The June issue of Allure put actress Zoe Saldana on the cover -- little surprise there, as we’re all so freaking excited about “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” in which Saldana reprises her role as Nyota Uhura. (Or is that just me? Eh.)
What was surprising, apparently, to legions of readers and commenters across the internet, was that the magazine chose to include Saldana’s weight on the cover, calling her “115 pounds of grit and heartache.”
Saldana subsequently went on the Today show, ostensibly to talk about Star Trek, but also to defend Allure’s decision (and her own slenderness, to an extent), attempting to explain it as “for a lightweight person, I seem to be really strong minded.” Allure, for its part, has responded to the controversy by stating, “We were so impressed with what a tough confident woman Saldana is... we wanted to capture it.” How publishing her weight accomplishes this is beyond me, but I’ll trust your good intentions, Allure.
The backlash against the weight revelation is rooted in the idea that this reveal is unnecessary, that it perpetuates expectations about what an appealing/acceptable weight for a woman might be, and that it reduces Saldana to a number. Rightly, some of these critics have pointed out that it is unlikely that a magazine would reveal a male actor’s weight on its cover, because THAT would just be weird.
Few of us care to publicly confess our weight -- unless we're looking for kudos following a loss, or new external motivation to diet -- and that’s little wonder, given that it’s so culturally and socially loaded. But keeping that number a closely guarded secret has its downside. And sometimes sharing that number has positive effects we might not have anticipated, when doing so helps us to recognize and unpack all the assumptions we’ve taken for granted.
Several years ago, I went to get an asthma test.
By this point, I was already adept at declining to be weighed at my regular doctor appointments. Having spent my life from roughly age 8 through age 19 placing the lion’s share of my self-worth (and self-loathing) into the number the scale assigned me, the simple process of being weighed was a tremendously triggering event, like reliving every diet, every Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig weigh-in, every moment of body-hating despair from those formative years.
Even after I’d given up dieting and decided to put my energy into self-acceptance instead, any scale experience would result in my not eating for at least a day -- sometimes two. It was shocking and humbling and scary, the power this mechanical device continued to hold over my brain.
I began declining to be weighed when I realized I was avoiding going to the doctor simply because the scale caused me such trauma -- and that dodging regular preventative checkups was hardly in the best interest of my health. So I learned to say no to the scale, unless there was a specific reason why a medical professional would need my weight.
Because this didn’t happen often, by the time the asthma test happened, it had been many years since I’d been weighed, and when the gentleman administering the test -- with whom I had been enjoying a friendly conversation up til then -- asked me to hop on board, I hesitated. Yes, this was necessary. Yes, I would have to do it.
Internally, I panicked -- if I were a cartoon character, the scale in front of me would have turned into a menacing, drooling monster with angry eyes and jagged brows and pointy teeth. I hadn’t even prepared myself that this might be an aspect of the test, and my mind raced trying to think of how to handle it. Finally, a thought occurred: I know some people with eating disorders get on the scale backwards.
I asked if I could be weighed backwards, and -- with a barely concealed intensity of desperation -- I asked that he not tell me what the number was. My test guy looked at me, a little perplexed, but assented. I was so terrified it didn’t even occur to me that I could step on the scale facing forwards and then turn around before he set the counterbalances; instead I stepped on backwards, with impossible awkwardness, sort of flailing my hands behind me to gauge when to stop.
The test guy adjusted the scale, the clank of the weights reverberating in my ears, scribbled the number on a scrap of paper, and the mood between us turned somber and silent. We returned to the test room, a large space with a huge machine that would intentionally try to trigger my asthma. It was a stressful situation, is what I’m saying. I sat in a chair on one wall, he sat at a monitor and pulled the bit of paper from his pocket and typed in my weight.
He then crumpled up the scrap of paper with my weight on it and tossed it onto the top of the machine, where it sat screaming at me like an irresistible siren. He asked me questions, and I answered distractedly, thinking, “Is he going to move that paper? He needs to move that paper. He should throw it away. Actually, it’d be great if he took it out of the room altogether.”
I’m not even exaggerating here. I wish I was.
After a few minutes, the test guy excused himself to go grab the rest of what he’d need to give me a mild medically-induced asthma attack. The door had not even closed behind him and I was out of my seat reaching for that bit of paper -- it was like a reflex, like my body was being controlled by unknown forces. I uncrumpled the paper and tried to focus, not wanting to know, wanting to know.
I only read the first two numbers. I may have read more. I may have just forgotten the last digit since then. But the first two numbers were 3 and 0 and from there the scrawl swam out of view. Three. Three zero. Three hundred pounds. I weigh three hundred pounds.
Three hundred is one of those landmark numbers -- a number that carries so much more import than two hundred and ninety nine. Three hundred pound people, in my head, were freaks and degenerates; they were unloveable; they were sick; they were gross; they were unhappy, unattractive, they were probably downright immobile. Three hundred pound people didn’t love clothes and fashion, they didn’t love walking around the city on a beautiful spring day, they didn’t practice yoga, they didn’t have friends or active social lives, they didn’t go to parties, they didn’t go out dancing and they certainly didn’t get hit on by attractive people. They weren’t even people anymore, really. They were remains of what was once human, but was now overwhelmed by fat.
The panic I felt at reading that number cannot be overstated -- I felt something snap in my brain, it was almost a palpable sensation of something breaking inside me, and I thought I was going to pass out. I thought maybe my fat was actually going to spontaneously murder me, like everyone had always warned it would. I went through the asthma test in a blur. It was only when I was sitting in the corridor afterward, waiting for permission to leave, that something occurred to me.
Nothing had changed.
Nothing was different about me, between the moment before I knew and the moment after -- all that had occurred was the addition of new information. I’d still walked to the hospital for the test from my office, and I’d walk back again. I still had friends and social plans, I still had a boyfriend. I still had all my clothes. Nothing had changed, between not knowing I weighed three hundred pounds, and knowing it.
None of those things I had thought were true about three hundred pound people were true about me.
To my further astonishment, it struck me that I must have secretly weighed this much for quite a long time, as my clothing size and body measurements (I did a lot of sewing back then, so I knew my measurements well) had not changed at all, not by an inch, in several years. I just hadn’t known how many actual pounds I was representing.
How many of us have had this experience, albeit maybe for some of you with a less dramatic result? You’re going about your life and you feel pretty awesome, but then for one reason or another you hop on a scale and your day is ruined and you’re ugly and disgusting and miserable. Why do we do this? Why is a number more important than how we actually feel?
Although at the time I was pretty well-versed in body acceptance, some habits are hard to break. I realized that I was letting my assumptions about a certain number color how I perceived myself; worse, I was letting them limit what I knew I was capable of. This is the power of weight-based shame -- this is what happens when we put so much stock in the meaning of a number, a number that says nothing objective about us, because everyone’s body is different.
While it’s true that not knowing my weight had enabled me to go about my life without second-guessing myself with the constant reminder, “Oh, you can’t do that, people who weigh three hundred pounds don’t do that,” knowing the number turned out to be far more empowering. In the space of an hour I went from life-ruining despair to wanting to tell EVERY SINGLE PERSON I met how much I weigh. Because I weigh three hundred pounds, and my life is totally awesome, and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible until it happened to me.
I wouldn’t ever tell any of you that you MUST disclose your weight -- because ultimately your ability to make your own autonomous decisions about your bodies is far more important than my desire to scrub the heaping mess of shame and guilt and expectation loaded on this number. But I do think we all benefit from confronting our assumptions about what pounds mean, and the power we can allow them to hold over us.
In the end, your weight communicates nothing about you other than the number of pounds you represent in Earth’s particular gravity. Weighing very little does not make you an inconsequential person, nor does it mean you hate food, or that you are obsessed with thinness. Weighing a lot does not mean you are automatically sick, or tragically friendless, or obsessed with eating. We are individuals, not numbers -- we’re people and personalities and experiences, not pounds. Really, our pounds are actually probably one of the least interesting things about us, so why not choose to just put them out there, like the minor detail they are?
I’m Lesley, and I weigh three hundred pounds, and I’m not sorry or ashamed about it. How about you?