Last week or so, I sat down to coffee with a dear friend of mine. We chatted for awhile, catching up on life, how we were doing, etc. But at some point in our conversation, my friend looked at me very seriously and told me that she had recently been struggling with her relationship with food and perception of her weight. My heart broke. Here was a strong, beautiful, and confident woman- someone who's ability to look and act comfortable in her own skin I have always admired- telling me she has been experiencing the same challenges I have faced and sometimes continue to face all because of one reason- a number on a scale.
Why does a number so often dictate how we feel about ourselves? What is it about our weight that causes our mind to shift into polarized perceptions of our bodies? If the scale reads what it's "supposed" to - we feel healthy, happy, and satisfied with ourselves. If the scale reads something different - we begin to panic and feel guilty that we went out for ice cream with a friend the night before or that we slept in instead of going to the gym that morning. Thoughts like, "how can I loose weight? or "how am I not being healthy enough?" pop up. Thus, a vicious cycle begins and we carry an emotional burden that affects everything we do. Yet, what exactly does weight tell us? Not a whole lot when you look at the big picture. In fact, weight is only one way to measure "health", often paired with BMI (Body Mass Index). It does not account for other factors such as body composition and it cannot measure most other dimensions of health and wellness . Let's break down why assessing yourself on your weight and physical appearance alone is incredibly un-useful and often psychologically damaging.
what does weight mean & why is it used?
Have you ever wondered where normal/healthy weight or BMI ranges come from? These are established based on population statistics. Basically, public health institutions gather a very large sample of individuals' height and weight measurements and calculate the average based on gender and age group. Weight and BMI may be able to give you a rough estimate of whether or not you fall within a range that is considered healthy or normal. BMI, calculated by simply your weight (in kilograms) divided by your height squared (in centimeters) is typically used to categorize people into underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese by healthcare providers and public health professionals. In my nutrition class, we talked about the relevance of these measurements once we reach adulthood. During childhood, weight and BMI are more useful tools as an individual is growing and developing at a rapid rate. As adults, these measurements can be useful for identifying a weight problem, but it is by no means a definitive way to gauge your health.
what weight doesn't tell you
When you compare yourself to what is considered healthy or normal weight, you are comparing yourself to the average American who is the same gender and in the same life stage as you. Standardized healthy weight and BMI ranges do not take in account different body shapes and sizes and they do not take into account muscle mass/composition or body fat percentage. Muscle weighs more than fat. If you begin to exercise regularly and lift weights in particular, it is normal to gain weight because you are gaining muscle. Furthermore, I would like speak specifically to my fellow 20-something female readers. As women, our prime child-bearing years are now (yeeeesh). Our bodies are physiologically and hormonally changing to support reproductive health and it is normal and healthy to see physical changes in your body. With these changes may also come a change in weight, but as I learned in my nutrition class, research shows that we need about 22% body fat to maintain healthy hormone levels and reproductive ability. This is because fat converts androgens (testosterone) to estrogen, which plays a huge role in the menstrual cycle. What I'm saying here that some amount of fat on your body is good. I often see/hear about "how to get rid of the last 5 pounds" or "shave off the last of that stubborn fat to get a 6-pack". Ladies, have you ever thought that maybe the reason it's so hard to get rid of that extra layer of fat, especially around our hips and abdomen, is because our bodies are fighting to keep it to maintain hormonal and reproductive health?
At this point in your reading, I would like you to stop and ask yourself these questions (if they apply). First of all, ask your self "why do I exercise?" Is it because it makes you feel energized and you enjoy it? Then ask yourself, "when do I feel good about myself and my appearance?" Is it only when you've been "good" for a week straight, eating no "bad" foods, and working out intensely every single day? The truth is no matter your weight, how often you workout, or how healthy you eat, you will never be satisfied nor content if you focus solely on your physical appearance. You will always find something that is "not good enough" or needs "improving"- unfortunately I see the health and fitness industry promote this mindset all too often and it is teaching us to be discontent with who we are and how our bodies are made. Physical gains are healthy and exciting, but if that's all you are after, you will become dissatisfied and emotionally drained from constantly restricting and pushing yourself to reach some unattainable physical ideal. I am speaking from personal experience.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we took away the scale and stopped weighing ourselves. How would what we see in the mirror change? My intuition tells me that we would have a much clearer perception of ourselves and our health. So here is my challenge to you- above all, focus on inner health and well-being. Ask yourself, "do I feel healthy emotionally, spiritually, physically?". Once you are in tune with what's going on on the inside, you can be liberated from an arbitrary yet debilitating number, and you can begin to truly love and appreciate your body for all that it is and all that it can do.
If you are interested in chatting about the issues brought up in this post, please do not hesitate to contact me by filling out the form below. If you are in the Ann Arbor area and need a listening ear, I would love to meet up with you for coffee or something. While I am not an expert in psychology or mental health, I appreciate the value of simply being able to share thoughts and emotions with someone who has gone through similar experiences.