As my regular readers know, I’ve gotten back into running after a long hiatus. It’s been about year now since I’ve been running regularly again, and it feels great. I feel strong, and I see a marked improvement in my levels of anxiety on the mornings I roll out of my bed for an early run. I’m also in great health as my medical numbers like blood pressure and cholesterol levels indicate. But there’s one area I’ve felt a little bummed about. I weigh 10 pounds more now than I did when I wasn’t running. I’d never lost the last seven pounds from baby number four and since running again as well as getting back in to a more regular strength training routine, I’ve gained an additional three pounds. Some of the weight gain can be attributed to increased muscle mass. I’m still able to fit into my old jeans. If I’d put on 10 pounds of fat, this wouldn’t be possible. I know I am blessed with an athletic yet somewhat curvy figure and probably should just shut up about the weight gain; yet, I also don’t want to fall in to the trap of gaining a few pounds every year so that one day I wake up and find myself at an unhealthy weight.
I get frustrated some days because I feel like I don’t look like a runner. I run almost every day. I’ll have completed three half marathons before the year is over, but I look at my soft upper body and I get frustrated. Why don’t I look leaner? There are days (weeks, sometimes) when I could have skipped eating the brownie or drinking the extra glass of wine, but there are plenty of days when I eat a clean, wholesome diet. Get your five fruits and veggies a day? I typically get that in one breakfast smoothie. I feel good about my diet and my running, but then I step on the scale. And this is when I really feel like I don’t look like a runner – whatever that means anyway – because the number isn’t going down. Sometimes it goes up.
For months the number really hasn’t budged. Shortly after my first half marathon, I gained about three pounds, but now it stays put whether I eat that cookie or not. Intellectually, I know that I am close to my set point weight – that is a healthy weight my body keeps returning to even if it’s not my “happy weight.” I weigh about two pounds more than when I got married (ironically, that was also a time I ran more. Perhaps my body needs this extra weight when I’m covering greater distances.). I got married after about two years of recovery from my eating disorder. I was told my body would naturally gravitate to a healthy weight for me if I listened to my internal hunger cues and exercised in a balanced manner. I did seem to arrive at a fairly stable weight. But in between pregnancies, something surprising happened. I dropped below what I thought had been my set point weight. I dropped to about ten pounds less than the weight I’d been when I had gotten married and had maintained that weight for several years when I wasn’t pregnant. Maybe it was all the nursing. I don’t know. But I wasn’t doing anything unhealthy or extreme and although I’ve always been active, I exercised far less then than I do now.
During my pregnancies, I typically avoided the scale. My midwife would just tell me how I was doing weight-wise. She was laid-back about weight gain and also very sensitive to my history and just encouraged her patients to eat well for themselves and their growing babies. Since I was so sick during two out of four pregnancies, she ended up being more concerned with me gaining enough weight than ballooning out of control. After I’d have a baby, I’d step on the scale just to gauge where I was at. I might weigh myself once a week, twice a week at the most. If I’d gained a pound or so, it didn’t really affect me. Overall, I felt good about my weight, how I looked, and most importantly, how I felt. My body image was healthy. This is around the time I thought I might want to write a book to help women who struggled with eating disorders, body image, or food issues. Perhaps I was more qualified to write a book on body image then than I am now, but I’ve realized just recently that I still have some work ahead of me in terms of making peace with my body, food, and the scale.
Back in my eating disordered days, I weighed myself several times each day. The number on the scale determined my mood and how much I was going to enjoy my day. A low number was like a narcotic hit of delight; it made me feel strong and it almost guaranteed a happier day. I felt like I was a better person somehow. A higher number brought me way, way down. Because weight gain was necessary for me to reclaim my health and because the number on the scale had so much power over me, experts during my recovery process initially told me to stop weighing myself. I wanted to be healthy more than I wanted to be thin, so I got rid of my scale. It was scary not knowing the number at first, but it was liberating, too. I could focus on health and eating more mindfully. I was not worried about how my day might turn out if I discovered I had gained a few pounds.
Later on when I reached a more healthful place, a new counselor told me it was okay and possibly even beneficial to occasionally weigh myself providing it did not morph back into a barometer of my self-worth. Eventually, I started stepping back on the scale without trepidation, and I thought I was cured from both a clinical eating disorder and scale sickness. The number would register, and it did not weigh me down (pun intended) with misguided feelings even if I’d gained some weight. I honestly felt I could keep tabs on my weight like any reasonable, health-conscious person could.
But, more recently, the scale has had far too much control over my emotions.
Not too long ago, I logged in a seven mile run in intense humidity. I came home all pumped about how I felt and how I was able to sprint the last mile or so. I was also convinced that all my hard effort surely would have some payoff. Then I stepped on the scale. And with surprising alacrity, I was asking myself, “What’s wrong with me?” (Because I hadn’t lost anything since the last time I weighed myself and had actually gained a pound.) Then I started to cry. It was still early, so none of my kids were up, but I looked at myself in the mirror, sweaty and tear-streaked, and I was angry. What kind of example was I setting? What if my girls saw me come in after a long, healthy run and step on the scale and then start to cry? Nothing was wrong with me except that I was giving a little number – and my weight is not a big number that puts my health at risk – far too much power in my life. My exercise is paying off – intrinsically. I don’t need the “reward” of weighing less to keep me lacing up running shoes. It’s just like my kids don’t need library reading programs to get them inserting their noses into books. The reading – the losing yourself in the story – is the best reward of all. A temporary tattoo or cheap pencil is nice, but it’s not what motivates my kids to read. The enjoyment of a good book is enough. So is the enjoyment of exercise and the health benefits that cannot be measured on the scale.
After my pep talk, I had to make a difficult decision. I had to decide to not give that number on the scale power over my life or how I saw myself as a person. In order to do that, I needed to banish the scale from my life once more. Maybe I’ll never make a date with it again. I had a doctor’s appointment recently since deciding I was done with the scale for awhile. I told the nurse I did not want to know my weight. She told me to close my eyes once I stepped on the scale. I did. My palms were sweaty. I was anxious, wondering what number the scale had registered. Was it a good day? Yes, it was but not because I weighed a “good” amount. Ultimately, I was at peace with not knowing how much I weighed. Later the doctor made a reference to how little I was. It surprised me. It often does. But it made me realize that that funny mirror in my head is still not completely shattered. It still twists and distorts the way I see myself. I’d put too much stock in how much I weigh. How could people see me as little if I weighed such and such?
And perhaps more important questions to ponder are: Why does being seen as little make me feel better about myself? Does my size have to do with the kind of person I am? I see all my friends – some who are smaller than I am and others who are not – as being beautiful, powerful, amazing women? Why do I cut myself short? Where does my treasure lie? In the number on the scale? In my clothing size? In the circumference of my wrists and ankles?
I feel like a fraud admitting any of this. I get paid to give speeches to encourage women to free themselves from an obsession with weight or appearance, and here I am fighting the demons I thought I’d defeated long ago. My husband has said I still – despite my hard work toward healing and my dedication to encouraging other women to reclaim the beauty of creation – don’t always have a realistic or particularly kind perception of myself. I’m trying to change all that. I am trying to see myself as others see me and as I see others. Please forgive me for writing a book on being “weightless” when I’m not quite there yet. I thought I was, but I’ve had some recent setbacks. I could lie and hide all of this, but then I’d probably feel like an even bigger fraud and a hypocrite. The good news is not weighing myself is helping me to let go and to love myself.
I do get angry with myself sometimes because I wonder why the scale can’t just be a helpful tool in my life for monitoring my health. After all, I read all the time that people who maintain healthy weights for the long haul regularly step on the scale. They keep tabs on how much they weigh. If the scale inches upward, they stop eating dessert or skip seconds. In fact, one of the women I run with frequents the scale for this very reason, but the number for her provides information. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not an indictment of her character. When she’s gained a few pounds, she says she passes by the all-you-can-eat buffet. She doesn’t start to cry. When she loses a few pounds, she chalks it up to the extra miles she’s logged in. She doesn’t pump her fist in the air and feel like an invincible and awesome rockstar. She does not suffer from scale sickness. I do.
Will I ever be able to step on the scale, see my weight, and have it register only a number without conjuring up any emotion? Maybe. I truly thought I was at a healthy place a few years ago when I was weighing myself regularly again, but I wonder if that’s because I was simply happier with the number I saw then than the number I started seeing more recently.
A daily glass of red wine is purported to be good for your health, but an alcoholic isn’t going to be able to take even one sip without some terrible risks. Many people use regular weigh-ins to maintain a healthy weight but if you’ve suffered from an eating disorder or if you’ve ever allowed the number on the scale to determine how you feel about yourself (even when the number is in a healthy range) like I have, then maybe we ought avoid the scale for awhile and not fixate on a number but instead focus on eating mindfully and pushing our bodies physically without punishing them. I also can’t fool myself to thinking that just because I once could step on the scale and not unravel that it meant I did not suffer from scale sickness. I remember writing a story about a recovered alcoholic who told me it took years to admit he had a problem because he could sometimes go to a party and have a drink or two and not let it turn him into a monster or have an impact on his life. But he knew he was just rationalizing and in denial that he had a problem because he would inevitably end up drinking too much, do something stupid, and his screwups just gave him an excuse to drink more. It’s not a perfect parallel. After all, part of my sickness has to do with food, and I can’t shun food from life. I need it live and have to figure out how to eat in a balanced manner. But the scale is not just some flat square I can step upon; it’s a slippery slope that can trip me and leave me wheeling for control, sad, angry, and with the temptation to do something stupid or unhealthy.
There may come a time in the future when I can step on the scale, see a number – even a, gasp, higher number – and not let it provoke any sort of feeling in me whatsoever. But I’m not at that point now. I know that for now, and I need to accept my limitations and be aware of my tendency to get all obsessive-compulsive about external measures such as my weight.
I am more than a number. (You are, too.)
My body is strong. Yet, I’d started to obsess about the number on the scale to the point that I was blind to my strength. My moods were becoming mercurial and at the whim of the scale. A number I’d arbitrarily decided was too high (even though in reality I weighed just two pounds more than I did 11 years ago when I got married and also ran marathons) tempted me to ignore the rumblings of my stomach, and to deny a strong body that just ran almost ten miles of the fuel it desperately needed. I will not fall into that trap of self-denial again. I will not allow the number on the scale to jeer at me. I will keep running. I will keep doing push-ups, not because the exercise makes me look like a chiseled goddess or makes the number on the scale decrease, but because it makes me feel good physically, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually. I will fuel my body with green smoothies, quinoa, lean meat, cheese, Greek yogurt, good wine, and the occasional delicious treat or cocktail (my husband makes the best mixed drinks).
I will respect my body and love it for what it can do – how it moves, how it covers long distances, how it carries heavy toddlers and nurses little ones, how it has blessed me with four natural childbirths, how it takes me where I need to go, and how it allows me to fulfill my vocation as a wife and a mother. I won’t worry about whether I look like a runner or whether I resemble my thinner self because I know that I am runner simply because I run. I am healthy because my doctor, my pace, my husband, and my more reasonable inner voice say so.
I will accept that I am still very much a work in progress. I am healing, but I am not whole yet. I still suffer from scale sickness, and so I’ll stop weighing myself and start loving myself, extra ten pounds and all.