March 31, 2008
By ELLEN FREEMAN ROTH
by the numbers on her bathroom scale
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
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.