Today I threw out my scales. Actually, I put them in the garage; more on that later. At any rate they are hereby banished.
As a kid there were always scales in our bathroom. Slid away somewhere but easy to get to. I don’t remember when I first became interested in the scales or when they become more than some strange device that gave a number – no more meaningful than a Magic 8 ball or one of those folded paper fortune tellers. Some time around the beginning of high school, I think. Then, all of a sudden the scales seemed to hold a lot more weight (pun intended). Firmly entrenched in a system of measures to evidence worthiness – A’s and B’s, percentages assigned to various projects – school, I’m talking about here – I discovered that the scales gave a single, golden measure. One number to indicate real success! Success that all other successes – popularity, self-control, an elegant, easy, fortune-favoured life – were founded on. The Ultimate. One perfect number.
Or, as it turned out, a perpetually imperfect number.
After high school I moved around a lot. Australia, England, China, Canada. Always, when I was back home, I stepped on the scales and checked my number. My personal number fell within a pretty broad range. If I clocked in at the bottom of that range then I was momentarily elated, at the top and I was mortified, my self-esteem shoved through a paper shredder. And somehow, even when my number was low, my inner dial always swung quickly back to shame. I didn’t trust myself to get or stay light. When I was, temporarily, light, I was never light enough.
Eventually, after all my travelling, I headed back to New Zealand, a fully fledged “grown up”. In my packing boxes I brought home with me many health and wellness (let’s be honest, even though they weren’t, diet) books, charts and diaries in which I had tracked my weight and my very own set of scales, the ones now banished. I bought my scales at Ikea. Because there is no Ikea in New Zealand products from Ikea are endowed with an odd kind of mystique. They are thought of as sleek, uber-functional and exotic. Superior. Exactly the kind of kudos I gave the scales themselves. When I moved into my first home, now married and with two daughters of my own, I slid the scales under my own bathroom cabinet. Then I watched as my daughters slid them back out again and stood on them and asked “What does the number mean, Mummy?”
What does the number mean? When I was pregnant with my first child, in Vancouver, my midwives weighed me at each visit. It made me skittery and nauseous to be measured in front of others, to watch them record my failing score. When they asked me about my mental health I confessed the ways I’d tried to control my number over the years. They asked if I preferred not to be weighed. I was flummoxed. Not weighing me, was that an option? How would they know if I was doing well? If I was “winning”? If I was doing good by my baby? They shrugged and replied that there were many, many other indicators for Mum and baby’s good health, all of them much better than a number on a scale. Really? There are better numbers?
What does the number mean? I’ll tell you what I’ve learnt. I have two photos on my kitchen wall – I weigh a lot more in one but in both I have exactly the same expression. When I look at those photos I know that having a low number on the scales has not led to a long-term, sustainable improvement in my happiness. I’m no more “successful” in one photo, at one weight, than I am in the other. I got a bit more social kudos at a lower weight, perhaps, but there weren’t any ticker tape parades. When I weighed less I felt no less lonely when I was feeling lonely. I felt no less sad when I was feeling sad. When I was convinced of my unworthiness my number did not pass me a glass of champagne and fill the empty hole in my soul; I just felt unworthy. The magical number made no real, sustainable difference whatsoever. It didn’t “fix” me, it didn’t make my life better or transform me into a better person. It didn’t change me and it certainly didn’t change the world. The number wasn’t magic at all.
But over my adult life, I have given the number a monumental amount of importance. I allowed the number to be the most important goal. I did a lot of very unhealthy, damaging things to affect the number and allowed myself to become consumed by my consumption. My life, my mind, was shaped by my shape. I had the worst thoughts about myself and spent days, months, probably years if I added it all up, flagellating myself about the number. In that time I could have learned a language! Written a novel! Learned a language and written a novel! And no matter what I did or thought the number did not stay the same, it was never small enough and it changed nothing, nada. It never made me supremely happy, whole or complete.
Faced with the choice of continuing an obsession with a number on a scale, and all the associated shame and frustration that has brought me, or discontinuing the obsession – I am finally choosing to ditch the scales. I’m going to be honest here, this is somewhat terrifying. Think of an object that represents something really important, something you really value – your wedding rings, your baby’s first booties, your University degree, a note from a grandparent, and now, imagine chucking that object out. Does your stomach sink? Do you feel a bit sick? That’s how I feel. Horribly, irrationally, terrified. And, at the same time, I know it’s the right thing to do. I know that number-checking and number-chasing and number-idolizing is pointless and fruitless. It’s a brutal, unhappy waste of my time. I have over twenty years of personal evidence.
Ditching the scales is just the beginning of a new chapter for me. I don’t know what life is going to be like when I am no longer checking my number; when my number just is what it is and I don’t even know what it is. When I am learning to give up trying to change my number. The few days before I banished my scales, knowing that I was going to, I suddenly started checking my number several times a day. Like a weird, grieving person, very afraid to let go. But let go, I did.
As for why my scales are in garage and not in the bin? Partly, I’m scared. Partly, I could come up with only one good reason for keeping them, one worthy circumstance for checking the number and that is: suitcases. The only number I want to monitor with my scales is the weight in my cases, the excess in my luggage. When I’m spending my precious time adventuring the planet. With precious daughters who know only dust beneath the bathroom cabinet.
At least that’s the plan. Wish me luck.