Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness week. This is a week that always resonates with me because of the work I do. I am a psychotherapist who helps women who have eating and body image issues. I am at times conflicted about the work I do because on the one hand I help make a difference in the lives of many women, on the other hand I wish eating disorders wouldn’t exist anymore.
One of the most difficult things I hear on a consistent basis within my practice is women having trouble fully inhabiting their body. Women feel very disconnected from, and at times even have hatred towards their bodies. They have trouble living in the moment because they are connected to a time in their lives where they were beautiful, skinny, perfect etc. etc. Most women who have eating disorders can pinpoint a time in their lives where they felt they were at the “perfect weight” or had the “perfect body” and are deeply attached to these times.
Towards the end of 2016 I embarked on a journey through photography. I decided to explore female embodiment within the Jewish world. I interviewed 15 women of all ages and photographed them in a setting that made them feel most comfortable and at home in their bodies. They were asked to write a narrative to accompany the photo. It was shown at the JOFA conference just this past January.
One of the photos shown was of a dear friend of mine who converted over the last year, got married, and is now expecting her first child. She was photographed (the photo was used here) near a body of water in Tarrytown that she used to go to often before she converted to Judaism. Jamie shared “It was a long journey for me to end up standing at the mikveh, ready for my conversion. I struggled with changing from my old skin with all the history it brought and stepping into my new Jewish skin. I realized that I wasn’t completely letting go of the old me and that I was always Jewish in my heart, this last step just made it official. One of the biggest ways I connect with G-d is through nature. I am always in awe of this world that we get to live in and how tiny we are when I am surrounded by all that G-d has created.”
Jamie’s experience with mikveh for her conversion was a positive one. Many women on the other hand, especially those who have experienced some form of an eating disorder do not have such positive experiences with mikveh. Women who are struggling to live fully in their bodies daily can find it mortifying to have to stand up naked in front of a mikveh attendant and be scrutinized and inspected. If someone is already hard on themselves about their body not being perfect enough and analyzes their flaws regularly, it can be shameful for them to be looked at such a close distance.
Aside from this photography exhibit, I am currently in the process of compiling an anthology about Jewish women and body (I presented on this at the JOFA conference). One article that was written for the sisterhood blog of the Forward by a woman named Frimet who shared her very invasive experience with a mikvah attendant:
Frimet came from a Satmar Chasidic background and has since left behind that way of life. She didn’t have a full blown eating disorder, but imagine if she did.
Mikveh attendants need to be so careful when it comes to women’s body image. They need to educate themselves about eating disorders and realize that women who are struggling with accepting their bodies (some at times cannot even stand to look into the mirror themselves let alone have someone else inspect their bodies). They may feel particularly vulnerable when they are so exposed before immersing in the mikveh. I think a loving and understanding approach of what women go through with their bodies could only help the situation.
Lastly, mikveh attendants can also be the one to talk to a woman they suspect might have an eating disorder. When a woman is bulimic she will have knuckles that might be scarred from vomiting, or cuticles that are also badly cut. If a woman is extremely underweight and it is known that this isn’t due to other illness, the mikveh attendant can bring this up in a sensitive manner if the center allows space for that. Mikvaot that are centers for women’s full needs can do great work in the area of body image and help refer women out to wonderful treatment centers if they are needed. It is wonderful that attendants are being educated in the US and Israel so the needs of the whole woman regarding body image are properly handled.