TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses eating disorders, body image and exercise and eating habits. Whilst it is positive and hopefully affirming, I acknowledge it may trigger aspects of the eating disorder cycle and difficult feelings. Please read it in a safe space at a time when you feel able (or not at all). ❤
This year I refuse to be weighed or measured. I refuse to count one single calorie.
The Judeo-Christian idea of a Jubilee period is something I learned about a child from the Bible I no longer believe in, but it remains interesting to me – the idea that at a certain time in a calendar cycle, there was a time when slaves were freed and their lands returned to them and “liberty” was proclaimed. I remember reading the following in Leviticus:
“Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”
I’m not keen to co-opt concepts of Roman slavery in antiquity as a white woman with privilege, because I have zero experience or history of this in my community, yet the Biblical idea of a time when liberty and amnesty was granted is something I found interesting when I was little. It seemed a bit mysteriously wonderful to my young mind (even though as an adult it seems not at all equal to liberty or freedom or social justice. Abolishing all systems of slavery would have been a lot more effective than a Jubilee.)
I wonder in a much more general sense how often we grant liberty and amnesty to ourselves. Specifically, imagine having the state of ignorance of the statistics we all know about our bodies returned to you. Imagine giving yourself permission to say no to this way of knowing about bodies.
Imagine if you didn’t know how much you weighed, and had never known. Imagine your life if scales with the intention of weighing human bodies had never been invented, or used in that way. This may not matter to you, but for those to whom it does matter: just imagine having no concept of your body in numbers. Dwell for a moment on what that must feel like.
We are all weighed and measured at various times in our life, and we often consent to this practice without much thought, or in many cases, with eagerness. The practice of (particularly women’s) bodies being analysed through a numerical lens is something that is so culturally acceptable and preferable that we don’t stop to question it. In fact, we are told that it is part of sound medical science and a keystone to being healthy. But is it?
There’s probably a handful of times when being weighed is vitally medically necessary, but there’s very little reason the vast majority of people need to own bathroom scales. My friend Sarah gave the example of being weighed when she gives plasma (something to do with calculating how much plasma is in her blood, or how much to take, or something!). But do you need this number disclosed to you? What do you profit from knowing it?
Where does our thirst to know our body weight come from? Obviously it’s socially constructed; nobody is born with a burning thirst to know their body weight (except for the little scientists among us who may yearn to know all the things!). I personally think that the urge to see a number and keep track of it over time is much more developed among women (in this I include all women, not just cis-gendered women). In most cases, the urge to weigh oneself and the blithe acceptance that doing so is a good thing is not something seen in childhood often – I work with young children and have also worked with primary schoolers, and in my experience the majority of “weight talk” sets in with almost exclusively girls towards the end of primary school – around 12. By high-school, the process of weighing and measuring oneself and it’s cousin – calorie counting – has become entwined with social success and status, personal knowledge, and self esteem.
I don’t remember when I first began twisting a tape measure around my waist and thighs, or when I first stepped on a scale. I was probably 14 at an outside guess. I grew up in a house where my mother was not very happy with her body, and nor were my female friends, but it was never mentioned by my male relatives or peers. My mother talked a lot about food, nutrition, and the shape of her body – she hated her knees and arms and would go to great lengths to buy clothes that didn’t exhibit them to the world. Later in life she lost a significant amount of weight, and that was somewhat of an extension of the same set of feelings – except once she’d lost the weight she had many emotional processes around feeling free and unburdened of worry, yet still a fixation on numbers (and worry wasn’t far away – it could come back as soon as a few kilos were gained back). My female friends talked a lot about their bodies – mostly from the point of view of dissatisfaction and resentment. Knowing numbers was a very real agent of that – it both acted as a catalyst for bad feelings about the self, and as evidence of complicated disturbances in our psyches in which we could look at a number and see our worth, see it going up and down, betrayed or edified by what the swinging indicator pointed to on the scale.
I’ve reflected a lot on my disordered eating and struggles with body image over the years. In 2012 I engaged in probably the most marked restriction episode of my life. I live with EDNOS or OSFED (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder) that involves components of restriction and compulsive overeating, which present themselves in a cycle that has distinct characteristics that I now understand a lot more than I did as a younger woman. Golda Poretsky outlines this in her brief piece (ignore the sell at the end) ‘Why Portion Control Doesn’t Work and What to Do Instead” with a graphic that sums up how the EDNOS cycle generally works (with variations of course for most people). And there’s a mostly very good piece on Oh She Glows about binge eating (what I’d probably say is the “best fit” for behaviours I have – it’s a misconception that binge eating lacks a restrictive phase. Oh yes it does!).
In that year, that restrictive episode saw me losing a very very large amount of weight in just four months by starving myself and practicing exercise bulimia. I received massive social rewards for this, which were not very critical – nobody except one or two close friends saw through the good game I talked (oh, this is a feminist action, I feel so empowered…by my constant gnawing sense of hunger and fatigue? Hmmm.) And they were afraid to speak to me about it because they knew I would viciously reject their worry, and they were right – I would have. Because the numbers on the scale were going down, and this meant my worth as a person was increasing in the complicated dance most of us, but particularly those of us with eating disorders do. I didn’t want to hear opposing views. I was winning. I wrote an elated post on this blog about how incredible I felt and the restrictions my therapist had encouraged, and how I would never go back. Since then, I’ve gained all of that weight back and more. The cycle continued.
By radically reducing my body mass, I was winning. Unfortunately, this aspect of disordered eating and exercising is almost always met with social acclaim except in the most physically obvious cases of malnourishment, hospitalisation, and a reduction of body weight that is so observably intense that people suddenly go “oh! That’s not good…” But the processes of extreme behaviours are similarly pre-occupying, regardless of how observable your body in the process is, and the defence mechanisms to protect restrictive behaviour from critique are strong. Basically, fat people with restrictive components of disordered eating are mostly rewarded for their restrictions, regardless of the thought processes behind it and their indicators of poor mental health. In my case, that bout of restriction was linked to trauma from violent assault and feelings of being alone when my partner left the country mere weeks after that assault. My mental health took a dive, and with it went my ability to self regulate my emotions and so I went down a path of starving and power walking for hours a day. I was not a well woman.
What part did numbers play in prolonging and encouraging this restrictive episode?
The emotional hullabaloo in me each time I weighed myself on bathroom scales, or was measured by scale and tape at the doctors office was intense. You wouldn’t know from looking, but I felt huge anxiety and fear each time I stepped on the scales – and as the kilos dropped away, that began to mix with excitement and eager anticipation. Weigh in day became a craving for more and more loss. At the doctors office, the receptionist and doctor would beam, congratulating me loudly in front of the full waiting room for my “successes”. My doctor did not once stop and ask me how I was doing it, how I was feeling, and what my thought processes were. There is very little attention paid to mental health when people are clocking up the numbers (or clocking down, rather). I shouted my numbers from the rooftops with pride – on facebook, to friends, and became avoidant of people who didn’t react exactly as I wanted. My partner was bemused at my weight loss and didn’t express approval even once – he was very cautious to comment, and I think didn’t know what to make of it. He certainly didn’t affirm me. I was disappointed, and so sought out the approval of my instagram community and facebook friends – some of the most hearty approval came from other women who themselves had “struggled” to reduce their own body mass. The fixation on numbers is a self sustaining aspect of EDNOS – you will seek out whatever community you can find to feed your habit. EDNOS is a disease and it is a part of you that wants to survive. I think of it like a cockroach living inside me – it will do whatever it needs to in order to remain the last critter standing and it is very hard to root out and crush effectively.
I would like to say that the numbers didn’t matter, but they mattered hugely. Knowing at all times what I weighed was very addictive, and I would often step on the scales every day. I wanted digital scales, I wanted something more and more accurate. I wanted to see even a gram drop away. Perhaps for people who do not have disordered eating this is less intense, but it is still there. The numbers on scales and on tape measures, and the calories you count will, at the end of the day, make you Feel Stuff. And sometimes that Stuff feels good. Critiquing the good feelings, not just the bad feelings, is not something encouraged by most people around us.
A huge realisation I had was that by knowing numbers, I was engaging in not only EDNOS thinking, but in one of the fundamentally most destructive aspects of late stage capitalism – the idea that people are only worth their productivity. As a teacher, I fundamentally reject the idea that my children are only as good as their results, or the pretty things they make. What is beautiful is their learning and that’s all in their process. Their art, their music, their physicality, their cognition – all of their beauty is in their doing and being, not in the sum of their production.
So why is this different for me? In focussing on my body as a product, I separate from processes of wellbeing which can be found in eating well and moving to the best of your ability, and being in these things for their own sake – for enjoyment and vitality and loving one’s place as an alive thriving animal. EDNOS and capitalist thinking fractures my mind from my body and this divide distracts from the beauty of existing as a whole person. Beauty, as they say, moves. Why is it ok that beauty is a trophy with a number on it?
So let’s do it. Let’s ask those questions.
Why do you need to know how much you weigh? Does it make you a better partner, a better professional, a better parent, or a better person? What can you possibly get from knowing these statistics? Outside of some very small cases of medical necessity, why do you need to know?
And what happens when you know? What happens in your heart? What do you think and feel? If it is intensely gratifying for you, why is that?
What parts of yourself do you damage by knowing? What parts of you shrivel a little and change with this gratification or devastation? What happens when the number drops into the pool of your selfhood and creates ripples? What do you stop doing, and stop enjoying, and stop engaging with because you know these things?
My challenge for myself is to return to a state of not knowing how much I weigh, what my waistline is in inches, or how broad my hips are. I will not allow a doctor or a personal trainer to wrap a measuring tape around my thighs, and I refuse to do it myself. I won’t step on a set of scales, and I’m throwing the ones I own in the bin. I won’t count calories, and I will avoid reading nutritional panels that indicate them.
I won’t engage in conversations in the staffroom or with friends about kilograms and calories. I will eat my lunch away from them if I have to. And if I have the strength to insert some critique into those conversations, gently and lovingly, I will.
Does this mean I have to stop caring about my health? Actually, I have big plans for my health this year.
I plan on finding a personal trainer who can help me get into routines of moving and eating that don’t injure my personhood, but instead heal the fractures I’ve experienced and help me reintegrate body and mind. There will be goals, sure, but they will be around process and how I feel – for example “look at my thighs and enjoy how they feel in my hands and write down three positive things I do with my thighs” or “see if I walk for a while today and be thrilled for trying!”. “Make a BIG delicious salad and eat it slowly and RELISH IT.” These statements may not be perfect and I will develop others, but I am making a start on moving away from conventional ways of framing successes regarding my health. There will be times I will struggle with EDNOS and I will talk to my PT about those times and involve them – critiquing my urge to restrict or overeat and sticking to moderation and generative self-talk that encourages a disruption of the EDNOS cycle.
Basically, I’m no longer willing to be a product. I see that processes are what create states of emotional wellbeing along a spectrum – some processes need active pushback to resolve their energetically destructive influence, and others that help me and make me feel more whole need a little bit of tending to so they grow and thrive. I wholeheartedly agree with Oh She Glows who has this to say about the importance of changing processes:
I honestly do not think that I could have beat binge eating if I didn’t stop restricting my intake. This took me a long, long time to realize and I hope to be able to save some of you some time too. When I finally stopped restricting my intake, I allowed myself to eat when hungry and I stopped counting calories and weighing myself.
If you leave this article thinking that you couldn’t possibly stop measuring yourself, please think again. I actually think we can stop, as individuals, and we can resist it as a culture and move towards wellness. And I wonder this:
If for a whole calendar year you didn’t once know a measurement of your body mass or size, and asked medical and health professionals to withhold it from you too – or to not measure you in the first place – what would happen? If you simply moved and ate with enthusiasm for moving and eating, with no number known, what would happen?
What in you would grow and expand to fill that place? What could you feel and what could you stop feeling?
It’s an interesting question to ponder. Give yourself a year off – heck, maybe more! – from knowing your body through numbers, if you can.
I’d love to hear about how you’re going and maybe we can support each other.