The organization is dedicated to supporting the mental health of Jewish girls through programs that improve their self-compassion, self-esteem and body acceptance.

Sometimes people assume mental health issues only happen to “other” people, but this a myth, especially when it comes to eating disorders and body image issues. These issues have long been a huge problem and particularly so for the Jewish community. According to empirical study, up to 24% of the female Jewish community is at risk of developing this devastating illness at some point in their lives. In response to this disturbing statistic, one Oak Park woman, Dr. Marcy Forta, EdD, MBA, has created an organization called Atzmi. The organization is dedicated to supporting the mental health of Jewish girls through programs that improve their self-compassion, self-esteem and body acceptance.

Discovering the Need

The idea for such a program began percolating in Forta’s head more than 20 years ago, when she saw up close how many women struggled with body image issues. For 15 years, she owned and ran a Berkley clothing boutique, The Room Downstairs, together with her sister-in-law, Shoshana Forta. As women and girls shopped, Forta would listen to their self-recriminations and struggles.

Dr. Marcy Forta
Dr. Marcy Forta

“I noticed that many women and girls seemed to want to hide their bodies and were almost apologetic about how they looked,” Forta said. “They’d buy dresses in smaller sizes, determined to lose weight to fit into them. Girls often didn’t know how to relate to their bodies, and so many mothers were miserable that their bodies hadn’t returned to their pre-baby shapes.”

By the time the business was sold, a seed had been planted. Body image issues were something Forta related to and understood — she, too, had struggled with a painful eating disorder as a teen.

“It spoke to me deeply,” said Forta, who had a background in business at the time. She was passionate about the issue and knew she wanted to do something, but what?

“I felt my contribution would have the greatest impact if I could use my business background, personal experience and research to work in the prevention of these issues; helping people before these devastating illnesses take hold,” Forta said.

In 2015, Forta returned to school, studied for the next five years and earned her doctorate in education leadership in behavioral health. Her doctorate focused on the unique risk factors of the Jewish Orthodox adolescent community that make them particularly susceptible to eating disorders and body image issues.

Developing the Program

Forta additionally became certified in the existing prevention programs available that were scientifically tested and proven to be effective. Then she made it her mission to tailor such a program for the unique needs of the Orthodox community.

“I developed this whole Torah-based curriculum for girls on the topic called the ‘My Best Self Project.’ The focus isn’t just on eating disorders. We reduce the importance of outward appearance, discuss self-compassion, emotional regulation, boundaries, priorities and even cultivating healthy relationships,” Forta said. “It can especially be so hard for young girls who desperately want to fit in. The goal is to help them discover their inner talent, capabilities and beauty, what truly makes them special. I want to help each girl appreciate their unique selves.”

That’s why she called the program Atzmi, from the Hebrew word etzem — meaning, “my essence, myself.”

The program is three-pronged. The first part consists of bringing the topic to girls through a series of four sessions, in-school workshops for grades 8, 10 and 12. Forta provides training videos for schools, so they can learn and run the program on their own. She’s so passionate about the topic and is so determined to have it reach as many Jewish kids as possible that she doesn’t charge for the educational materials or her time, only the beautiful workshop journals that each student receives as part of the program.

The second part is parent education through talks and workshops.

“The mothers have grown up in the same culture; they’re struggling with the same issues,” Forta said. “I’m not preaching a positive body image, rather a neutral body image. Sometimes we do feel negatively about ourselves, it’s only natural. Regardless, however we feel about our bodies — that shouldn’t run the show of who we are. There are so many other parts to us besides our bodies.”

The third part is educating the teachers how to recognize the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, the dangers of diet culture and weight stigma, as well as ensuring they understand what the struggle is really all about.

Forta said that if a student is suspected of having an eating disorder, it is imperative that they be evaluated by a therapist or doctor who is trained in eating disorders. Untrained doctors may not fully recognize the symptoms for what they are.

Atzmi has only been up and running for one year, but it’s been introduced in seven schools already and there are more in the pipeline.

“This is so necessary and important,” Forta said. “Everyone knows someone who had an eating disorder or who was touched by the issue in some way. If we can give our girls the tools they need to question society’s expectations and appreciate the incredible gifts they each have, this helps today, but is also an investment in the future.”

A Community at Risk

Why are Jews more at risk of developing body image issues and eating disorders?

“It is hard to say exactly,” Forta answered. “There is a genetic component, which is part of the reason that we do see them in families.”

For some, there may be another underlying mental illness, such as OCD, depression or anxiety, which can contribute to feelings of unworthiness and increase risk.

Another cause is cultural — could be from a learned behavior. For example, a common mistake is to reward kids with food. This, according to Forta, is dangerous and can skew their relationship with food.

“Food is nourishment. We need three meals a day every day for our entire lives,” said Forta. “When you use food as a reward or reinforcement of a behavior, you undermine healthy eating habits, which can potentially disrupt a child’s ability to accurately recognize and respect hunger and fullness signals and can make food about feelings of achievement or an alleviation of a negative emotion.”

Forta continued, “Look at infants; they know when they’re full and stop drinking. Somehow those innate cues that we’re born with disappear over time, often due to the messages we receive about food from the people around us. Atzmi helps girls rebuild their relationship with food.”

This is an especially important message among Jews, who, after all, celebrate and mourn and talk with food; it’s practically ingrained in our DNA.

Well-meaning comments from family and friends can also have an impact. Sometimes when someone loses weight, they receive a lot of positive reinforcement and attention and this can contribute to the message that their appearance is primary, ultimately contributing to an eating disorder. Even the most innocuous-sounding words can be a trigger.

Even saying something as innocent as “Hi, long time no see. You look great; have you lost weight?” can be problematic, as it is overly focused on looks. Likewise, constantly complimenting little girls with “you are so beautiful” or “you look so pretty” sends a subtle message about priorities.

“Never tell someone, ‘you’re so skinny; I wish I had your self-control’ or ‘can’t you just eat?’ Never tell a recovering anorexic, ‘You look good. You look like you gained weight,’” Forta said. “These things can be so painful for them to hear.”

With so much that it’s better not to say, innocent conversations can feel like a landmine. Forta said that the most soothing sentiments are always, “I’m here for you, I care about you, how can I help” with absolutely zero focus on a person’s physical appearance.

Eating disorders can impact a person’s cognitive, mental, emotional and physical functions. Many people recover from eating disorders and are fine. But sadly, other times there can be lingering issues that last well into adulthood.

“Depending on the severity and the length of time of their illness, they might struggle with osteoporosis, heart conditions, a damaged metabolism, erosion of the esophagus, ruined teeth and electrolyte imbalances, among other things,” Forta said.

Looking to the Future

According to Forta, eating disorders and body image issues are also a problem among males. After receiving tremendous feedback about Atzmi, Forta hopes to one day tailor a similar program for Jewish males, too.

“We’re teaching girls these completely new ways to think and relate to their bodies. Sometimes the ideas are met with resistance at first; after all, these are all new concepts. We have these beliefs taught and reinforced by society — fat is bad, food makes us fat, we need to be thin to be good people — but thankfully, these young girls are open to questioning society’s long-held beliefs and are open to understanding things in a new way,” Forta said. “These are small steps that are hopefully impacting the mothers of the next generation who will lead their own kids by example and lessen the risk of future generations developing these painful illnesses.”

The “My Best Self” Project from Atzmi is an entirely free program funded completely by generous donors. Atzmi is online at Consider helping support its mission at Dr. Marcy Forta welcomes your comments and thoughts. She can be reached at

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