The Prison of Numbers: Part 1 – The Scale

Let’s face it, we—as a culture—are ruled by numbers. For almost everyone in our western culture, numbers control our emotions and sense of satisfaction with life. Numbers also give us an illusion of control. We believe that if we can control the numbers, we can control our lives. And I’m not just talking dieting numbers. When our bank accounts have more money, we feel content and secure. As the bank balance nears $0 we begin to squirm (and some of us begin to sweat or outright panic). We’re not content with going the speed limit; no matter how high it is, we have to go just a titch faster. The speed limit on a highway I travel regularly used to be 55mph, so I’d drive 60mph. It was increased to 60mph a few years ago, so now I drive 65mph. 60mph was just no longer satisfying. See what I mean?

It makes sense then that we spend a lot of time tying our achievements and self-worth to numbers. We’re conditioned early in life that scoring 100% on a test is better than 75% and often, even unintentionally, those in positions of authority in our lives send the message that the one who scored 100% is a better, more worthy person than the one who scored 75%. And this thinking gets carried into our dieting and body image lives.

The Scale Number

Of course the first number that comes to mind when talking about diet and body image is weight. So let’s get real about that number. The scale is just a number and has no real relation to your size or health (despite all of us thinking it does). It measures your gravitational pull to the earth and nothing else. What weight looks like size-wise is influenced by things like muscle vs. fat and bone density/structure, etc. You often hear people in dieting and health groups say things like, “A pound of muscle weighs less than a pound of fat.” What they really mean is a pound of muscle takes up less room (is more dense) than a pound of fat. One pound of muscle and one pound of fat weigh the same—a pound is a pound the world around—but muscle takes up drastically less room. People who have more muscle than fat are going to appear to weigh less because their muscles take up less room than an equivalent weight of fat.

Likewise, the same weight is going to look different and register as a different clothing size depending on body structure. It is entirely possible for six people to weigh exactly the same thing on the scale and actually look any where from slim and fit to frumpy and obese due to height, skeletal size, “apple” vs. “pear” shape, etc. I would highly recommend reading Teresa Tapp’s What’s Your Body Type? article for more information on body types. And, as much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, depending on what your body type and bone structure are, you may never have that flat stomach no matter how much weight you lose. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.  I’m in the boat right along with y’all.

And while we’re beating up on the scale, let’s not forget doctors’ beloved body mass index (BMI). BMI attempts to negate the problem of using weight alone to determine health by calculating a ratio of a person’s weight in kilograms to their height in meters squared. For those of us who haven’t gone metric yet, the equation gets even uglier.  That 703 is just the conversion ratio for getting from imperial/U.S. customary measurements to metric, but it still doesn’t make it pretty.

bmi equation

There are several problems with BMI, starting with the fact that it is based on weight. As we’ve discussed, weight tells us nothing about muscle mass vs. fat mass, body frame size, etc. so basing another measurement on an already flawed measurement is not going to make a better measurement.

We are told by mass media that a higher BMI puts us at risk for certain diseases, namely heart disease and diabetes. The reality is that BMI itself does not put you at risk for or lessen your chances of anything. It’s just a number. The reason BMI indicates risk factors for certain diseases is that the vast majority of overweight and obese people are eating the standard American high-sugar, high-processed foods diet. It is the sugar and processed food that puts you at risk for those diseases, not a person’s weight or BMI. So, the high-sugar/high-processed diet makes you fat (increases BMI because it increases your weight). And the high-sugar/high-processed diet puts you at risk for diseases. The cause of the increased risk is not an increased BMI or weight, as mass media makes it sound by saying increased BMI puts you at risk for heart disease and diabetes. You can be “skinny fat” where you are thin and in the “healthy” BMI range but still be at risk for heart disease and diabetes if you are one of the “lucky” ones who can eat high-sugar/high-processed without putting on the pounds. BMI may be a flashing red light to indicate a doctor should ask some questions about diet and other things to determine if there is a health risk, but BMI itself doesn’t really indicate anything. Like weight, it’s just a number.

Weight is a perfectly valid measurement, but not for what we are using it to measure.  Using weight to measure health and self-worth makes about as much sense as using a ruler to measure how hot it is outside.  We need to start thinking of the number on the scale as how much the earth loves us rather than a commentary on our value, worth, or how healthy we are. That number, or a number based on it, does not tell the whole story about anyone.

Next: a little reality check on clothing sizes in The Prison of Numbers: Part 2
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