How Hilde Bruch Brought Eating Disorders To The Forefront


Editor’s Note: Isabel Kirsch was a finalist for the Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing. Nearly 70 contestants from around the country answered the following question: “Choose a living or deceased Jewish-American woman and write about her legacy in any field such as law, medicine, sports, politics, entertainment, and more. Why are her accomplishments meaningful to you?” The contest was sponsored by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame and The Jewish Week Media Group. 

Descriptions of eating disorders date back centuries, yet it took until the 1970s for the pioneering research of doctor, psychologist and writer Hilde Bruch to bring the issue to public attention. Born in Germany in 1904, Bruch received her doctorate in medicine in 1929 and practiced in Germany until fleeing increasing anti-Semitism in 1933. She moved first to London and then to New York, becoming an American citizen in 1940. Beginning in the early 1940s, Bruch conducted groundbreaking research on childhood obesity and eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa.

After decades of research, Bruch’s work brought eating disorders into the public eye with her 1973 publication of “Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, and the Person Within.” Her widely-known 1979 text about the causes and treatments of anorexia, “The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa,” is still referenced today. I didn’t know that there was research about eating disorders in teenagers as early as the 1940s, so discovering Bruch’s work was surprising and enlightening.

I was struck by the fact that Bruch asked the same questions more than 70 years ago that we still ask today — How and why are so many young women affected by eating disorders? What can we do to prevent them?

Despite Bruch’s groundbreaking work, eating disorders in teenagers, predominantly girls, are not just an issue of the past. As a competitive runner, I’m well aware of the prevalence of the disease among teenage girls. I’ve become aware of multiple teammates and competitors who have struggled with eating disorders, some even requiring hospitalization.

My teammates’ and my own vulnerability to eating disorders terrifies me. One of the many reasons that I love running is because it makes me feel connected to my body; when I run, I am aware of the full effort that my body can give. However, this dependence on my body to do an activity that I love has made me incredibly conscious of both my body and diet. The stereotypically perfect female runner is somehow skinnier than the models in teen magazines, but also muscular; she has a thigh gap wider than her actual thighs and the flattest abs around. My eyes are open to the pressures that teenage girls and female runners face to conform to these unrealistic standards, but I still worry about the risk that eating disorders pose to me and my teammates. I fear that awareness isn’t enough to mitigate this threat.

Hilde Bruch’s research laid the groundwork for treating eating disorders not as conscious dieting decisions, but as serious medical conditions. I do my best to honor Bruch’s legacy by analyzing the messages that are marketed to me, looking out for my friends and teammates who might be struggling with their eating habits and not criticizing different body types. If everyone took these steps, we might be able to eliminate judgements surrounding women’s bodies and solve the problems that Bruch identified almost 80 years ago.