I want to talk about weight. Specifically, I want to talk about numbers and scales. I want to talk about how I just went to the doctor last week, and the nurse told me that I was overweight. I am going to tell you exactly how heavy I am right now (heresy!), and about how even though I am training for an Ultra Marathon, a licensed medical professional told me that I need to lose weight. And I'm going to tell you how hiking the Appalachian Trail finally, after 27 years, broke the spell of the scale.
I was in 6th grade the first time that I became aware that "weight" was a thing.
My uppity northern California public middle school was on a field trip to a science museum, and there was a scale that would tell you your weight on the moon. The scale had a huge red digital readout that showed your "Earth Weight" and your "Moon Weight." One by one the popular girls climbed up onto the scale and, clearly missing the entire point of the fun scientific tool to help understand how gravity works, they only focused on the "Earth Weight" readout. They all squealed at the revelation that they were 70 pounds.
"Oh my gaaawwwd," one of them whined, "I'm 74 pounds. I'm so fat."
Her friends did not disagree with her. They carefully avoided eye contact with her, while making a series of small non-committal sounds, like a chorus of tiny preening song birds.
I had spent a lot of my adolescence up until this point at farming Montessori schools, and I was a recent and unwilling inductee into the clique culture. Hearing the 74-pound girl say she was "fat" was very confusing for me. I had never thought about size or weight, or had any understanding that it was something that could be used in a demeaning way. As far as I could tell, she looked like a normal 11-year-old.
Without realizing the impact it was about to have on me, I climbed up onto the scale and looked upward at the glowing digital numbers.
"Oh my god," I heard a girl hiss to another girl, clearly stifling a laugh, "She weighs 90 pounds."
There was a wave of quiet snickers that emanated out from the group, and I felt my face start to get red. I climbed down from the scale and shuffled off after the group, hanging my head and feeling strange. Let me reiterate: I weighed Ninety Pounds. That's lighter than most large dogs. And yet somehow, this group of twittering 11-year-olds had made me feel like my body was something to be ashamed of. This was my first experience with the power of females in numbers, and my first experience with how absolutely horrible it felt.
When I got home, I tearfully related the story to my older sister. I told her that I must be some giant blob monster and no one had the heart to tell me before now (In fact, I was a creepily skinny skeleton monster and I'd simply hit a growth spurt before some of my peers, and was a few inches taller than them. But the other girls hadn't seen me that way. They'd seen the number on my scale, saw that it was 20 pounds heavier than them, ignored what I actually looked like, and reacted to me as though I was somehow damaged).
Though teary eyes I sniffled, "Is there something wrong with me? Am I fat?"
It is to my sister's enormous credit that she did not simply slap me across the face.
Instead she took me by the hand and made me stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom. She told me that I should never weigh myself ever again. She said that scales are not important, that the number isn't important. She asked me if I liked what I saw in the mirror. I told her that I hadn't really ever thought about it before, but that yes, I suppose I didn't mind what I saw.
"That's all that matters," she said with finality, "The number on the scale doesn't tell you ANYTHING. If you like what you see, then it's perfect. If you look in the mirror and decide you want to start working out, then that's what's right for you. If you look in the mirror and decide you should eat more sandwiches, then that's what's right for you. You're allowed to be mindful of yourself and be as healthy as you can. But the scale cannot tell you how healthy you are."
Then she went off to play with her Star Wars toys.
1997 - 2013
Even though my sister's advice was sound, beautiful, and taken to heart, I still very easily fell victim to our culture's insane preoccupation with women and how much they weigh. I would chirrup my sister's advice to myself after each time I had to get weighed at a doctor's office. I would think I was unaffected by the number I saw on the scale. A number that was always very slightly bigger than it was "supposed to be" for a woman of my height. And then without even being consciously aware of the connection, for a week afterward I would drink nothing but a smoothies for "lunch" and silently relish the sick satisfaction in the back of my mind about the ache that comes from being perpetually hungry.
I have been through countless cycles in my life where I would decide to be more physically active, but then would notice the weight gain that came along with it. And then I would quit. But my brain didn't allow me to make that connection - it came up with a zillion excuses for why I should stop working out that had nothing to do with the fact that I was gaining pounds.
"It's cold outside," "I didn't sleep well last night," "I hate the smell of my clothes after I work out," "My iPod isn't charged," "It's Arbor Day," etc. etc.
Even though I was getting healthier, I was getting heavier, and that made me feel like I was "doing it wrong." So I would quit.
Physical fitness for women is insane about numbers. It feels like every single year at New Year's, at least 1 out of every 4 women I talk to makes a goal to lose 10-15 pounds. A lot of times ladies don't have a resolution to be more fit, or to be able to accomplish a distance in swimming or running or walking (Don't get me wrong, there are absolutely lots of people who make resolutions this way, I'm just talking about the fact that some folks focus on the weight). Instead there's these resolutions to lose pounds. I do not blame these women for wanting to lose the weight, because I know exactly what that desire feels like.
I haven't ever owned a scale. I didn't own a scale because I was "above" them, or thought that I was cooler than scales. I didn't own one because I knew that if I did own one, I would be a slave to it in spite of myself. I have spent my entire teenage and young adult life trying trying to distance myself from that part of me. The part of me that surfaces like a monster every time I go to get my yearly physical and I take that wobbly, nervous step up onto the scale, hoping that I am not ashamed by the number that I see. The part of me that doesn't come from me, but comes from the messages we get as women. The part of me that the feminist inside me wants to strangle, but has never quite succeeded.
My Facebook newsfeed is inundated with "Sponsored Ads" about Losing Belly Weight! and Look at How This Celebrity Lost Weight! and Try This One Crazy Diet Thing and You Will Weigh Less Than Your 6-year-old Niece! Starve Yourself And Finally Be Successful in All of Your Endeavors! Follow This One Secret Or God Forbid You Will Weigh More Than 125 Pounds and Everyone Knows That If You Weigh 126 Pounds or More, You Will Be Ostracized and Alone Forever!
Meanwhile, Dumptruck recently showed me his Facebook newsfeed, and it is completely inundated with sponsored ads about gaining muscle weight, gaining muscle weight, gaining muscle weight.
Why is it not okay for a woman to have muscle weight? If we look "good," and weigh the "right amount" but we have no muscle mass, what have we accomplished?
For my entire teenage and young adult life, my weight has consistently fluctuated between 127 and 135 pounds (until now). Do you feel like it is ridiculous that I could ever feel like I weighed too much? Good. IT IS RIDICULOUS. I know with every fiber of my being that I have no idea what it's like to struggle with weight, and I have no right at all to complain about my weight.
And so I never did, I never complained to anyone about how I looked or what I weighed. But that didn't stop the private never-ending mental battle that waged blood and war across my self esteem. On one side was the logical part of me that knew I was perfectly healthy the way I was. And on the other side was that flock of little preening song birds, twittering away and snickering every time I picked up a donut or tried wearing short shorts.
When I was at the Laughing Heart Hostel, during my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, everyone was talking about the scale in the bathroom. Everyone was asking each other, "How much weight have you lost?" The trail absolutely whips people into shape, and for some folks, that does involve losing weight. But even among a group of healthy athletic hikers, the language is still focused on weight loss, rather than fitness gain. It's not because we're bad people. It's because we've been trained to look at health this way. To look at it like a number.
There were several occasions during my time on the trail in which I was able to meet-up with non-trail friends, people who I'd known before I started hiking. These are all good, sweet, well-meaning, respectful people, and the first thing almost every single one of them would say was,
"Wow! How much weight have you lost?!"
Then there would be the open-mouthed jaw-drop when I would tell them that no, I hadn't lost any weight, in fact, I had been gaining weight.
"How is that possible?" they'd say, "You look so healthy!"
And there it was. The single most incorrect assumption that we as women make all the time: the only way to look "healthy" is to "weigh little." When in fact, I looked and felt 10 times healthier than I ever had in my entire life, and I was steadily gaining weight. Little did I know it, but this was the start of my escape from the tyranny of the scale. The only way for me to be able to finally accept that I didn't care what I weighed was to do the scariest thing possible: actually allow myself to gain the weight.
This was only possible for me because I was thru-hiking. I had to eat a lot in order not to pass out. I didn't care what I looked like because everyone else was just as unwashed and weirdly shaped as I was. For the first time in my life, I was getting into shape and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
"Oh my goodness," the nurse muttered, looking at the weight on the scale and then looking at me. I tilted my head to the side, a little confused smile on my face. I was facing away from the wall and couldn't see the number on the scale, so I didn't know what was happening. This was my first time going to the doctor since finishing the Appalachian Trail. Side bar: Be Ye Not So Foolish! I should have gone and gotten a physical much sooner, but insurance, job, blah, blah, excuses.
I knew that I was very healthy and physically fit. I was wearing pants 2 sizes smaller than the pants I wore before I left for the trail a year previously. I was feeling confident, and I couldn't possibly imagine why the nurse looked like she'd just swallowed an entire lemon.
"Well, technically for your weight and height, you are overweight. You weigh 152 pounds. It's our policy that when we have a new patient who is overweight, I'm supposed to offer you the option of having counseling from one of the doctors about your diet."
I stared at her, flabbergasted. "I weigh One Hundred and Fifty Two Pounds?" I whispered, each syllable feeling like a stone dropping into the bottomless well of my stomach. All of my previous confidence evaporated like smoke. I have never, in my entire life, weighed more than 135 pounds. And here I was, standing on a scale in front of a thin bespectacled nurse, being told that I weigh almost 20 pounds more than I have ever weighed?!
But then something happened. It was like a small crack in ice, a crack that grows slowly at first until it spiderwebs out and the entire lake shatters. I let out a small chuckle, and then I started laughing, laughing so hard that my eyes teared up. I stepped down off of the scale and started putting my shoes back on, wiping my eyes with the backs of my hands. The nurse turned a little pink, and I shook my head.
"No, no, I don't think I need counseling about my weight," I said, as nicely as I could, "I walked 2,185 miles from Georgia to Maine last year, and in the 6 months since that time, I've been training for an Ultra Marathon. I'm sure I weigh that much because of my muscles."
| This is me, technically overweight,|
according to BMI.
Want to know why?
I know exactly how I could get back into the "Normal Range" of the BMI.
I could stop running.
My muscles would atrophy and slowly be replaced by fat. I would be approximately the same size, and maybe I would be 20 pounds lighter. And I would be unhealthy.
I wish that fitness wasn't marketed to women as a weight-loss campaign or a weight-loss option. I think more women would be able to stick with some form of regular fitness if they weren't feeling this pressure of some sort of number they had to attain.
If you've ever "tried to lose 5 pounds" you know how UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE it is. You diet, you start working out, and somehow, you stay the same weight or gain weight. It feels hopeless, stupid, and embarrassing, and you're eating crap food that tastes like a barn floor. So you give up. That's what I did. Over and over and over again.
If you can give yourself one gift, then give yourself a hammer. And use that hammer to smash the bejeezus out of your scale. Look in the mirror instead, snap your fingers and bring your fabulous. You are absolutely allowed to love exactly what you see, and you're also allowed to decide to make changes.
Do whatever makes you want to make out with yourself more.
Decide what changes you want to make in order to be able to live more, not to weigh less.