Ph.D. Octopus

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The Secret American Jewish History of Bulimia?

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In ancient Rome, people purged through vomiting in order to to eat more. But this was not the medical condition know as bulimia nervosa, which British psychiatrist Gerald Russell first diagnosed in 1979. In the August 1979 edition of Psychological Medicine (Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 429-448), Russell described 30 patients who had: “i) an irresistible urge to overeat (bulimia nervosa), followed by self-induced vomiting or purging; (ii) a morbid fear of becoming fat.”

Three years prior, in 1976,  Marie Brenner published her Jewish chick-lit novel, Tell Me Everything (New York: Signet). I had first heard of Tell Me Everything from anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell’s work, specifically her chapter in historian Joyce Antler’s collection, Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture, and her book Fighting to Become Americans: Assimilation and the Trouble between Jewish Women and Jewish Men. Prell examined Tell Me Everything, along with other novels by Jewish women authors in the 1970s such as The Launching of Barbara Fabrikant by Louise Blecher Rose, Fat Emily by Susan Ries Lukas and Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent.

All of these books, along with Erica Jong‘s more famous Fear of Flying, featured female Jewish protagonists who were concerned with their weight. According to Prell’s interpretation, the authors of these books were “fighting back” against the vicious stereotypes of the Jewish Mother and the Jewish American Princess (JAP), stereotypes crafted by Jewish men due to their anxiety over assimilation in America, an exemplified in sexist jokes and in the works of Philip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman. Though these Jewish protagonists worried about their weight, and may not necessarily have been feminists, they were intelligent and witty and ambitious and decidely not JAPs.

I think Prell’s interpretation has a great deal of merit to it. But what caught my eye was a graph on the back cover of Tell Me Everything. Marcie Laster, one of the main characters, “has a very secret and definitely shocking way of staying slim.” On page 145, Brenner treated readers us to a description of Laster vomiting after a recent eating binge. On the next few pages, Laster describes her slimming technique to her friend Florida Burns.

“The point is, do you want to be liberated from food or not? Because why the hell not give yourself the space to be able to stuff your guts till you want to die, eat everything you ever wanted? Tamales, Baskin-Robbins, blintzes, bagels, lox–well salty foods are harder to throw up, I don’t know why, but chocolate chips, Sara Lee, quiche, once I ate two whole pies, and what about… pizza!? Why deny yourself? Why run that guilt trip?” She paused, then started again. “I know what you’re thinking? You’ll die, you’ll choke to death.. it’s so unhealthy. Well… crap! The Romans did it. Actresses do it. At St. Francis’ everybody did it, that’s why WASPs always stay so thin. It’s actually quite healthy.  Like fasting, only you get to… eat.” She turned on me. “You mean you’ve never before met anyone who does it?”

“I haven’t.”

“Well, they probably just don’t admit it. The dirty little secret… food without guilt forever!” (emphasis mine)

Here is a decidely Jewish interpretation of bulimia. Though Marcie Laster presents it as something, Romans, actresses and WASPs all do (all gentiles), she gives it a Jewish spin, referring to Jewish foods, the familiar Jewish ritual of fasting, and most importantly, guilt. Here was a way to enjoy food and avoid guilt, the dark cloud looming over Jewish lives.

I have no idea how prevalent this was in American popular culture of the 1970s. I have no idea whether non-Jewish women wrote about this as well. I’ll have to do more research, and think about this more. But it’s interesting that even before doctors classified bulimia as a disease, it popped up in an American Jewish popular novel of the 1970s.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 2, 2010 at 18:55

3 Responses

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  1. well, jewish women probably take to pen and paper at a rate statistically higher than your average woman. that’s my guess as to why you’d hear it from them first. i’ve heard anecdotally that jewish women have higher rates of bulemia, but how can we ever have sure stats on something like this? what is important is to remember this is not an issue for academics. this is an issue we must address. treat your children well! help your daughters love their bodies so that they want to take care of them! yid is beautiful!


    March 2, 2010 at 19:44

  2. Sort of how the New Testament made so much into a religion that had already been around as mythology?


    March 3, 2010 at 10:50

  3. Hi.

    I am Christian and was taught that all foods were clean and that foods can be combined and it is okay (American way of thought).

    However, I was bulimic for around 8 years. I kept looking for answers, and eventually found the dietary laws outlined in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and so on. I try to stick with the clean foods, buy kosher meat, not combine meat and dairy, not eat any fat or blood, not eat egg yolk (it is still animal fat in my mind), not eat eggs and chicken on the same day (try not to eat chicken anymore at all), throw away any bit of left over meal from dinner in the morning (regulation from Passover), and not eat any grains/lentils (bread) unless it has been fully cooked on the “day” I am eating it. This is a brief summary of some solutions, but all of these ‘laws’ have really clarified many things in my mind and expalined why I had many problems before. I do not struggle with bulimia anymore. I have only had a few slight issues on my journey when I unknowingly ingest something which breaks one of these dietary laws (ex. steak cooked in butter instead of olive oil). I wonder if the Jewish women that struggle with eating disorders are struggling because certain laws of the O.T. are not being upheld within the home.

    Leviticus 18:25: Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.

    Leviticus 18:28: And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

    Anyway, many believe that this ‘land’ is the holy land contained within each of us. In essence, if it is defiled, ‘bulimia’ could occur.

    I do not struggle with bulimia anymore. I am still trying to learn more.. but I had to do many things… stop thinking ‘homosexuality’ was okay… dress more modestly.. brake some plates… that kinda stuff. It is all really interesting, and the cure is there if you really believe… not eating too much honey (or sugar), not dining with a rich man who only cares about the cost… getting rid of leaven during Passover.. on and on, all the scripture is there and it really helps explain many things.

    Again, I am not Jew. I believe in Jesus. I know that these laws are still true, because before I ever layed my eyes on them, unknowingly not following them resulted in many years of pain and sickness.

    I hope this helps.



    June 16, 2010 at 16:44

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