavior.” Though the exact cause of eating disorders is unknown, it is generally believed to be a combination of biological (genetics, hormones, etc.), psychological (negative body image, low-self-esteem, etc.) and environmental. Family or childhood trauma, abuse, peer pressure among friends or within a community, and stressful transitions or life changes— such as making Aliyah or leaving home for the first time to attend a seminary or yeshiva —are some examples. Despite education in Orthodox circles that focuses on tzniut, inner beauty and middot, eating disorders are as prevalent in this sector as they are in the general adolescent population. Teens experiencing puberty naturally have heightened self-awareness and begin to learn about their imminent adulthood, which together with genetic or environmental factors, can manifest as unhealthy organizing principles and an eating disorder. “Individuals with eating disorders often lack the skills to tolerate negative experiences or major life changes,” says Dr. Genstil. Girls approaching marital age might feel they are not ready to assume responsibilities of rearing their own children or might fear physical intimacy with their future spouse. They might feel pressure to be slim in order to find a shidduch, having been told that men prefer thin brides.
Feeling that they cannot challenge parental expectations, they might instead rebel by trying to control their bodies. In the absence of more positive coping skills, food becomes an emotional outlet and provides a temporary sense of control and comfort. “Eating disorder behaviors may provide acute relief from distress but quickly lead to more physical and psychological harm. In order to break the dangerous cycle, we need to identify the perceptions that serve as a basis for unhealthy organizing principles. Experiences from both the distant and recent past can cause negative, maladaptive coping techniques and these techniques must be changed.” Stressful or chaotic family situations may intersect with other triggers to exacerbate or perpetuate the illness, but family dynamics or parenting style may actually develop as a response to a family member’s struggle with an eating disorder. Having a full understanding of the input from the various systems that shape an individual’s world view—including family and community—is essential for change. “Family are vital members of the treatment team since they constitute one of an individual’s central systems. No one is to blame for an eating disorder but everyone can assist in recovery,” Dr. Genstil explains. “A healthy system can only be established by each individual examining their behavior within the system. Change one factor in the system—such as one individual’s belief about their family’s perception of their disorder or the expectations a family has of their children—and the entire system will change as a result.” Dr. Genstil’s Eating Disorder Treatment Model gives clients an opportunity to master powerful emotions previously untapped. “Once clients are freed from the organizing principles tying them down and coloring their perception of reality, they’re able to appreciate food’s most fundamental function: fuel for life on Earth – and eventually enjoy every bite.”
Dr. Sara Genstil, PhD, is a seasoned psychologist with over 35 years of clinical experience. Dr. Genstil provides counseling for individuals, couples and families. She has experience working with clients both privately and through organizations such as The Ministry of Defense and National Insurance, working with terror victims and their bereaved families. Dr. Genstil is a member and presenter for the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self- Psychology.
Dr. Sara Genstil can be reached at 052-260-9087 or through her website www.therapistjerusalem.com.