Ellen Freeman Roth                      

March 31, 2008

Living life by the numbers on her bathroom scale

Numbers don't lie, especially when it comes to weight. But sometimes they don't tell the full story.
MAYBE it's a pointless ritual, since I often predict to the half-pound the numbers that come up. Nonetheless, every morning I step onto my bathroom scale -- twice, in fact, to confirm a good number or, more futilely, to stamp out a high one.

Lycra might stretch the truth, but numbers don't lie.

I used to think that my scale didn't expose just my weakness for the last slice (or two) of banana cake but also my spinelessness. Lower numbers fed my sense of well-being; higher ones extracted a pound of flesh. My scale seemed as temperamental as middle school friendships. Under my feet, the scale's model name -- "Thinner" -- fluctuated from a wish fulfilled to a promise denied.

Numbers are absolute when I exercise too. I could cycle from Buffalo to Boston, but I'll pedal past my driveway to get my mileage, because skipping two-tenths could easily become skipping two weeks.

I have plenty of company in my numbers fixation. We're a society hooked on measuring up: the 10-point Apgar test for newborns, SATs, baseball statistics, IQs, breast size and corporate earnings. We tally as though we're calculating digital representations of happiness.

My numbers complex became a family affair a few years ago when my healthy, athletic teenage son had his annual physical. He'd always been lean, but his weight gain was meager when he should have been having a growth spurt, so the doctor told him to gain weight. Meanwhile my teenage daughter, also slim, weighed more than her older brother did, which galled them both. "The numbers aren't the prime concern -- nutritious eating and health are," I said. They rolled their eyes.

My bathroom scale started bearing more traffic. My daughter conferred with Thinner. My son stomped on Thinner after he stuffed himself with turkey. The scale was becoming our family's oracle, offering answers to life's big and small questions. In the process, I felt as though Thinner was footnoting not only my weakness for treats but also my shortcomings as a parent. I recognized the absurdity of the scale's expanded role, but still I held my breath with each weigh-in.

When my son had gained enough weight, Thinner's oversized role diminished (for everyone except me). Now my family is interested in a different set of scales. My son is applying to college, so we've charted grade point averages and SAT scores. If those statistics don't add up, many admissions officers won't see my son's biggest assets -- his values, sensitivity, sense of humor, enthusiasm and leadership.

I encouraged my son to use the college essays to invite readers beyond the numbers and tell his story. Meanwhile, each morning, I labeled myself with a number.

Recently my scale said I'd lost a few pounds. I got to thinking about why I was winning the morning lottery.

Six months before, my husband and I were having a tough time with one of our kids. I retreated to the kitchen to feed my angst. At the same time, I'd had knee surgery and I gained a few pounds. It was only when the weight lifted from my life that it lifted from my hips.

I realized, looking back, the depth of my earlier anguish. I also recognized that using the morning weigh-in as a judgment rather than a guide made me feel exponentially worse -- and further chipped at my restraint around chocolate brownies.

That was the moment when I put away a photo I'd kept on my desk as incentive -- of my bikini-clad body during my honeymoon more than 20 years ago. I still viewed my 25-year-old body in that maroon-and-black number as an attainable standard -- never mind that the suit didn't make it to the beach past my first anniversary. I'd been so focused on that little picture that I'd missed the big one. That image, and the number on the scales, couldn't reflect my 49 years of emotional and intellectual growth, my years as a mother, wife, friend.

Sure, I want to be slim. In fact, I still weigh myself regularly. But now my scale is a tool, not a critic. When the numbers trend upward, I won't use doughy decimals to catalog my faults but as friendly reminders to cut back on snacks -- or cut myself some slack when times are tough. I've put my foot down when it comes to letting my weight do a number on me.