A few weeks ago, I led a workshop about Judaism, food and bodies for a mostly female, mostly 20s and 30s audience. Being a chef, social worker and Jewish youth professional, this was my idea of group processing Disneyland: lighthearted yet touching discussion around the tension many of us feel to become both balabustas and rail thin, to both “eat more” and “eat less” out of respect for our mothers (and their wishes to marry us off well), and to live up to the ideal beauty standards of the “perfect Jewish woman” (when nobody is able to define who she is or what she looks like).
Almost everyone in the room had something to say, and our discussion confirmed my suspicion that I am not the first Jewish woman to call myself “bad” for having another cookie, and certainly not the first who learned how to suck in my stomach at summer camp.
After the workshop, a few folks hung around. One of the participants — let’s call her Linda — approached me, introduced herself and, after chatting, asked me for some insight on a problem she was having: “How do I get my teenage daughter to stop eating so much cream cheese?”
I am a lot of things, but patient is not one of them.
“Don’t,” I blurted. “Do not tell your daughter to eat less cream cheese!”
Linda didn’t respond. She just sort of stood there and stared at me with a confused look on her face.
I asked Linda if her daughter had any weight or diet-specific health concerns (no). I asked Linda if her daughter seemed depressed or anxious (no). I asked Linda if she felt concerned about the way her daughter felt in her own body (no).
Then … why, Linda … why?
I learned that Linda was concerned that her daughter might be getting a bit chubby.
I’ve been working professionally with Jewish teenagers for the past seven years. I’ve seen young women in shambles over their non-perfect grades. I’ve listened as young women confide in me everything from disordered eating, to drug use, to gender identity, to pressures around sex. I’ve watched young women’s eyes dart nervously to the pizza box, year after year, meeting after meeting, never once taking a slice for themselves. I’ve taken late night phone calls from young women when they are feeling scared, confused and powerless.
I can’t think of a single young woman who needs her parents to tell her to stop eating so much cream cheese. They get enough of that from their friends, from the men in their lives, from the women in their lives, from social media and from the naturally chaotic process of growing into themselves.
Young women, whatever their background, do not need one more authority figure to point out to them when they no longer look like a sexless child and should eat less/work out more. They already see it. They carry it around with them every day. And every night. You aren’t telling them anything they haven’t already heard and taken very seriously. Sometimes more seriously than you’d like to imagine — sometimes dangerously.
Here is what young women do need: Parents who understand that dieting doesn’t always make us thin, and that thin isn’t what makes them valuable, and that their bodies aren’t anyone else’s concern. They need parents who have conversations with them about how to enjoy and celebrate food, not why they would enjoy fitting into a smaller dress size. Even more, they need parents who are curious about how their daughters feel about themselves, without judgment, without shame, without undermining their personhood.
Of course, if your daughter does have a medical issue associated with her weight, it’s important to get the right care for her. But parents, please, please don’t make things worse than they already are. Those silent eye rolls you throw her way when she reaches for another latke don’t help either. If you feel genuinely concerned about your daughter’s health, offer her love and support and be curious about how she feels.
And communicate, above all else, that you want her to be happy, not skinny.
Everyone has body issues. But Jewish women often experience it differently. I can speak from my own experience as a former Jewish teenager with disordered eating, as a clinician who completed her master’s thesis on “Jewish Women and Our Bodies,” and as a veteran Jewish youth educator, when I tell you: Your daughter should eat however much cream cheese she wants to, and she will figure out for herself, when she is ready, how she feels best in her own body.
And if you find yourself — parent or aunt or grandma — with feelings of disapproval or judgment when you watch he slather a bagel in the morning, I urge you to process your feelings on your own with a spouse or a trusted friend. Do not take them out on your daughter.
Because chances are, your feelings aren’t actually about her. They are about you. And you deserve the same compassion, curiosity and attention your daughter does.
Stephanie Goldfarb works as director of youth philanthropy and leadership at the Jewish United Fund in Chicago, where she specializes in Jewish youth experiential education.