By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
“This is how I want to be—without fear. Independent. I want to be like a bird. I want to spread my wings.”
So reads part of the description beneath one of the 30 paintings on display until the end of May at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv. The collection represents the first-ever art exhibit of its kind: an exhibit created entirely by Israelis in treatment for eating disorders.
Dubbed “Tears of Color,” based on one of the collection’s paintings, the exhibit provides a window into the minds of individuals struggling with eating disorders. Each image is accompanied by an explanation of the patient’s treatments and trials during their time at Reuth Medical Center’s Machon Agam center for eating disorders. Agam, located in the Tel Aviv area, is the largest and busiest outpatient eating disorder clinic in Israel.
“Eating disorder patients are often among the most articulate people,” explained Yehudit Arad, exhibit curator and a renowned Israeli art therapist. “But when it comes to talking about their eating disorders, they cannot express themselves, or they have learned what they are supposed to say.”
Art, Arad said, helps these patients to open up. Through Arad’s guidance and a series of exercises, the patients are able to tap into the gap between what they show on the outside and what they feel on the inside. When used in conjunction with other therapies such as counseling, medication, and nutritional support, art therapy can serve a vital role in eating-disorder patients’ recovery, according to Arad.
“They learn to see themselves through the colors, lines and drawings,” she said. “These tell a story. It helps the words come out. Often they have no voice. On the canvas they find their voice.”
The imagery is bold and colorful; each color, said Arad, has a personal meaning. On each wall is a different patient’s story. On the wall including “Tears of Color” are 10 paintings, among them several images of birds. The first one shows an orange bird in its cage without eyes or wings.
“She is choosing to stay in her cage,” explained the artist, who like the others in the exhibit asked to remain anonymous.
Later, the bird stands atop a hill, surrounded by yellow light, testing the possibility of freedom. In the final painting, the bird becomes a female body, with arms spread, ready to make the plunge into independence and a life without her disease.
Yehuda Ninyo, head of Machon Agam, said the exhibit is on target to be viewed by 10,000 people. Agam has seen a 20-percent annual increase in patients for the last several years, he noted. Ninyo attributed this to a combination of medical and public awareness, and not necessarily to a spike in eating disorders in the Jewish state. Still, he said, the disease is starting younger and parents should be trained to know the signs.
“Parents can begin to see symptoms at around age 4 or 5,” Ninyo said. “Maybe they are not eating, they are saying, ‘I’m fat.’ … It is getting worse each year,” he said.
The Jerusalem Post reported last year that 1,500 Israeli teenagers develop an eating disorder and five percent of those suffering from anorexia die each year.
In January 2013, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that banned models deemed too skinny—those with a body mass index level below 18.5—from the catwalks, as well as from photo shoots and advertising campaigns. This was the first (and to-date only) time a country has set down legislation for a wholesale ban on what are viewed by some as unhealthy skinny models.
Currently, the Knesset is reviewing new legislation that would allow a husband or other family member to obtain medical custody over a woman with an eating disorder if her weight dropped to a dangerously low level and she was refusing treatment.
It’s a positive step, said model Yomi Abiola, founder of Stand up for Fashion, a global campaign promoting diversity, equality, and inclusion that aims to “transform lives through the power of fashion.” But she told JNS.org in an email that she thinks Israel is treating “the effect and not the cause. … I think efforts and resources should be poured into education.”
Judy Krasna knows firsthand the frustration of treating an eating disorder in Israel. Her daughter suffered from the disease for several years, and Krasna said it was challenging to learn about and to get proper care. She told JNS.org that her daughter’s pediatrician didn’t have a lot of resources, and that she was blamed for her daughter’s disease and shunned from involvement in her treatment. At public clinics, her daughter saw one psychologist and she saw another; the two did not share information. She was not even welcomed into her daughter’s nutritionist appointments.
Additionally, she noted, while there are several Israeli hospitals that will work with eating disorder patients, few have units exclusively to deal with this disorder. And there are always waiting lists. Private clinics like Agam are “wonderful,” Krasna said.
“Private clinics are better, more intensive, multi-disciplinary,” she said, “but only the privileged get private.”
Today, Krasna serves as a coach for other Israeli parents of children with eating disorders and is an activist for increased public funding for the cause. Arad, too, said the one thing Americans could do to assist Israel in this arena is offer financial support to enable clinics like Agam to provide grants to the patients who cannot afford Agam’s services, but desperately need the assistance.
Temimah Zucker, 23, is a recovered anorexic from New Jersey. She speaks publicly about the need for culturally sensitive and targeted support for people with eating disorders, especially within the Jewish community.
“This is a very serious issue,” said Zucker. “It’s an illness and it needs to be thought of as an illness.”
Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @MaayanJaffe.
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