Jewish Girls and Self-Destructive Behaviors: By The Numbers

We must help undo the damage done by impossibly high academic standards, media portrayals of unrealistic bodies, and other factors that make young women feel like they don't measure up.
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Last month, I wrote about the link between Jewish women and eating disorders just before participating in a series of Jewish Women International's Brain Power for Girl Power Think Tanks in Chicago and Detroit. The conferences took an intergenerational approach to solving the problems girls of all religions and backgrounds -- but Jewish girls in particular -- face in our society and culture, with a focus on eating disorders, drugs, alcohol, cutting, and other self-harming behaviors. Some hot-button areas: Do more Jewish girls suffer from eating disorders and if so, what aspects of our culture serve to muck up our relationship with food? If tales of girls servicing boys sexually at younger and younger ages are true, why is that? This is the most tech-savvy generation in history; what role do technology and the media play in this and how can we use these mediums to our advantage?

I promised you some results, and am pleased (yet, at the same time saddened) to detail some of the findings of an online survey JWI conducted this Fall, in collaboration with Professions Research, Inc. of Washington, DC. The survey targeted 1000 Jewish communal professionals -- day school principals, administrators, camp directors, youth group leaders -- who work on a daily basis with Jewish girls to ascertain where Jewish girls really are in regard to self-destructive behaviors such as anorexia; substance abuse; "cutting," or self-mutilation; and bullying, among others. A respectable 20% responded... and here's what they said:

On eating disorders...

JWI predicted that eating disorders would rank highly as a problem seen by respondents, due to its prevalence among upper middle class, high achieving populations. Indeed -- disordered eating patterns ranked number one overall on the list of destructive behaviors in Jewish girls observed by respondents. This correlates with anecdotal data from social workers and psychologists who work with Jewish girls, and helps bear out the assertion of many in the field that eating disorders are the "addiction of choice" among Jewish girls. Notably, while nearly half of respondents indicated they had encountered disordered eating habits or patterns in Jewish girls, only half of those indicated they intervened or referred the girl for assistance, pointing to the importance of forums like this and for educational programs, resources and materials within the community.

On bullying...

Bullying came in at number two overall, ahead of risky or precocious sexual behavior and substance abuse, which were three and four, with the problem presenting significantly as early as age nine. In girls ages 9-11, bullying was the most frequently observed problem, with 66% percent saying they'd encountered it in their work with Jewish girls and a relatively smaller amount, 35%, reporting disordered eating. Only 6% saw alcohol abuse as a problem at this young age and 3% cutting or self mutilation.

But from age 12-15, the data shows troubling changes, indicating this may be a particularly important and vulnerable age and one to focus attention and resources on in our work with Jewish girls. In this age group, there's an overall increase in all of the top behaviors with a full 75% of respondents observing both disordered eating and bullying. Alcohol abuse increases dramatically at this time to 48% and cutting jumps from just 3% of professionals saying they observed or heard about the behavior to 58%. Risky or precocious sexual behavior also makes a big shift, from 12% to 69%.

At age 16 there's another notable shift, when the most commonly observed behavior is alcohol abuse, which jumps again to 68%, correlating in verbatim comments again to risky or precocious sex.

Our girls are drinking, having sex, cutting themselves, withholding food and engaging in many other destructive behaviors -- but all too often, we don't want to believe it's happening. "Jewish girls grow up in nice homes and have parents who only want the best for them," JWI Executive Director Lori Weinstein said in her Think Tank opening remarks. "While we hope that's always the case, we know in our hearts it's not. Even if it were, Jewish girls are not immune to the pressures that affect all American girls, and they are not, sadly, immune to choosing self-destructive behaviors as a way to cope -- or act out."

She continued: "Today's Jewish girls are coming of age at a time that is more complicated, and filled with different challenges and pressures than we experienced. Facebook, texting, email, 200 television channels. Today's girls have 24/7 access to us, each other and everything, all the time... but there's a loneliness. Television, magazines, movies, advertising -- all sexualize young women and present unattainable standards of beauty... there's an emptiness. Extraordinary pressure to succeed academically and professionally -- and in an economic environment that is deteriorating... there's a hopelessness."

The numbers above bear out that sense of loneliness and hopelessness. Girls everywhere are suffering; we owe it to the younger generation to help undo the damage done by impossibly high academic standards, the media's portrayal of unrealistic bodies and Photoshopped beauty, and the whirlwind of other factors which combine to make young women feel like they don't measure up.

The next Think Tank will be held in Washington, DC on Sunday, December 7, 2008 (with future meetings taking place in NY and LA). Click here to register and add your voice to this crucial dialogue.

Special thanks to JWI Executive Director Lori Weinstein for this information.

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