ASK LESLEY: How Do I Stop Hating My Body? (Part One)

The first step is the one you take in getting off the scale.

Dear Lesley:

I have recently gained 5 pounds and I am walking around feeling terrible as a result. While I know intellectually that gaining weight is not the end of the world, I can't extricate from this awful feeling of shame and self-loathing that comes up whenever I am at the top end of my weight spectrum. You seem to have found the formula for feeling comfortable with your body. I want that formula. Do you have any advice for getting from a place of body-loathing to body-loving?

Emily :)

I DO. I can actually erase those five pounds entirely with one simple suggestion: Get rid of your scale. No scale, no five pounds. PROBLEM SOLVED.

I guess I should say more about that.

I stopped being weighed at least a decade ago. Prior to that, I had no idea that I could simply not be weighed -- scales were the tools that defined my success or failure as a human being. Even if I avoided scales in my private life, I’d be faced with them at the doctor’s office at least once a year, and it did not occur to me that I had a choice in an authoritative medical environment, aware though I was of the intense emotional repercussions of my stepping on a scale, even backward, so I could not see.

At first I was hesitant to refuse the scale, and the first three times I tried to say no, I failed. When the nurse looked at me curiously, my resolve collapsed and I leapt on the scale as though she had a gun in my back. The trick to success, I eventually discovered, was to stand still as I said no. It was unlikely that they would forcibly drag me onto the scale, I reasoned. If I could both a) say the word “No” out loud and b) not move for roughly 15 seconds, then I could keep from being weighed.

Part of me, you understand, still wants to see my weight. It’s the part that liked the obsessive need for control, the part that felt satisfied when I went so long without eating that I began to tremble and drift and blink. That part of me wants to be weighed, to be beaten with the number that will ruin my day and possibly even send me into depression for weeks. It wants me to see that number and get me thinking, “What have I eaten today? I should not eat anything more today. I should not eat anything tomorrow. The following day, perhaps I will eat half a bagel. Then I will go out and buy a scale and weigh myself again.”

I would have to go out and buy one, because I don’t own a scale anymore. For me, the scale is a torture device, and I don’t keep one in my house lest I be tempted to use it against myself. Whether or not a person is weighed by her doctor is a private conversation to be had between the patient and her medical team; that will depend on lots of factors. But the choice to keep a scale at home, and to weigh oneself privately, is an independent one.

Everyone I know has a rough relationship with the scale. What other household device has such power to make us feel things, good and bad? Those of us with backgrounds that include chronic dieting, disordered eating patterns and/or full-fledged eating disorders are particularly suceptible to the judgement of the scale. Numbers are crazymaking, even though they don’t impart any knowledge that we don’t willingly assign to them.

We are the ones who give scales and their numbers all that power and meaning. A number is just a number; the difference between 198 and 199 is the same as the difference between 199 and 200, but 200 means so much more, doesn’t it?

Hence my suggestion to ditch your scale. Or maybe pledge to put your scale away for three months. Instead of weighing yourself, take personal stock in a more direct fashion. Feel your body, including all the soft parts, the ones you like and the ones you don’t. Look at yourself in a large mirror. Naked. Every day. If I were a pessimist I’d call this aversion therapy, but really it’s meant to get you familiar with yourself on a seriously intimate level. Resist the urge to judge; just look.

If it helps, imagine you are exploring an unknown territory on another world, and you must memorize every feature. Mounds and crevices and varied textures are not unpleasant in a landscape; they simply exist. See everything, as often as you can stand it, until you know your body thoroughly. After all, this IS what your body looks like, whether you are seeing it or not.

On a day to day basis, we are quite capable of relying on our own personal knowledge of our bodies to tell us how we’re doing, how we’re feeling, and whether anything has changed -- without a scale to help. We don’t need a scale. We don’t need a number. We can know when we have gained or lost weight, when something doesn’t look right, when we feel strange or unwell. In order for this to work, we have to cultivate a bodily knowledge, and I believe the scale is an obstacle to that.

With its numbers and its complex web of possible meaning, the scale stands between our bodies and our fullest conscious awareness of them; it defines us by pounds and not by how we actually feel; it enables us to rely on a number to tell us we are doing things right, instead of empowering us to decide when we feel our best.

The scale contributes to a culture that tells us that if we weigh more than X or less than Y then we cannot be happy with ourselves. And that, frankly, is bullshit.

This is where the last part of your question comes in.

Sometimes, loving your body is not an option. Sometimes, the best we can do is accept our bodies as the changeable, beautiful, frustrating vessels they are. That’s OK. Expecting yourself to have a full-on love affair with your body at all times is asking too much. Bodies are occasionally annoying. What we can do is know them, and decide for ourselves when they feel good, and when they feel less good, and what we might do to make them feel better again. Even if we can’t love our bodies, we can make sure we don’t hate them.

More on that subject, however, will have to wait for part two.