Table of Contents
- The Culture of Weight Obsession
- The Scale and Self-Worth
- The Emotional Impact of Scale Obsession
- Reasons the scale fluctuates
- Practical Strategies to Break Free from the Scale
- Self-Care Practices
Do you weigh yourself constantly? Does the bathroom scale rule your life? If so, it’s time to evaluate your relationship with numbers.
Maybe you get up in the morning, feeling a bit groggy, and one of the first things you do is step onto the scale. That number, those digital or analog indicators staring back at you, can become the single most significant determinant of your mood for the entire day.
If it is a number lower than the one from yesterday, you may be elated and feel ready to take on the world. You feel accomplished and good about yourself.
But what happens when that number increases, even just a fraction higher? More often than not, your mood plummets. You feel a sense of failure, disappointment, or even a sense of worthlessness.
And that's where the problem lies. When we equate our self-esteem and self-worth to a number on a scale, we're doing ourselves a disservice. We're ignoring our multifaceted selves and focusing instead on a number.
All our talents, the skills we've spent years honing, our dreams, the ambitions that drive us, our accomplishments, our character, the very essence of who we are – are ignored or pushed aside.
Our weight can fluctuate for a myriad of reasons – hormonal changes, fluid balance, the food we ate the previous day or the nature of our workouts. It's all variable and unreliable. Remember that you are so much more than a number on a scale. You are a complex, unique individual with many qualities that define your worth.
A piece of metal and plastic cannot measure your value and should not have the power to affect your self-worth.
The Culture of Weight Obsession
When we look at societal and cultural pressures around weight, it's crucial to note that these pressures don't just magically appear out of nowhere. They result from a complex interplay of societal norms, media representation, and cultural expectations, which significantly shape our perception of body weight.
For decades, the media has continually portrayed thinness as the epitome of beauty, health, and success. Social media platforms, where we can see filtered and edited images, often create an unrealistic standard of beauty and body size, and those images are far removed from the diversity of real human bodies.
This persistent exposure has a real psychological impact, leading many of us to internalize these messages and strive for the often unattainable and unhealthy ‘ideal' body.
It’s not just social media. Millions of girls grew up playing with Barbie. Barbie's proportions, if scaled up to a real person, have been estimated to be around 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a 36-39 inch bust (depending on who you ask), 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips. No actual woman could ever have those measurements. These dolls perpetuate unbelievably unrealistic body standards.
Boys who grew up with the Ken doll got an equally distorted message about what they should look like. As a popular meme says, “It’s just as hard to be Ken as it is to be Barbie.”
Culture also plays a significant role. Different cultures have varying standards and ideals of beauty and body size, but an unfortunate common thread in many modern societies is the stigmatization of larger bodies. People are frequently subjected to bias, discrimination, and fat-shaming, in both subtle and overt ways.
This societal and cultural pressure to be a certain size can lead to poor self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, unhealthy dieting habits, and even eating disorders, including binge eating disorder which is the most prevalent eating disorder.
That’s why it’s so important to challenge these narrow beauty standards and promote a more inclusive and accepting view of body diversity, highlighting that health and beauty come in many sizes and that our value is not determined by the number on a scale.
The Scale and Self-Worth
Equating weight with value is a damaging mindset that can have a severe impact on both our mental and physical health. This focus on weight often creates an unhealthy obsession with numbers on a scale.
Yet our weight doesn’t measure our character, skills, achievements, or our worth as human beings.
It’s also not an accurate measure of physical or emotional health. Other indicators of health and well-being, such as strength, stamina, flexibility, mental clarity, emotional stability, and overall quality of life are better indicators.
When your self-worth is tied to the scale, you might avoid social situations involving food, or feel guilty about eating, or start obsessing over every calorie. This isn't a recipe for happiness and it can negatively impact the quality of your life as well as your sense of worth.
Learning to separate your self-worth from the number on the scale is crucial for both mental and physical health. It allows you to focus on making healthy choices because they make you feel good and improve your health, rather than striving for a specific weight. Remember, health and self-worth are multifaceted and can't be measured by a single number.
To equate weight with value is to disregard the richness and complexity of our individuality, reducing our worth to a single, fluctuating, and often arbitrary number.
Focusing on numbers can lead to a vicious cycle of weight fixation, body dissatisfaction, and unhealthy behaviors like extreme dieting, over-exercising, or disordered eating, which can be detrimental to both our physical and mental health.
This pervasive weight bias contributes to social isolation, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
And it can also lead to reduced healthcare quality, as many people may delay or avoid seeking healthcare due to anticipating weight bias from healthcare professionals.
There are countless examples of people who go to the doctor for various reasons and they’re told that losing weight would alleviate their symptoms. One man was told his joint pain, body aches and fatigue were due to weight-related arthritis. As it turned out, the man had Lyme disease, which is extremely debilitating and went untreated because of his doctor’s weight bias.
Therefore, equating weight with value is not just misleading; it's a damaging perspective that reinforces harmful stereotypes, perpetuates discrimination, and negatively affects our mental and physical health.
The Emotional Impact of Scale Obsession
Let's talk about the stress and anxiety that constant weighing can create. If your mood for the day is dictated by the number on your bathroom scale, that can make or break your day.
If the number is lower than yesterday, maybe you feel triumphant, as if you've won a battle. But if it's higher, your heart sinks, and then a feeling of defeat sets in. You question what you did ‘wrong' and might vow to cut back on food or exercise harder.
Just this daily ritual can be a source of considerable anxiety. There's the stress right before you step on the scale to weigh yourself, worrying about what the scale will say, and the fallout after, particularly if you don't like the number you see.
Weighing daily can become a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The anxiety about weight leads to constant weighing, which can lead to more anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.
Psychologically, it can lead to an unhealthy fixation or obsession with weight and food, feelings of body dissatisfaction, and even disordered eating behaviors. If you don’t have reliable ways to respond to anxiety, you may end up using food to cope, which may lead to even more focus on the scale, and the cycle continues.
One method to tackle anxiety involves questioning and challenging “what if” thoughts such as:
- What if I'm stuck at this weight forever?
- What if that person doesn’t like me?
- What if nothing ever changes?
These are all ‘what IF' fears related to the future, and they create anxiety in the here and now. These thoughts create anxiety in the present about a future event that has not happened and may not occur.
The remedy is stick with ‘what IS' – focusing solely on the current reality and what you know to be true at this moment. When you remain in the present, you'll find yourself more relaxed, at ease, and less likely to resort to food for comfort. Here's how this mindset might sound:
- I'm addressing how I use food as a coping mechanism.
- I don’t know what anyone thinks about me. Let me consider what I think about them instead.
- I’ve made changes in the past and I know I have the power to continue to evolve in my life.
As you reassure yourself, your anxiety levels will decrease, and you'll feel more at ease, and better equipped to tackle life's various challenges. Then you won’t use food for comfort or distraction from your anxiety.
Reasons the scale fluctuates
Our weight can naturally fluctuate throughout the day and over several days for many reasons, and these fluctuations are completely normal. Let's look at some of the key factors causing these weight shifts:
1. Water Retention: The human body is about 60% water, and this can vary due to things like how much you’ve had to drink, your sodium intake, and how many carbs you’ve had. Consuming a meal high in salt or carbohydrates can lead to temporary water retention, causing the scale to show a higher number.
2. Food and Drink Consumption: The weight of the food and drink you consume during the day isn't immediately converted into body fat. Instead, it's temporarily reflected in your body weight until your body has processed it.
In fact, drinking one cup of water will add half a pound to the scale. When you drink liquid, that shows up on the scale, but it’s not actually weight gain.
Also, if you weigh yourself before and after using the restroom, you'll see a small difference.
3. Exercise and Sweat: Working out, particularly strenuous exercise that causes you to sweat a lot, can cause temporary weight loss due to fluid loss. But, this weight will return once you rehydrate.
4. Hormonal changes: For women, weight can fluctuate throughout their cycle. Hormonal changes can lead to water retention and bloating, especially in the week leading up to menstruation.
5. Weight Training: If you're doing strength training, you may gain muscle while losing fat. Muscle is denser than fat, so even if your body is getting smaller, the number on the scale might go up.
Practical Strategies to Break Free from the Scale
Breaking up with the scale requires shifting focus from numbers to overall well-being, and there are a variety of ways to do that.
One way is to focus on victories that are unrelated to weight loss. For example, feeling stronger, having more energy, or sleeping better. Recognizing and celebrating these non-scale victories can help shift the focus from weight to overall well-being.
Exercising intuitively is another method to shift from the external validation of the scale to more of an internal approval.
Rather than working out for the purpose of burning calories or losing weight, intuitive exercise is about moving your body in ways that feel good to you.
The idea is to listen to your body and move in ways that boost your mood, improve your strength and flexibility, and contribute to overall health and well-being.
Camille, for example, thought she had to do what she called “serious cardio” on a daily basis and felt “lazy” if she did anything less than a 90 minute kickboxing class. This was so daunting that she often skipped class.
When she learned to listen to her body, she changed her workouts. Sometimes she did kickboxing but other times she did yoga or took a long walk. She enjoyed it more and exercised more often.
Because she like what she was doing she got more exercise overall in a way that was sustainable.
Another way to minimize the impact of the scale is to focus instead on self-care. The goal is to step off the scale and instead cultivate a healthier relationship with your body and food.
To start, figure out what your unique self-care needs are. Think about areas in your life that could use a little extra TLC. Maybe you're aiming for more sleep or wanting to exercise more consistently. Or perhaps you just need to hang out more often with those who make you happy.
Once you've pinpointed your self-care “must-haves”, it's time to make a game plan. This could involve remembering to take a breather throughout your busy day, or dedicating some space for hobbies that spark joy or express your creativity.
Be sure to include these self-care strategies into your everyday life. Make sure you allow for “me” time in your calendar, and set boundaries by learning to say ‘no' when you need to and embrace activities that bring a sense of joy and fulfillment into your world.
Tanya had a habit of constantly weighing herself, sometimes multiple times a day, which she thought was necessary to keep her from gaining weight.
She was terrified by the idea of not weighing herself. The scale had become her compass, an external point of reference to dictate her feelings and self-worth. She believed that if she stopped weighing herself, she would inevitably gain weight.
We examined the underlying emotional conflicts leading to her emotional eating and weight fixation. Tanya often turned to food when feeling anxious about things that felt out of her control. Constantly weighing herself was actually making her more anxious, which she often resolved by turning to food for comfort and distraction.
During the times when she felt good about her weight, the scale made her feel a sense of control over her life. When she felt bad about the number on the scale, weighing herself was a way of displacing helplessness in some areas of her life into powerlessness over food.
Tanya began to shift her focus from her weight to her emotional health and developed healthier coping strategies for managing stress and anxiety.
She relied less on the scale as a measure of her worth or as a means to manage anxiety. Tanya focused instead on nurturing her overall well-being. She learned to view herself with compassion and understanding, recognizing that her value was not tied to her weight but rather to her inner strengths and qualities.
The scale, once a symbol of fear and self-judgment, was no longer a controlling force in her life. Tanya had found a new sense of freedom, both from emotional eating and the fear of gaining weight.
Like Tanya, if you're constantly worrying about your weight, that can create even more stress in your life, which then triggers emotional eating. Breaking that cycle can be challenging, but it is possible. Understanding this problematic relationship with your weight and the scale is the first step toward finding healthier ways to deal with emotions and developing a more positive relationship with food.
Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.