Now Slowly Back Away From the Scale

Kelly Coffey

Getting on the scale contributes to our inability to lose weight and keep it off.

I’m eight, sitting on the floor of a hotel room in Orlando. I’m on vacation with my grandparents, and we’re watching the Miss America Pageant*. At some point in the spectacle, Miss New York, my home(state)girl, wisps across the stage as her stats pop on the screen: 22 years old, 5’10”, 126 pounds.

And so the idea that  22 years + 5’10” + 126 lbs = Beauty  shoots a firm, thick root down into my young, fertile mind.

Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., was the first Miss America in 1921. The Miss America pageant was first devised as a way to extend the summer tourist season in Atlantic City, N.J.

I think to myself, OK — I can be that. I’m eight years old, but I’ll age. I’m only about four and a half feet tall, but I’ll grow. Too young and too short, yes, but me and Miss NY are practically the same weight! As long as I don’t gain an ounce in the next 14 years…Hmm…I wonder how many girls don’t gain an ounce during puberty. I wonder how much an inch weighs…

After that vacation I see my first of many “weight doctors.” From that appointment forward how much I weigh and how I feel about myself get grossly convoluted. Suddenly, I look to my daily and weekly weigh-ins to tell me whether or not I’m a good girl. Every time I step on a scale it’s like spinning a dystopian Wheel of Fortune – the needle settles on a lower-than-expected number and I’m all Oh what delights the universe holds! A higher-than-hoped-for number, and I’m instantly banished to the depths of my newly acquired hobby: self-hate. This series of unfortunate events persists for what remains of my childhood.

The adults in my life at that time wanted the best for me. They didn’t want to see me go through the same bullying and anguish and torture they had endured as “fat” kids. They were putting me on the scale to give me information that they, and most of us, mistakenly think will be helpful: this, Dear, is how much you weigh. Depending on how that varies from how much you weighed last time, you’re either on track and you should keep going or you’re off track and you should buckle down.

Well isn’t it pretty to think so.

"Hmm...I wonder what I weigh."

“Hmm…I wonder what I weigh.”

My friend Emily likes to say that a scale can only tell you how hard gravity is pulling on you, nothing more. She’s right, of course. What’s problematic is the feelings those numbers inspire.

Just about everyone has, at one time or another, read a number in that little window that was higher than they had hoped or expected it would be. The last time that happened for you, did you read that number for what it was: an indication that gravity was yanking on you a bit harder than you’d like? Did you shrug it off, buckle down, and carry on? Prollynot. If you’re like I used to be, that higher number started you at stage one in the five stages of grief: Denial, or “This can’t be happening to me.” Once you got to stage four, Depression, your internal monologue likely shifted to something more along the lines of “I’m fundamentally broken and nothing will never fix me and it’s all lost anyway so what the hell am I doing anything healthy for, SCREW IT.”

Oh, Baby, I feel you.

Notice that this scale's top weight is 120 lbs. Miss NY is just as susceptible to weight pressure as the rest of us.

Scale: $9.99. Realizing it robs you of any chance you might have of true self-acceptance: Priceless.

Most of us have also gone through the strange mental gymnastics of weighing the same as the last time we hopped on the scale. If you felt you’d been “good,” that unchanged number was proof you were broken and hopeless. If you had been “bad,” that unchanged number was proof you could eat junk recklessly and with impunity.


And then there’s the ever-hoped-for weigh-in that shows loss. If you lost a little and you’re not so skilled in the gentleness-with-self department, you probably manage to turn that into fuel for self-flagellation. Even when the scale shows a bigger-than-hoped-for loss, all we get is a cheap high, a momentary thrill, and ultimately, a higher emotional precipice from which to drop the next time we weigh in a little high.

If we, the obese, we, those with addictive tendencies toward food, we, women, we, human beings, are truly committed to improving our health from now until the final curtain call, we must limit ourselves to real, tangible, meaningful measures of health and wellness. Our first assignment: Throw away the scale.

“But how will I know what I weigh?!”

You won’t. And it will be incredibly liberating.

Instead, you’ll focus on how you feel. How your body feels, how you feel in your clothes, how you feel when you sit in your car. You’ll feel how it feels to hug your friends and to tie your shoes. And you know what? The only thing that matters is how you feel. Because the number on the scale is an abstraction. It’s a useless measure of the force of gravity. The number doesn’t tell you you’ve been loving toward yourself in truly healthful, nurturing ways and that you should keep that up – only you can do that. The number doesn’t tell you that practicing self-love this week totally meant declining that social invitation because you need to sleep more, not drink more and eat more crap – only you can do that. The number doesn’t tell you that your head is in the right spot and that that’s all that truly matters – that can only come from inside YOU. We get on the scale because we’re convinced that the number we’ll read there is important. Not only is it unimportant, knowing what that number is will help fuel your next binge, or whatever the moral equivalent is for you. Every step onto a scale is a stride on the road to self-abuse.

Don’t be surprised if you feel cut off from a drug when you stop weighing yourself. Old patterns of and justifications for self-abuse die hard, and this is no exception. The second assignment: Notice how deeply you long to know that number. After the tightness in your chest passes without you having stepped on a scale, please take a deep, congratulatory breath.

Top photo: Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., was the first Miss America in 1921. The Miss America pageant was first devised as a way to extend the summer tourist season in Atlantic City, N.J.

Showing 9 comments
  • Geosomin

    I stumbled upon your blog recently and I love your writing and approach to things. I love this post. I struggled for years with my weight and finally got to a place where I was healthier and in good shape and found ditching my scale to be the best thing I did.
    Lately I’ve been fighting the fight against breast cancer and have had to take it easy and rest and heal during treatment and having to weigh myself for the doctors has been an odd experience…scale numbers are bringing back how it used to make me feel before. It has been eye opening as well, because I have maybe gained 3 pounds over my 5 months of chemo, but having lost so much muscle I look and feel different and that is what I focus on now and want back – the way I feel. Not a number. I can’t wait to be done treatment and get back to my life with a program to gain back my strength and ditch the scale again. 🙂

    • Coffey

      I’m so happy you found me, and I’m thrilled my stuff resonates. I’m sorry for your health struggle. You’ll be even more amazing on the other side, and you’ll get strong again. To your good health, Friend.

  • Lauren

    This. Is. Me.

    Heavy/thick bone structure but not obese as a child. Raised in a family where good times revolve around food. Weight Watchers somewhere around age 11 I think. Older role model came into my life around this time – she was absolutely gorgeous at 5’5″ and 105 lbs. so of course that became my standard of beauty to impossibly strive towards. And so began the vicious cycle of diet, lose, binge, gain, diet, lose, binge, gain, over and over again. That 105 lbs being a wholly unattainable goal for my body type, each loss was never good enough to make me feel like I’d made it, so that sense of dissatisfaction was always in the background, making me less and less satisfied with my success. Not to mention the food addiction. So here I am at 33, not at my heaviest but getting close to losing all control, thoroughly and completely despondent and depressed over the past 20+ years of failure. I wish I were close enough to have actual sessions with you (I’m in TN, dangit) , but in the meantime, thank you for what you write. I’m reading each post from the beginning, soaking up the fact that there is someone who has beaten this and come out on the other side not only achieving physical success, but actually overcoming the mental demons that have kept me fat, unhealthy, and miserable.

  • Jennifer Lindhorst

    Man I just love it. I was at my local YMCA and had just got done running NON STOP for 47 minutes, was so proud of myself. Jumped onto the scale, immediately hated myself. I hate that machine. It hates me. It says “no matter how hard you work, how strong you become, you are always going to weigh more than you want to.”

  • Laurie

    Wow! To say that this hit home would be a real understatement! I had a huge breakthrough while reading this post. Believe it or not, I had not even thought about all the times that as a child I was taken to the “weight doctor”. I am 59 years old, and at that time diet pills were very popular and I was given them by my doctor to try to help me lose weight. I must have been about 11 or 12 years old! No wonder I had low self-esteem. I constantly felt like there was something wrong with me. Like you, my opinion of myself depended solely on weather or not I lost weight. I think I finally see where it all began! It’s amazing that I didn’t think about it before, but better late than never. Thank you so much for your website! I just discovered it recently and have been checking it out every day since. I can relate to it so much and you have really given me hope that I will sort it all out at this later stage of my life! Hey, it’s never too late to start over.

    • Coffey

      Laurie, I’m so sorry that your experience was so similar to mine. SO MANY of us grew up believing that our worth was directly related to our weight. It’s so deeply ingrained, it takes work to bring the mind back to a healthier, happier, more honest place.
      I hope you’re doing that work. You’re wonderful and beautiful, and you were even more so when you were little.


      • Tami

        I’m in this same boat. And it makes me mad that I spent my entire childhood thinking I was horribly fat when I can look back at pictures now and see that it was not so. I was never stick thin, but a little belly/baby fat on a little girl does not equate into a huge whale unworthy of love. Ugh. All of that time wasted instead of just enjoying my childhood. Sad/angry/regretful.

        Working on that forgiveness part now. My parents and others who made me feel that way were fed the same lies and had the same insecurities about themselves. Continuing to blame them for making me feel that way will not help me move on.

  • Abby

    Wow. I step on the scale every day. Its number tells me whether I screwed up yesterday, or not, and invariably indicates what I will and won’t eat today. Thus how I feel about myself. (Oh and either way ends up with me eating more because I either did really well and can afford myself a treat OR I am the same so I have room to wiggle OR I gained so I’m a failure, might as well eat!) My first scale experience was when I was 5. I remember being at the doctor’s office and it read “70”. The doctor told my mother “You have to do something.” I think that’s where all of my self doubt began. All of the bad feelings about myself. Kelly, you speak right to me. I will be signing up for your course soon. Thank you.

    • Coffey

      Hey, Girl. Some of my hardest-to-handle memories are just versions of that “you have to do something” moment. I’m sorry we have that in common, but excited you found me.

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