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Body-Image Negativism Poses Physical, Mental Threats to Many Women

Stand in line at the supermarket, and you're bombarded by tabloids and women's magazines."Lose 20 pounds in two weeks," screams one cover headline. Meanwhile, the cover photo is a four-layer chocolate cake offering "desserts to die for."

The tension between these two priorities - being thin and enjoying good food - has created an epidemic of eating disorders. Psychologist Stacey Nye, who specializes in treating those disorders, explains that "even though we're more educated about eating disorders now, it hasn't helped us protect ourselves from developing them, because we're seeing them in younger and younger children."

An additional conflict between Jewish culture, in which food plays a central role, and the general culture, which advocates the ideal of thinness, creates a compounded vulnerability for Jewish women, according to Nye. To explore these issues, Nye attended "Food, Body Image and Judaism - A Conference on Disorders and Resources for Change." The conference, held earlier this year in Philadelphia, was sponsored by the KOLOT Center for Jewish Women and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Renfew Center, a women's psychiatric hospital in Philadelphia. It was sponsored in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia with support from the Germantown Jewish Center.

"I specialize in eating disorders and body image," explains Nye. "Being a Jewish woman myself, I wanted to learn more about what particular struggles (exist) for Jewish women. Jewish women have particular cultural vulnerabilities that make them more at risk."

Body-image negativism poses physical, mental threats to many women, including the jewish community.Conference workshops included "Zaftig Women in a Barbie Doll Culture," "Chopped Liver and Chicken Soup: Soothing Food for the Traumatized Soul" and "Bagel Politics: Jewish Women, American Culture and Jewish Culture."

"If we want to follow our tradition, we have to revolve our lives around food," says Nye. "But if we want to assimilate, we have to look different."

Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of education, prevention and treatment at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center, points out that basic hereditary and physiological factors make it almost impossible for most women, including Jewish women, to conform to the Barbie-doll ideal.

"One percent of our population is genetically predisposed to be really tall, really thin and busty. And it's not us - it's the Scandinavians," says Steiner-Adair.

But experts note that societal and psychological influences make women strive to emulate unrealistic prototypes in terms of appearance.

"It's really hard not to buy into the general culture," admits Nye. "Girls are bombarded by messages that tell them appearance defines their identity. We have 8-year-old girls on diets. Body image dissatisfaction and distortion are rampant in our culture."

Steiner-Adair estimates that "every morning 80 percent of women wake up with body loathing. Eighty percent of the women in America don't relate to their bodies in a healthy, respectful, loving way."

"Stop worrying, and meet at the water cooler"

She says that combining this general obsession with "weightism" and anti-Semitic stereotypes results in a greater vulnerability to all types of eating disorders among Jewish women.

"If you have a Jewish girl who's feeling wobbly about herself and who feels a lot of pressure on her to assimilate, to achieve, it's very easy for a girl to say, 'I can't be all those things. I know what I'll be good at: I'll be thin,' " Steiner-Adair says.

Nye specializes in helping people accept their bodies and stop dieting.

"I help people to normalize their eating, not by dieting." She encourages her clients to eat normal, healthy food and to stop eating when they're full.

"I practice gentle nutrition, staying away from a dieting mentality." Nye also encourages increased activity rather than exercise, which she says has "a bad reputation with some people" - almost like medicine.

"I help people expand their identities. To explore what there is to feel good about," Nye adds.

Nye frequently speaks in schools to educate young people about accepting their own body image and that of others. "They're getting bombarded about looking a certain way. The reality is that not everyone is meant to be thin. Weight falls in a normal curve like anything else. Some people are intelligent, others are less intelligent. You can't make yourself taller."

She says one aspect in Jewish culture that is helpful is the emphasis on knowledge and excelling in scholastic settings, rather than on the athletic field.