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February 15, 2017 by

“Fat Talk”: Then and Now

I had always believed that my numerical weight was also a measure of my professional dignity, my diligence and my self-control. I’d struggled with my weight since early childhood and had landed my first senior cantorial position immediately after having lost 40 pounds. That was back in 1976.  

I assumed that losing weight and gaining a pulpit were connected. 

Since I thought about my weight constantly, I figured that, despite my best intentions, my young daughters did, too. 

Perhaps this is why I still vividly remember page 26 of Lilith’s summer, 2001 edition!  This was the page where “Fat Talk” by Mimi Nichter began. The article spoke to me, and I instantly knew it would have an impact upon my Hebrew High School students in Buffalo. When I saw that two-word title, I knew I wanted to teach young women about body image and Jewishness. Yes, fat is a feminist issue and also a Jewish issue, at least for women. After all, don’t stereotypical Jewish mothers harangue everyone to EAT? I would start at the beginning with Jewish teens—who appear to be the bull’s-eyes for Western society’s slings and arrows. Young women, it seems, must be slender, graceful, lovely, oiled and perfumed just so. 

I would be part of the solution. I would be the cantor these young students would remember. The cantor who allowed them to love their strong, colorful selves. We would rock our Semitic noses and toss our rock-solid, motionless curls in solidarity.  And further, I could almost taste the victory that my students would achieve over the patriarchy as they, enlightened, seized adulthood!  

Yeah, right. 

In 2003, I taught the ten-part course at Hebrew High, called “Lilith as Covergirl,” with those lofty goals in mind. I still have my lesson plans! It was a great class.  The young women were funny, articulate, free and clever. I loved them. 

We probed our ridiculous, fixed notions of feminine beauty and took them apart, piece by piece. And all the while, I was trying not to look down at my bulging thighs. Useless. Not pointless, but ultimately we changed nothing. Not even our OWN ideas about the female form.

How do I know this?  I’ve been in touch with three of the twelve students who were in my 2003 Hebrew High School class in Buffalo, New York.  (I attempted in vain to contact them all.)  One of them is my now thirty-year-old daughter, Aleza.  One of the students is in rabbinical school, identifying today as genderqueer, and one is a single mother.

I asked these thirty-somethings the same questions I asked them when they were teenagers. Here is what I learned: All three think about their weight all the time. One has decided to embrace her strong, healthy body. One of three.

I also posed the following question to them.

Do President Trump’s comments about women’s bodies have any impact on you? I referred to comments like the following about Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, who, at the time, weighed 149 pounds at 5’9″.

That person was a Miss Universe person,” Trump said of the former beauty queen. “And she was the worst we ever had, the worst, the absolute worst. She was impossible…. And she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.

All three decried Trump’s talk. His talk, not Mimi Nichter’s, is still the most prevalent form of Fat Talk and they all were concerned about children hearing remarks like Trump’s from the president of the United States.

It is poisonous, as we all know. As I write this piece, many cherished American values and convictions are receding. According to some, it is acceptable to shame people whose contours don’t conform.   

It is good to remember that we are all created in the Divine Image. Daily we bless the Creator for having created our bodies in all their intricacy, with all the synchronized functions that allow us to live and breathe, perhaps to procreate and ultimately to study Torah.   

Many of us remain enslaved in the Egypt of rigid body ideals.  That “narrow place” has not opened in the past two decades. 

The former students with whom I spoke noted that their mothers had fat issues.  (I am one of those mothers.)  They believe that their obsession with weight originated with their mothers’ behavior, if not with their words.  With the help of Lilith Magazine, articles such as the one by Mimi Nichter, and through the agency of progressive synagogues and liberal Hebrew High Schools everywhere, we shall improve, if not yet overcome.

Barbara Ostfeld was ordained as a cantor in 1975 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  She was the first woman cantor to have achieved ordination.  She is Placement Director Emerita of the American Conference of Cantors. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.