The Fault in Our Scales

TRIGGER WARNING: MENTIONS OF EATING DISORDERS

This is the story of every person I have ever met. Well, not every person, but a vast majority. Weight governs how people see themselves and how they live their life. As a culture, we have been conditioned to care about the numbers on the scale, whether we see them in a negative or positive light. But the range in what those numbers can mean suggests that maybe we shouldn’t put as much stock in them as we do.

In a YouTube video by the channel blogilates, a social experiment was conducted in which women were told to pair up with each other based on what they thought each other weighed. As you may guess, most of them were very wrong because (spoiler alert!) weight and size are two different things. When the women were paired together based on how much they actually weighed, they then compared BMI and body fat percentage. BMI, or body mass index, is a person’s weight (kg) divided by the square of their height (m) and body fat percentage, if you haven’t already guessed, is the amount of fat a person has relative to their total body weight. BMI is used as a tool to determine health levels (for example: fitness, average, overweight, or obese), but it is too simple to be as accurate as body fat percentage tests.

The diverse women of the experiment

This social experiment showed that people’s perceptions of weight are intertwined with their ideas of size; higher weight indicates a bigger size. While this is true, it doesn’t account for muscle. People with more muscle will typically have a higher BMI, putting them in the “overweight” range, when in reality, their body fat percentage could be well below average.

In context of the video, we can see that people have preconceived notions about weight and size; however, most of the women in the video are happy enough with their bodies to where the negative side affects are not very clearly shown beyond some discomfort. And here’s where I come in with an anecdote. Hi, I’m Hope and I used to be fixated on my weight. It never got to the point where I was underweight. I didn’t have an eating disorder. But there were definitely days where I wouldn’t eat because I wanted the numbers on the scale to be lower. Even now, I still feel guilty sometimes when I eat what I perceive to be “too much,” when others wouldn’t even bat an eye. And there are so many others who have these same habits and more severe, life threatening ones.

Body fat percentages show that weight can look very different on different people

In the past, I spent a fair amount of time on anorexia and bulimia forums, which members of the community so lovingly called “Ana” and “Mia.” Every calorie was counted. People shared what they ate to lose weight, what their lowest weights were, and what their goal weights were. The numbers on the scale were all that mattered. I knew that the people on the forums were taking it too far, but I didn’t see a problem with what I was doing to myself. As an athlete, I felt weaker when I wasn’t eating enough and deep down I knew that I needed more calories to fuel my exercise, but I just pushed that feeling aside and told myself that it was working and I was losing weight. I was a lucky one. I stopped before I took it too far. Many people aren’t as lucky and while eating disorders are linked to other mental health conditions, they are also due in part to a culture that unwittingly encourages them.

We live in a society that focuses far too much on the numbers on the scale and not enough on what they mean for any given person. Everyone is different, everyone’s weight is going to be different distributions of fat and muscle, and everyone needs different amounts of fat and muscle to function anyway. The toxic culture that sees low numbers as inherently good and high numbers as inherently bad needs to end. This culture that immediately correlates weight to size needs to be dissolved. We need to realize that weight, short of actual health concerns, means nothing. It is just a number.

-Hope Graham

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT-r3w1m5U0&t=719s

6 thoughts on “The Fault in Our Scales

  1. Thank you for sharing your own experiences, Hope, as well as this interesting social experiment.

    When you suggested that eating disorders are in part caused by a “toxic culture,” I immediately thought of how social media is heavily criticized for worsening people’s overall self-image (with image editing, diet fads, etc.). Recently, though, I think social media is growing more beneficial; it amplifies the “body positivity” movement, as online influencers with massive followings teach self-love to people of all weights and sizes. Even the social media platforms themselves are making a positive effort; Instagram is piloting “like-free feeds” so that people hopefully stop comparing themselves to others so much.

    These are small steps toward meaningful change, and it will be interesting to see how the body positivity movement continues to evolve. A few years ago, I remember that Everlane used plus-sized models at the head of their campaigns but didn’t actually sell plus-sized items… Now, I wonder if progress has been made on this front; I imagine we probably still have a long way to go.

    -Christina

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story. The obsession with athletes being pushed or feeling pushed to lose weight is one that we’re only beginning to explore. The stories that are shared are often those of professional athletes, such as Mary Cain’s in “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/nike-running-mary-cain.html). While big names can bring attention to the issue, it’s not only professional athletes who struggle with the pressure to look a certain way. Athletes, especially young ones, should be taught the science being athleticism and how little the numbers on a scale mean compared to BMI and body fat percentages. I think the video is a great way to illustrate the differences between the numbers in a format that is easily understandable and that reaches a large audience.

    – Jessica

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  3. Hi Hope,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on and drawing attention to this ceaselessly-relevant issue. I agree with you – weight is just a number, and why should we define ourselves by numbers anyway? They can’t show the full picture, and as you point out, they hold no meaning by themselves. We are the ones who attribute meaning to them. I sure wish that as a society, we would be less reductionist when it comes to health and self-image and simply be kinder to ourselves and each other. Like you, I know from personal experience that our obsession with weight is definitely still a problem – I’ve also struggled with body-image due to weight, and I’ve noticed throughout my life that compliments and insults are often related to weight and body size. “Fat” still carries a negative connotation, “skinny” is all-too-often intended as a compliment, and it’s all about losing or gaining weight – as if weight were the sole or foremost determinant of health or happiness. In a broader sense, I think people are too concerned with physical appearance in general. I think it’s not just numbers that we shouldn’t define ourselves by, but also our external appearance. I don’t think it’s wrong to care about appearance or indulge in personal grooming, but I don’t think it’s right to base self-worth solely on physical appearance or to discriminate against or belittle others for their appearance alone. So I’m really glad that videos like these exist, though, and that body positivity is continually being normalized. Society is still not “perfect”, and eating disorders persist, but I think that as we increase and maintain conversation around this issue, our actions and mindsets will gradually change.

    – Teresa

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  4. Hi Hope,

    First of all, thank you for being vocal about this. I believe it is important that we are having this conversation since so often it gets left behind closed computer screens.

    I work closely with my Nutrition professor since I am considering a career in ethical food policy. I have had conversations at length with her about the seemingly paradoxical patterns of weight gain and loss throughout the country in recent years. On the one hand, obesity rates are higher than ever and are still rising (over 40% in some states). On the other hand, eating disorders (particularly in young females) are gaining notable momentum. Meanwhile, several Americans still face food insecurity. As someone who hopes to attack each of these health problems through food-based public health policy, I became interested in what exactly is influencing these health patterns.

    It is no question that relationships with eating can be confusing and complicated. As we have discussed in my Food Anthropology class, eating patterns are influenced by a myriad of social, cultural, and economic pressures. Key to our discussions is the idea that weight fluctuation/eating patterns are not always entirely under one’s control, though society seems to proclaim it to be. For example, someone may struggle with obesity because they live in a food desert or can only afford highly processed fast food. Likewise, social or cultural pressures may have a role in influencing someone that faces an eating disorder to eat very little. Both factors are valid in that they have the potential to cause harm to the body and deserve attention in public health initiatives (which is what I hope to do).

    Most notable (to me) throughout my conversations with my nutrition professor / through my studies of food and policy here at Vandy is the “Health at Any Size” concept. Modern science deems obese people unhealthy because of other health problems that so often come about in tangent with obesity, like high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, liver, and kidney problems. So no, obesity probably is not healthy overall because of the separate health issues that come along with it. However, it is possible to be overweight or even obese and NOT grapple with any of these additional health problems. In these cases, one could be overweight – even obese – and clinically healthy. This idea, along with several other scientific arguments, evidence the “Health at Any Size” movement, which (though it comes with caveats that I don’t have the time to discuss thoroughly), shows how skewed societal weight standards are as they stand currently.

    Because I study these topics so deeply, I have much more to say – the idea of a “set weight,” intuitive eating, whether super lean bodybuilders are healthy or not, policy’s influence on eating habits, etc. – but I’ll stop here. I would love to continue this conversation if you/anyone reading has the time.

    Thanks for your story!

    – Lana

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  5. Hi Hope,

    I really appreciated getting to read your perspective and get a glimpse of your story. What you’re talking about is SO important, and I’m really glad that you’re as passionate about changing the dialogue as you are.

    The video was a really compelling tie-in and gave such a powerful visual representation of your central argument. It’s really striking to see the notion of weight as something objective debunked so visually. In the way our cultural dialogue tends to go, it is so easy to fall into the trap of caring about weight and considering it significant. I so appreciate you taking the approach you did in debunking this often-unconscious mindset we hold.

    Finally, your vulnerability is extraordinary. I can’t think of a more powerful tool we have than hearing someone share their own story on a particular topic, and yours is no exception. Thank you. So, so much.

    -Taylor

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  6. Hi Hope,

    Thank you for sharing this story along with your personal experiences. It is important that this severe yet highly neglected matter be brought up to not only the entire female community, but also the entire world.

    A lot of the points you brought up in your post aligns with my reflections of personal experiences. Coming from a country in eastern Asia, I have gotten used to strictly judging my own body as we call it “self-discipline” (diet, weighing everyday, only getting clothes if I can fit into xs, etc). However, studying abroad in the United States has completely changed my perception as I realize that nothing is more important than embracing our figures regardless of sizes and numbers. As you have pointed out in your article, I now regard the use of BMI as nothing but a useless, misleading number: it could cause pressure and harm to the bodies even though they might not truly reflect one’s health. The image you have selected is also interesting as it is a demonstration of the irrelevance of weight and body.

    One thing I note that eating disorder and body shaming most commonly exist in the female community. Could it be originated, or associated with our over-emphasis on femininity? In occasions where femininity are considered to be more important , we often find more people getting nervous about their body images over their physical and mental health. I wonder if we were to address the issue fundamentally, we would have to work the steps from the point of women’s rights and self-awareness, and it will be a long way to go, as Christina says.

    – Maggie

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