The Diet Trap

Penina Eilberg-Schwartz

Dark-haired, dark-eyed Leila* was already at Oberlin when I stumbled into our freshman room for the first time carrying my things. She was mysterious at first. She hinted at some great love, some heartbreak, a boy she dreamt about but didn't talk to anymore. Before long I would learn more about Ben—how she had fallen in love with him in Peru when she attended a program he was leading, how she tripped through a doorway in front of him, how he tore joyfully at guinea pig meat with his teeth while she looked on, horrified.

On campus, boys looked at Leila often. She looked at them, too, with her big, sad eyes. Something about her quietness drew them in. Other girls were jealous, which stung her. I would touch her shoulder, try to make her feel my support. But really I was sad that I wasn't looked at in the same way.

In the early days Leila and I talked about activism, though she mostly talked and I mostly listened. Both of us had come from liberal, socially progressive, staunchly Democratic families, but she had taken the commitment to social justice further than her parents. She spoke of fighting the world's gross inequalities—getting petitions signed, raising money for medicine to heal sick children, helping to build schools far away.

"You know about the genocide in Rwanda?" she asked me once, her small, high voice rougher than usual.

"Just a very little bit," I said.

"I don't understand."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't understand how people could know and do nothing. I don't understand how they just sat there while people died in the streets."

I listened, thinking, That's me. There are similar atrocities happening now. Why don't I do anything?

I was raised by two Jewish parents. My mother is a rabbi. Both my mother and father had taught me the importance of philanthropy. They had encouraged me to volunteer at soup kitchens. They impressed upon me that repairing the world was an integral part of being Jewish. We were people with a great deal of privilege, something I should not take for granted.

The education I was receiving at Oberlin—and not just inside the classroom—was pushing these beliefs to another level. A prevalent idea on campus was that people of advantage, myself included, were obligated not only to use their financial means and power, but to give them up in order to overturn systems of oppression.

As I absorbed all this, my parents were paying my college tuition and offering me extra money so I could focus on my studies.

Leila, in contrast, worked two jobs to support herself. Watching her, I felt sick with guilt. A small thought came up again and again: I do not deserve this. If I cannot bring positive change, I should at least do less harm.

One day in October, I was on my bed reading when I heard a choking sound. Leila was in front of the computer, all bent over, hair covering her face, sobbing.

"What is it, Leila?"

"No no no no no."

I put my hand on her back and looked up. On the screen I read that Ben had died in a car accident.

In the months that followed, Leila sometimes cried uncontrollably. She dedicated herself to raising money to build a school in Nigeria in Ben's memory. He had represented perfect goodness to her. He had handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to homeless people on New York City streets. He had said: You do not need so much. He could go days without eating. He was that good.

I began spending time sitting in our tiny, dark closet. Leila thought my behavior was strange and we would laugh about it. I knew it was part of my new obsession to take up the least possible amount of space. My life, I believed, had already taken up too much space—too much money, too much privilege—and I didn't see how I could counteract the harm I'd created in the world.

Students at my school had taught me that food was inextricably linked to issues of justice. Factory farming in America was destroying land, abusing animals, overusing resources, producing harmful carbon emissions, and poisoning our bodies. The food I consumed and the clothes I bought were supporting unjust wages and cruel treatment of migrant workers in the U.S. and factory workers in Africa and Asia. If I was not going to be a Ben or a Leila and create significant good in the world, I could at least make myself small. Small was comforting.

Sometimes Leila and I talked in the dark before sleep.

"What is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you?" I asked her.

"Antone told me I am beautiful, but something else, something he can't put his finger on. I'm magnetic, he said."

I couldn't think of anyone ever saying anything like that about me.

During January break I stayed on campus while Leila went back home to involve high school students in a series of fundraisers to build the school in Nigeria. "This is the only thing that feels good now," she said.

That was when I decided to eat tiny meals and keep track of what I consumed in a notebook.

Eating hyper-consciously, I told myself, was a political act of resistance against the unjust system that left millions of people hungry and undernourished. I would not be wasteful; I would eat only what I needed to live.

I stopped eating meat and most dairy. My meals shrank drastically in size. As my body began to diminish, I somehow felt redeemed, as if my responsibility for world hunger, and other injustices, was shrinking too.

And, although I refused to admit this to myself, I also wanted to look thinner and more delicate. Waifish girls and boys were highly valued on campus, and I wanted boys to find me attractive. Still, as a radical feminist, I thought I was above things like that.

People started to comment on my eating habits. I ignored them. A resident advisor asked Leila if I was okay, and she innocently assured him that I was. I felt an anger rise. I wanted to say, No, no, I am not okay. But I said nothing. I didn't deserve to feel bad in the face of Leila's loss and all the suffering in the world.

I went home to Palo Alto for spring break. My father looked at me with worried eyes. He could see the clear outlines of bones under my skin. He bought me ice cream cones twice a day. I ate them, to convince us both that nothing was wrong.

We walked by the water in Half Moon Bay, climbed the hill to his favorite bench. I began to cry, and could not stop.

"Penina, what's wrong?"

"I don't know."

And I didn't.

He made me promise to see a doctor when I got back to school.

The school's physician sent me to a therapist and told me to come back a week later to be reweighed, to make sure I stayed stable. But I lost a lot of weight that next week and when I returned to the doctor she told me I had to leave school.

I stared at her. "I am fine; really, nothing is wrong."

"Either," she sighed, "you can choose to leave or we will choose for you."

The next day my mother arrived to help me pack my things. We would spend Passover in Minnesota, where my mom lived with my stepfather. There I went to see a doctor who specialized in eating disorders.

"You have anorexia nervosa," she said.

"Are you sure?" I said. "Maybe there's a mistake?"

"No," she said. "You have hair growing on your stomach, the equivalent of an extra layer to keep you warm. Do you know what's happening inside of you? Your organs are eating themselves to stay alive."

She referred me to an in-patient eating disorder clinic. The clinic had a waiting list, but because I was so sick, they would notify me as soon as a bed became available.

At the seder, like every year before, we sang Min Hametzar:

Min hametzar karati Yah
Anani va'merchav Yah

Out of a narrow place, I called out to God.
God answered me with great, open space.

It was the first Passover—and not the last—that I felt outrage. As my family and friends spoke about modern day slavery and the obligation that comes with being free, I thought: We said the same thing last year, and the year before that, and nothing has changed. As Jews oppressed for so long, we're not doing nearly enough for others, now that we are free.

My Jewish community was now occupying a wide open space, and I thought, Maybe a narrow place is better. Maybe enslaved is better than free and guilty.

The hospital called. A bed was ready for me.

A nurse escorted me into a room and handed me some animal crackers. She told me I had 15 minutes and stepped out. I nibbled on a lion cracker that I didn't plan to finish eating. When she came back, part of the lion was still in my hand. Shaking her head, she gave me a shot of a sickeningly sweet, viscous dietary supplement, the one that all patients on the unit had to down at the end of any meal they stubbornly refused to complete.

Slowly, I began to heal. My hospital therapist challenged me whenever I offered some less-than-truthful explanation of why I had gotten myself into this situation. My dietician—who wore a button on his bag with the word "diet" and a big X through it—got me to see that equating virtue with eating less came from a sick, distorted, foreign "thing" inside of me. He stripped the eating disorder of its mystery and elusiveness and called it what it was: a disease I needed to fight.

He also taught me to laugh at unhealthy thoughts about food, one of my best tools in recovery. As I recognized and laughed at the illogical and deceptive nature of the voices which were telling me that I would somehow be better if I ate less, I became strong enough to fight them.

I began to eat full meals again, under peer pressure from the other patients and knowing that if I didn't, I'd have to swallow that foul-tasting dietary supplement. After two weeks, my blood pressure started to normalize and I gained some weight. The hospital released me, and I "graduated" to the eating disorder unit's intensive, five-week, all-day outpatient program. At lunch with my dietician and other patients, I practiced eating normally, redefining what constitutes a reasonable portion. He encouraged us to have a little extra food. "Every time you do," he said, "you make yourself better. You get stronger than that foreign thing in you."

I saw, now, how misguided I had been. Without noticing, I had turned into someone unrecognizable. Had I continued on that path, my life would have been over. If I didn't die, I'd just be wasting away, not making any good change in the world, and hurting the people I loved most.

On my last day, the dietician told me in a group meeting, "Penina, you are glowing."

And I felt it, too.

To get out of the hospital, to change myself, to write this, I had to reject the notion that starving myself was somehow an act of tikkun olam. Instead, it had become a way of escaping my responsibility to repair the world. If I had power and privilege, the only respectable thing to do was to use it.

These days I live in a young, alternative community where, like at school, people tend to think about food in political terms. It's true, there's a great deal of value in thinking about food this way. But every time I hear friends say they're eliminating gluten, or sugar, or going on a juice fast to flush out toxins, I feel as if I'm seeing in them aspects of my own eating disorder. My friends say they're operating purely out of a desire to eat healthfully or to protect the environment, as I once did. But any solution involving food, when taken to extremes, can lead to unanticipated pathologies.

I see the political issue differently than many others. To eat something we love, even if it's not "healthy" for us, is a political act, challenging the belief that we have to deprive ourselves to look a certain way to be valued. Some of us need to take up more space, not less.

Disordered eating—not just the kind that landed me in the hospital, but the kind that is encouraged in the name of some accepted diet or eating practice for reasons of health, beauty, social acceptance, or political ideology—keeps women from realizing their full potential. Focusing on what we eat, punishing ourselves or feeling guilty for not eating the "right" things, takes our attention away from the most important things: doing good work, making art, falling in love.

Sometimes I try to add up the number of minutes I've spent in my life thinking about food, as if it made me who I am. Then I add those to the minutes so many other women and other people, those with diagnosed eating disorders and those without, have spent agonizing about food. And I think, This is what waste looks like—the loss of that time, of everything that could have been done with it.

It has been seven years since my release from the hospital. I still feel angry on Passover, because we continue to squander our freedom. But I do feel differently when we sing Min Hametzar. Freedom comes with enormous responsibility, but it is also a gift. We can't do any meaningful work while closeting ourselves in small and narrow places. We can only do it out of a wide, open space.

Penina Eilberg-Schwartz is a writer and musician living in San Francisco who has worked on justice issues ranging from immigration rights in the U.S. to civil rights in Israel and Palestine. A shorter version of this piece, co-written with her mother Rabbi Amy Eilberg, appears in the book Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of our Lives, edited by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell and Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013).

* Name and other details about Leila have been changed to preserve anonymity.