On this fourth day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, “Let’s Get Real” and talk about eating disorders within the context of orthodox religious faiths such as Judaism and Islam. Both groups have rich and wonderful traditions and value the closeness of the community. And both groups have been and continue to be persecuted. It makes sense that a group that is persecuted and stereotyped would want to protect itself from further stigmatization and scrutiny by denying problems occurring within. Unfortunately, that means many individuals in these communities are reluctant to seek help and remain undiagnosed. An additional factor that may contribute to difficulty recovering from eating disorders is the fasting that is often required in orthodox faiths. Though an important part of religious participation and spiritual experience, fasting can contribute to the all-or-nothing thinking that is common among those with eating disorders and can lead to bingeing and purging “forbidden” foods or restricting calories for longer than is healthy.
Nadia Shabir (pen name Maha Khan), a Muslim writer and advocate, speaks openly about her fifteen year struggle with disordered eating and discusses the challenge of fasting during Ramadan. She writes, “As soon as the Ramadan fast opens, more people who are vulnerable to developing the illness fall into the vicious destructive cycle of eating disorder behaviours; many people binge and then purge, and others try to restrain thereby causing more harm to their body”. Read more about her story and the hope she holds for change within Islam.
In the Jewish culture (whether Orthodox or not), food mindfully prepared and shared with family is very important. The National Eating Disorders Association writes, “Preoccupations with food can exacerbate eating disorder issues for those who struggle. 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, due to the intense fear of overeating.” Read more about these concerns and available resources here. In my area of the country, The Renfrew Center offers treatment programming sensitive to the customs and practices of Judaism. Read more about their programming here.
So, where do we go from here? Well, the take home message is eating disorders do not discriminate. We cannot assume someone is protected from mental illness just because they have a strong faith and the support of a religious community. Let’s make sure everyone feels safe to talk about eating disorders by keeping the conversation going. Let’s listen to the individuals inside these communities to learn more about their experiences instead of assuming we know what it’s like for them. Let’s affirm the bravery of Muslims like Nadia Shabir and encourage them to continue sharing. And let’s identify or develop resources in our schools, universities, and health care systems for those who might be struggling. The work must continue until all feel safe enough and valued enough to seek help.