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Why you must repair your relationship with the weighing scale

Are you the sort of person who is constantly stressing about your body weight? You shouldn’t worry so much, says our expert

In the movie Eat, Pray, Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir by the same name, the protagonist, played by Julia Roberts, decides to come to terms with a changed body
In the movie Eat, Pray, Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir by the same name, the protagonist, played by Julia Roberts, decides to come to terms with a changed body (IMDb)

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I was nervous and a little anxious standing at the nurses’ station. I knew she was about to ask me to step on the weighing scales, and I didn’t want to. I was worried because I had made a pact with myself a few weeks earlier: I had decided not to weigh myself unless it was essential, and had stopped my daily morning weigh-ins since.

I had made this decision because I noticed an ugly feeling starting to creep into this innocuous routine. I was judging myself before my morning coffee. Was my weight up today? Or was it down? A lower number meant that I had “permission” to accept my body. If I had gained weight, I would be in a foul mood for the rest of the day and was more likely to overeat. It hit me, one day, that I was letting a blinking digital number take over my life. So, I pushed my scale to the back of the cupboard, slammed the door shut, and walked away. No more. I wanted to have a loving relationship with my body, and this wasn’t the way.

Also read: Why BMI is a flawed way of determining health

And it wasn’t just the weighing scale causing me this anxiety: Every time I shopped for an item of clothing, I would be pleased when the size I tried on was somewhat smaller than the size I thought I was. I now clip the tags out of my clothes soon after buying them.

This resolution was also strengthened by my favourite quote from the movie Eat Pray Love, where the main character, Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts, says: “I am so tired of saying no, waking up in the morning and recalling every single thing I ate the day before, counting every calorie I consumed so I know just how much self-loathing to take into the shower… So this is what I’m going to do; I’m going to finish this pizza…and tomorrow we will go on a little date and buy ourselves some bigger jeans.”

I’m far from alone. I hear women discuss their weights like cricket scores over lunch, sometimes with pride, more frequently with derision. As a society, I can’t imagine how we got to a place where we can openly relate our self-worth to the numbers on the scale while having coffee with friends. So why does it matter to us so much? Research offers some answers.

Weighing yourself is not always bad. Regular check-ins can help keep you accountable for your weight loss goals by being more mindful of your weight-related habits, such as healthy eating and exercise. A two-year study at Cornell, published in 2015, showed that participants (particularly men) who weighed themselves regularly were most likely to see long-term weight loss results. Also, not everyone reacts badly to regular weigh-ins. The meta-analysis, What is the Psychological Impact of Weighing, published in 2016 in the Health Psychology Review, implied as much. “The findings suggest that, for the most part, self-weighing is not associated with adverse psychological outcomes,” says the study, though it also points out that self-weighing as a means of monitoring progress can also be associated with psychological distress, lower levels of body satisfaction, and problematic dietary behaviour such as binge eating and skipping meals. “In some cases, the association between self-weighing and psychological outcomes may be more negative than others,” it adds.

As a coach, I have tuned in with each client to notice if accountability measures such as weighing or tracking will cause distress, obsessive behaviours, or disorderly eating. If it arises, I adjust our approach by focusing on deeper, physical cues instead of external ones. In a blog post, titled How to Stop Obsessively Weighing Yourself, registered dietician Rachael Hartley says that constantly weighing yourself can impact your relationship with your body. It also reduces your reliance on your internal cues (hunger, exhaustion, stress), affects your mental state for the rest of your day, and can become obsessive.

For some people, daily weigh-ins can be highly distressing, leading to obsessive behaviour
For some people, daily weigh-ins can be highly distressing, leading to obsessive behaviour (iStockphoto)

Your mindset and motivation surrounding why you’re stepping on the scale have a role here. You should be fine if you merely monitor the scale to track progress. However, constantly focusing on your size or weight can directly impact your mental and emotional health. The Heart & Stroke Foundation recently published The Pros and Cons of Weighing Yourself Every Day, which tells their patients to be mindful of the emotions triggered by weighing themselves, even for their health. “Weighing daily may be distressing if you don’t see the scale change or have a negative impact on motivation,” it observed.

Also read: A no-nonsense guide to changing your body composition

Using your clothes, as I did, to measure your body is not reliable either. According to an article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, clothing sizes have lost their importance. Clothing companies have become wise to our excitement at seeing a smaller size and have therefore adopted “vanity sizing” (where a clothing manufacturer will create a larger size and label it as “small”) because it boosts the self-esteem of the shopper. They also noticed that shoppers who purchased “large” size clothing often spent more as a compensatory measure to boost their damaged self-esteem. A startling reminder of how fixated we, as a society, have become on size. Our worth as individuals has been diminished to mere numbers and marketing tactics.

At the same time, I understand that every person is different, and the experience of having extra weight on your body can impact your confidence, perception of yourself, and the world.

Each person deserves the freedom to love their body as they wish, and some people do want to be a smaller size. Weight loss, for aesthetic goals or health, is a complex topic, and it takes into account far more than just cutting calories or sweating endlessly on the treadmill. I encourage all of my clients to have a balanced perspective of their progress by measuring multiple parameters of success. Being able to walk upstairs without feeling winded, cutting down on medication, better gut and skin health, more energy and better sleep also count as successes.

By enabling themselves to focus on their internal cues (which we call “non-scale victories”), they can better identify that they are headed in the right direction, without being held hostage to the blinking number staring back at them. As a weight loss coach, I’m constantly working with women to achieve this level of body acceptance, which seems counter-intuitive to the dieting process.

If you’ve ever gained and lost weight in your past, you may have noticed that happiness doesn’t increase or decrease with your weight on the scale. Simply becoming thinner doesn’t make you a happier person, and neither will the opposite happen if you gain weight. It all lies within our perspective of ourselves and honouring the truth that is evident but often forgotten: we are all different. We should be celebrated for our diversity, even when it comes to our size.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach

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