Today I went to a well-known clothing store in Brooklyn and asked for a dress for my cousin’s wedding. The frum female owner took one look at me and said, “What’s your size? You’re a 10 or 12, right?”
Now, mind you, I’m a curvy size 6, but that’s not the point. What gives her the right to judge me and blurt out what size she thinks I am? I’m not saying a 10 or 12 is big (it’s not) but I was so insulted that this lady took one look at me and assessed my body, without waiting for me to simply respond with my dress size. When I told her respectfully that it’s not the best idea to assume a woman’s dress size, she started screaming at me to get out of her store, calling me disrespectful and a “disgusting little twerp.” She then continued to berate me: How dare I speak to her like that; she is older than me, and when I’m her age and as successful as she is, then we can talk.
This is how eating disorders start. I am so sick and tired of this toxic mentality in some Orthodox circles that obsess over a women’s weight and allow people to just say whatever they want to whoever they want.
Although you are not specifically asking a shidduch question, the fact that you wrote your story to be published in the Dating Forum and brought up the topic about eating disorders is enough of a good reason for me to respond to this toxic mentality, as you coin it, in this column. This issue does needs to be addressed in a big way. Within the past several years I have received letters about eating disorders. Each case was different from the next; however, each one reflected the torment that young ladies and their mothers experience as a result of needing to be thin for shidduchim.
And it is not just the young ladies and their mothers—even fathers are sometimes involved! I recently spoke to the father of a young man who was in the very early stages of dating a young lady. I nonchalantly asked him how his son feels about her and the relationship, and his response was, “Well, she’s thin!” Please reread my last sentence just in case you didn’t fully comprehend what happened in that scenario. Being thin has become the number-one qualifying criterion in a shidduch, specifically amongst young daters in frum circles. The terrifying aspect is that it seems that there is no limit to how thin one must be to increase her chances for marriage eligibility.
Your letter is heartbreaking on so many levels, but mainly as it reinforces the dysfunctional mentality of today. There was a time when women had a different viewpoint regarding slimness. A size 10 and sometimes even a size 12 (gasp!) were considered to be an acceptable and average range. Nowadays, a female in the shidduch parashah who is a size 6 or even a size 4 is no longer considered thin. As crazy as it sounds, a size-6 young lady may be strongly advised to lose weight. Why has it suddenly become normal to be ranked by numbers?
Tragically, in an effort to be shidduch-eligible, many young girls literally starve themselves or exercise to the point of exhaustion to further burn calories. What makes this trend even more abnormal is that mothers of girls are buying into this insanity and are overzealously pushing their young daughters to lose weight. I am not talking about situations where a girl is obese or even heavyset. But girls who are of a healthy weight are being frightened that if they are not skinny like some of the other girls, then no guy will want to marry them. And when they walk into dress shops and they are body-shamed, the consequences are anorexia and bulimia.
While on this topic, I will share something even more shocking with you that will send chills down your spine. Eating disorders do not only exist among people who are in the shidduch parashah but are also prevalent among young married women who have recently given birth. Society expects a woman to emerge from the delivery room looking as though she never had a baby. And when a woman is zoche to have a large family and the children are not widely spaced apart in years, it is almost impossible for the mother to maintain a thin appearance.
What is so remarkable about this trend in the frum world, and adding to the stress of those who struggle to be thin, is that Jewish life centers around food. From Shabbos and yom tov seudos to simchas and other events that typically feature high-calorie foods, for those who are on a perpetual excessive dieting journey, this leads many to unhealthy patterns of declining all food to the point of starvation, as well as gorging and then forced vomiting.
While on this topic, it would be negligent of me not to state the seriously ravaging effects of eating disorders. While the newly thin person joyfully accepts the onslaught of compliments, her physical and emotional well-being is being devastated. Anyone—male or female—suffering from such a condition is denying his or her body the necessary nutrients to function properly. There are cases where people have died from heart failure resulting from eating disorders, and there are those who suffer from major damage to other organs, bones, skin, and teeth.
This societal demand for thinness in the frum world needs to come to an end. Hashem created people in various shapes and sizes. There are those who are genetically inclined to be thin, and then there are those who, no matter what they do with regard to eating healthy foods and exercising, will never be thin. From the dress-shop employees to shadchanim, I implore frum people to please refrain from making comments or snide remarks about somebody’s body type or size. Especially to the shadchanim, please do not perpetuate this unhealthy behavior by asking for the dress size of your clients. And never, ever, lecture a young lady about losing weight. Shadchanim are there to make shidduchim, not to offer dieting and exercise tips. Nor should shadchanim ever place themselves in the position of body-shaming anyone. If a man declines a young lady because he wants to date a thin person, that still does not give anyone permission to make the woman feel bad about herself.
As long as we are on the topic of salespeople and shadchanim who feel motivated and entitled to body-shame, the parents of young men hold plenty of blame, too. I have mentioned this in previous articles, but, ironically, the young men are not the ones who insist on dating very thin girls. I witness this on a continuous basis at my singles events. There are plenty of average-sized and even above-average-sized women who get dates when they meet men without the interference and facilitation of a shadchan or parent. When a man views a woman who takes care of herself in a healthy way and appears pleasant to the eye, he will be interested in getting to know her.
To the mothers of young daughters who are not predisposed to being thin: If you are concerned about their ability to find a shidduch and you are body-shaming your children, this one is for you. There are tragic consequences from this movement to be thin in an effort to be shidduch-eligible. Young ladies are starving themselves to death, or they exercise to the point of exhaustion to burn calories, thereby causing serious injury and damage. This is happening in every frum community. Yes, people do die from severely limiting calories. Do not buy into the insanity and stop overzealously pushing your young daughter to lose weight. I am not talking about situations where a girl is obese or even heavyset and eats junk food all day. But young ladies who are of a healthy weight are being frightened in their own homes that if they are not skinny like some of the other girls, no guy will want to marry them. It is not true. Most men are not looking for rail-thin women to marry. And if you need another incentive or more motivation to end this madness, ask any doctor how those who suffer from serious eating disorders are affecting their chances for fertility.
To the young ladies who are “dying” to be thin: Believe it or not, finding clothes to wear becomes more difficult, as your body may not be losing weight in a proportionate way. Being too thin when it is not your nature to be that way will affect many other aspects of your appearance and health. Most importantly, be happy with who you are. Believe that you are beautiful, because you were created in the image of Hashem, and Hashem creates every aspect of nature to be beautiful in its own way.
Baila Sebrow is president of Neshoma Advocates, communications and recruitment liaison for Sovri-Beth Israel, executive director of Teach Our Children, and a shadchanis and shidduch consultant. She can be reached at Bsebrow@aol.com. Questions and comments for the Dating Forum can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Baila Sebrow’s articles at 5TJT.com.