Saturday, September 7, 2013

Numbers on a Scale

I have mixed feelings about those numbers on the scale. We put so much worth on weight: a set of numbers that really tell us nothing more than the pull of gravity on us on this particular planet of ours.

In the weak pull of the moon's gravity, I'd weigh just over 20 pounds, while on the surface of the sun (assuming my poor body could withstand the heat), I'd weigh closer to two tons, as much some elephants. I remember learning that in school and hearing some of the girls joke that they wished they lived on Mercury or Mars, where we'd all weigh far less than we do here in the pull of our native Earth. As if we wouldn't all still feel fat at 60 Mars pounds.

I've spent a lot of my life -- too much of my life -- convinced that those numbers said something important about me as a person. When they were small, they said I was a good and attractive person, brimming with desirable qualities like self-control, discipline, energy, and sexiness. When they were high, they said I was a bad person: out of control, undisciplined, lazy, and unattractive.

Yet, in my journey to better health, those numbers have become a valuable tool for me. Granted, they aren't a valuable tool for everyone. New research shows that certain genetic mutations can cause weight gain and obesity in mice, even when those mice are eating exactly the same type and amount of food as other, "normal weight" mice. Research also shows that how much you weigh is less important to health than how fit you are; it seems we're better off being fat and fit than thin and unfit. These types of findings help drive the wonderful fat acceptance movement. They also contribute to my mixed feelings about using my scale as a tool for health and make me feel like a bit of a turncoat for losing 60 pounds and the fat street cred that went with it.

But the truth is, I wasn't a fit fat person, I was an unfit fat person. And a binge eater. I didn't eat a healthy balanced diet, exercise moderately, and gain weight anyway. I never engaged in any kind of aerobic exercise at all; I'd get winded just racing my son to the mailbox or walking up the stairs. And I didn't just eat junk, I overate it. For me to improve my health, I needed to do three things: 1) exercise more, 2) eat more healthy foods and less junk, and 3) (closely related to 2) stop binge eating. I know from experience that trying to take on all three at once would destine me to failure, probably in the form of more bingeing on junk. So, I made small changes with a narrow focus. And my primary focus has been to get my bingeing under control.

This is where the scale comes in. I weigh myself once every week or two. If I have been eating to self-medicate stress, if I have been eating far more than what I need to sustain my life and health, those numbers tell me. I can be dishonest with myself. I can fool myself into thinking that the ice cream sundae I ate was so very small (and full of healthy fruit!) that it's perfectly ok to eat a package of cookies, and of course, I should "listen to my body" when I'm still "hungry" after the sundae and the cookies, so it's ok to have a bag of chips and...

But the numbers on the scale, if I strip them of their emotional importance, have no agenda. They are not there to tell me I'm a good or bad person, and neither can they be complicit in my lies. Those numbers can't tell me if I'm lazy or hardworking, if I'm disciplined or sloppy, if I'm attractive or unattractive, if I'm trustworthy or not. Those numbers can only tell me one simple fact: the pull of the Earth's gravity on my body at this particular moment in time.

The number varies over the course of a day or a month, but I've been tracking long enough to know its usual range and to know that if that number goes up dramatically, it is visible proof of my bingeing. But what I do with that information is up to me. I can tell myself those numbers means I'm a bad, lazy, undisciplined liar. Or I can tell myself that, oops, I slipped up and fell into some old habits I don't want in my life anymore, and I'm going to start over and pay attention to how much I'm eating. The judgement doesn't lie in the scale, it lies in me.

Over the course of the past six months, that number has remained perfectly steady. I still eat junk, but I know I haven't been overeating junk. Maybe there will come a time when I am so honest with myself, so in tune with my body, and so untempted by the need to binge sweets that I don't need to rely on the scale's unbiased feedback. But I'm not there yet. And in the meantime, the scale and I will remain in our uneasy camaraderie, not in the Battle of the Bulge, but in the Battle of the Binge.