Weight is the default, go-to metric when we talk about fitness in the US. For many people, it is the only framework ever seriously used to discuss day-to-day health. Occasionally BMI (body mass index, which purports to measure body fat percentage, but actually measures weight-to-height ratio) is thrown into the discussion.
When my middle school gym teacher explained BMI to us for the first time, he pointed out that he was technically "obese" according to the system, despite maintaining an incredibly low body fat percentage and being one of the most muscular people I'd ever met in person at that point. But in the mainstream conversation on fitness, we don't have better language to employ, so we keep returning to these words, these numbers that tell such a narrow piece of the story of health.
I've been overweight for the entirety of my adult life. For most of that, I've also been rated as "obese" on the BMI scale, though definitely not for the reasons Coach Guy was. I've ranged from a size 18 to a size 10, depending on what the rest of my life has looked like. Throughout the last 6 years I have made periodic, halfhearted efforts to "get in shape" or "eat better" (both euphemisms for "weigh less"). And I can't count the number of my dear, wonderful, intelligent female friends who have spent the last six years doing the same-- even the ones who have never been overweight.
The cultural pressure towards "thinner" comes from all sides, in our most public moments and our most intimate: from snarky remarks from Great Aunt Thelma to catcalls from across the street ("Hey, big girl!"); from careless comments from dating partners to towering billboards of Photoshopped models, whose digital physiques are not physically possible to attain (but which are lifted up as the ideal to aspire to). Women are continuously told, by ingrained culture and by trillion-dollar industries, that they are supposed to be smaller, regardless of where they are starting from. Those messages sink in much deeper than any of us care to admit, even when we are aware of them. It is a constant dialogue sucking up time, money, and emotional energy, a perpetual background guilt we are conditioned to feel.
In my early 20s, I was lucky enough to meet people who actively call out this cultural narrative and reject it. I'd never heard unrealistic standards of female beauty discussed explicitly, much less had the language to express why they bothered me. But amongst these folks I started learning new terminology to understand my experiences in the world, as a woman generally and as an overweight woman specifically -- fat-shaming, patriarchy, body-positivity. Within a supportive community of feminist friends falling across the whole spectrum of body types, I learned to think critically about the nature of the pervasive pressure towards thinness, and learned to take joy in who I was as a person, whatever my variable size happened to be at the moment.
Having new words to articulate my experience helped, as did hearing for the first time that not stressing out about my weight was permissible. At the time, my most valuable mental strategy for staying positive about my body was, basically, to ignore it. I was doing things that I was proud of: cool hobbies, intellectual accomplishments, volunteer work, getting involved in the local art scene, maintaining an active social and dating life. Why should a number on a scale bother me? Why should I spend my time worrying about people who don't like how I look in a certain dress? There were plenty of people who liked it just fine. Finally, I was one of them.
I did, however, recognize that I felt better physically and mentally when my routine included more regular exercise than I sometimes got. For that reason, rather than to chase that unattainable ideal, I looked for ways to incorporate exercise more firmly into my life than just pulling on tennis shoes to go running a few times a month. I had tried out a few different sports in the preceding few years, and wanted something new to do physically that would hold my attention, keep me regularly engaged.
I joined a martial arts group. Sparring was a game of angles, strength, and speed, a sort of fast-action 3-D chess dependent on physical prowess. I loved it, and it made me want to challenge myself physically in a way I never had before. I started strength training on my own between classes, and concurrently started running more regularly for the sake of improving my endurance.
People started asking me if I had lost weight, and the first few times I genuinely didn't know the answer, as our communal scale had gotten buried the last time we rearranged the communal laundry closet. But the unsolicited comments pleased me more than I wanted to admit. I found the scale, and started using it regularly. I became more aware of what I was consuming, and began to carefully track everything I ate, almost as an experiment. My weight dropped about ten pounds in two months with this newfound level of awareness.
After years of unsuccessful on-and-off attempts to deliberately reduce my weight, I had reached some critical mass of knowledge and physical discipline, and suddenly seemed to be capable of making it happen on command. This felt like success. For a few months, weight loss became the goal in and of itself. Quickly, it became an obsession, under the banner of "fitness." I was weighing myself multiple times per day on a digital scale calibrated to a 10th of a pound. I thought about that number every time someone offered me a cookie or a drink. I felt pleased with myself any time the number dipped after a workout, and suppressed a burst of frustration any time it crept back upwards.
As I got stronger, I started training harder, which also meant consuming more calories to keep up with my body's needs. The number stopped dropping so rapidly, then stopped dropping at all. I was running 3 miles at a time without pausing, which no longer felt like an arduous ordeal. I was becoming more muscular, and my clothing fit differently, sometimes even week to week. The accidentally-purchased jeans that had been the wrong size a few years before actually buttoned shut now, fitting like a glove. I could suddenly easily move training equipment that had seemed staggeringly heavy when I started. But even though my body was clearly still changing, my weight wasn't actually dropping any more.
The number wasn't telling the whole story; I'd known for years now that the number never does. But the number plateaued, and I felt like a failure.
And I barely recognized myself. Who was this neurotic woman, stepping onto the scale 5 and 6 times a day, scrutinizing every curve and bulge on her body for twenty minutes every time she showered? Who was this person obsessing over the fit of every scrap of clothing she put on? Who was she doing this for, and why? Now that I was incorporating intense workouts into my routine multiple times a week, I was forced to think about my body all the time in order to take responsible care of it. "Just not worrying about it," in an effort to avoid negativity about my physique, was no longer a reasonable option.
I felt like I was losing my grip on some core part of my identity, as a feminist and as a confident woman. I had been fundamentally secure in my appearance six months before, when I weighed more and could do much less. I had felt better about how I looked when I looked far less like the unattainable ideal than I did now. Somewhere in the midst of trying to take better care of myself physically, I had fallen straight into the mental trap I had worked so hard to escape from as a feminist.
Eventually, I realized that my obsession with the scale stemmed in part from the fact that I had no other way to measure the progress I was making. My desire had been to improve my fitness level, but I'd never learned to think about fitness in terms other than weight, and had only recently met anyone else who did. I needed, once again, to give myself new language: a new framework for talking about self-improvement, clearly rooted in healthy motivations, and not predicated on the endless slippery slope of smaller.
So I set myself a new, specific goal, and came up with new numbers to watch instead: I decided to train for a half-marathon. Speed and mileage, week by week, would give me ways to track my fitness that were outside of destructive cultural narratives of fat-shaming. Without even consciously deciding to, I immediately stopped weighing myself more than once a day, and within a month or so, even that has dropped off to a few times per week, if that. My weight has stayed in the same small window for the last 6 weeks, but I am up to running 6 miles at a stretch. I feel the best I ever have in my own skin, literally and figuratively.
Feminists talk a lot about loving one's body in spite of the constant cultural messages that one's body is not good enough. Both acceptance of the body as-is and aspiration for higher fitness can be healthy and progressive parts of that process: from a foundation of accepting the body on its own terms, it is also "loving your body" to take care of it as well as you are able, in the context of whatever your personal goals and limitations might be. But weight loss for the sake of weight loss has such a stranglehold around our cultural conception of what "fitness" means that it can be difficult to see the difference, and even more difficult to divorce the two.
When my race is finished in October, I'll pick some new numbers to watch -- points earned in sparring matches, perhaps, or counts in other exercises. (My pull-up count is currently stuck firmly at "none.") Maybe I'll even find qualitative measures to track, and let go of numbers altogether.
In the same way that learning feminist language helped me think about my place in the world in a new light, breaking into a broader vocabulary of metrics surrounding fitness has helped me to examine my motivations and keep myself firmly on a track that is both healthy and fulfilling. I once again know exactly what I'm doing, and for whom. With new words in my arsenal, I'm back in charge of the conversation about my body.