It’s that time of year, again: As we set our goals towards weight loss, it’s inevitable that we pull out the bathroom scale, measuring tape, skinny jeans, full-length mirror, and start taking notes. There are several people more qualified than myself who will tell you to ditch the scale and measure your net losses and gains by gazing into a mirror, observing the fit of your jeans, or tapping into how you really feel in your own skin. But I’m calling bullshit: If you’re trying to lose weight, you need an occasional visit with the scale. And you also need to build a healthy relationship with it.
Before you call me a barbaric, weight-obsessed fat-shamer, hear me out: My relationship with scales has had major ups and downs (as has my weight). I’ve obsessed over numbers on a scale – literally weighing myself numerous times a day, moving from hardwood to tile to test my scale’s accuracy (vainly hoping to find more favorable reading on one surface or other), and letting just a little water weight obliterate my mood. I used to have big body image issues (now they’re just small), and the scale was my silent enabler. Eventually, I learned to stop caring about the numbers and just worry about my health. I focused on eating the right things, exercising, and letting my mood hinder on things other than ounces and pounds. But as free as I felt in my scale-less days, I also gained weight to a point where I wasn’t really happy with my weight or my health. And my relationship with the scale wasn’t actually any better – I just wasn’t dealing with it. But lately, I’ve learned to find balance with the scale. I weight myself every few days, and I’m healthier for it, too.
Most of us have spent considerable time fretting over our measurements or sizing ourselves up next to other women. And despite the occasional magazine article or blog encouraging healthier body image and realistic beauty ideals, today’s young women are no exception: Studies have found that up to 50% of girls aged nine to ten years old have already gone on diets for weight loss, and more and more teenage girls are going on crash diets. In a world where magazine headlines, advertising, and social norms that push many to eating disorders, you might think we hardly need another blogger like myself telling you to step on a scale.
But the reality of our country’s weight problem is that many of us should be dieting and worrying about our weight. The thought of a nine-year-old on Weight Watchers sounds horrifying, but in a country where childhood obesity has become an epidemic, many of them probably should. According to Let’s Move, the campaign organized by Michelle Obama to combat childhood obesity, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese, and one third of those born in 2000 or later will suffer diabetes.
Still, things get sticky when it comes to weight and health. Despite studies, doctors, and everyday wisdom to the contrary, plenty of people assert that weight has nothing to do with health. When Michelle Obama made public comments about her daughter Malia’s weight, many thought she was perpetuating unhealthy worry about looks and weight, despite the medical basis for her concern. “We’ve confused health and weight in a way that’s very confusing,” said Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, an eating disorder activist and executive director of Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Disorder, in response to the comments made about Malia Obama’s weight. And in last Sunday’s New York Times, even the U.S. surgeon general responded to criticism of her weight with the dismissive remark: “My thought is that people should be healthy and be fit at whatever size they are.”
Ultimately, doctors promote the Body Mass Index system of measuring weight in a less exacting, more accepting manner, but the fact is: You still need to step on a scale to measure it. Weight isn’t a “one size fits all” measure of health, and most of what fits into a healthy range is far under-represented in media and advertising, but most doctors and studies agree that body weight is a strong indicator of health. Loving your body is important, especially if you’re going to undergo the work it takes to maintain a healthy weight, but it doesn’t replace your daily servings of fruits and vegetables (or excuse a daily indulgence in sugar and fat).
Is it possible to lose weight (or just maintain it) without a scale? Absolutely. But if you have a healthy relationship with your weight, a scale can make it easier, not harder. Surprisingly, I first began my reconnaissance with scales on the advice of a life coach. I started working with Laurie Gerber at the Handel Group as an experiment for Blisstree, and when she asked me which parts of my life I most wanted to work on, I confessed that my body was one of them. Despite all the time I spent not caring about my weight, I wasn’t necessarily feeling healthy or happy with my body, either. I told her I wanted to get to the gym and yoga mat more often, and finally ditch my coffee and sugar habits for good. But she immediately cut through the fat and asked: “What is your ‘happy’ weight?” Caught off guard, I wanted to tell her that she was a life coach, not a doctor; she wasn’t qualified to tell me what I should weigh; I was beyond caring about weight! But the truth was, I already knew my answer. “That’s reasonable,” she said, after I told her what it was. And then she instructed me to start stepping on a scale. “I have a weight that I know makes me happy,” she said. “I don’t have to starve myself to get there, but I do have to work to maintain it.” And the kicker: “So I weigh myself every day.” She explained that her weight got out of range, she knew to reel back on the desserts and dinner rolls.
Did I mention that I didn’t like this idea at first? It had been years since I let a daily weigh-in dictate my mood, and I wasn’t keen to start doing it again. But Laurie insisted that to really take care of my body and health, I needed to start measuring my progress. And surprisingly, it worked. Getting to a dream number on the scale isn’t where my goal started – I just wanted to be going to the gym more and eating a little less crap – but being honest about the fact that my internal health has something to do with my external appearance actually made it easier to stay on track, and away from lattes and pastries.
If you’re not convinced that scales are a valuable tool for weight loss, just watch The Biggest Loser, consider your last doctor’s visit, or check out Weight Watchers, one of the most popular and successful weight loss programs in the country. All of them involve a scale as an effective way of measuring one aspect of your health. Putting obese contestants on a scale makes for great television, it’s true (although I don’t personally enjoy watching those emotionally-wrenching weigh-ins). But whether you’re 500 pounds or 150, it’s hard to measure progress by sight or dress size, even for trained professionals like Bob and Gillian. This is also why your doctor asks you to step on a scale: If reporting the size of your most recent J.Crew purchase were a sufficient indicator of health, they wouldn’t bother keeping those clunky scales around, would they?
Regardless of how much my body image and relationship to the scale has improved, stepping on the scale always makes my heart beat a little faster. I don’t really want to wake up and realize that I’ve been eating a few too many cookies, and will have to spend the day munching almonds and kale. But the fact is, it keeps me on top of my health better than any other measure, and that makes me feel a lot better than however my jeans fit. I don’t obsessively record my workouts and daily meals, and I don’t spend hours frowning at my thighs in front of the mirror. I just spend a second on the scale, every couple of days, and get on with my life. And yeah, my pants fit.