Q&A Sunday: Is it ever a good idea to weigh myself?

This week, I wanted to share a question from a fellow reader. She’s someone smart and thoughtful. Someone like you. Here’s what she says:

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Is it ever a decent idea to weigh myself on a scale? By decent I suppose I mean, constructive/ healing/ helpful.

Several months ago, when I discovered your blog/intuitive eating, I began trying to feel my feelings and eat food when I was hungry, etc. I determined I would weigh myself once a month-ish to check in, and that I'd (try my best to) cultivate an attitude of equanimity, regardless of what the scale said.

I noticed it dropping, the number on the scale, quite slowly but steadily. I felt unsurprised, as I knew I'd spent much of the past year eating for reasons other than hunger. I felt pleased about it at times, I won't deny it; but also, pretty equanimeous. Sometimes I'd forget I'd even weighed myself until a week later (a far cry from the days of seemingly having that number branded onto the inside of my skull).

Then a day came, a month, where my weight had jumped up. Not so slightly. Whereas the decreases had been subtle (½ lb or maaaaybe 1 lb/month), this was a 4 lb increase in a month. And my equanimity ran off.

The number rang in my head all day. All week. All month. I decided never to step on the scale again.

Then I had a doctor's appointment. Another 4 lbs increase. I didn't remove my boots though, so I could tell myself it's not fully real.

I am realizing that whenever I weigh myself, I am, in a sense, looking for external assurance that "I'm okay." When the answer is "yes", it's usually because the number has dropped or stayed the same, though. When the answer is "no", it's usually because the number has increased. And it is often only then, in scenario two, where I'm "not okay," that in my upset I can see the inanity of putting my sense of wellness into something as sterile and plastic as a scale.

The (semi) trouble with not weighing myself, is I've no objective perspective (which I assume the scale does offer) to help mitigate or ameliorate my body dysphoria, which sometimes feels truly out of control.  [note from Katie: body dysmorphia means that a person is excessively concerned with an imagined or exaggerated flaw in their appearance. Sometimes this can escalate to the level of a disorder, but I think that this reader is using the phrase in a sub-clinical sense.] And in which instances, a scale can tell me, "calm down. Not much has changed here." This can be a helpful anxiety-dampener.

But of course, the opposite is contained within this external arbiter of comfort & reassurance-- it has the power to take it away, too-- and it's all unknown until it isn't and then it's too late, to un-know. I would've already stepped on the scale; I would've already asked the question and handed my power over.

On one hand, I want to continue the work of not associating less weight with “Okay” and more weight with “Not Okay” (an ongoing endeavor of the past decade).

But I still wonder. Is it ever a decent idea to step on a scale?

— Lisa

Lisa, thank you so much for this. Even in how your phrase the question, you show how thoughtful and caring and smart you are. 

And you share such a powerful case study for how scales can seriously mess with all of us, even if we are thoughtful and caring and smart. 

In my opinion, the short answer to your question of: “is it ever constructive/healing/helpful to step on a scale?” is, to put it bluntly: is no. 

No, I do not think that it is ever constructive or healing or helpful to step on a scale. 

I’ve written about how harmful scales can be before.

Part of the reason I wanted to respond to your question, though, is that it’s clear to me that you already know this. You wrote so beautifully about how stepping on a scale is really just “looking for external assurance that I'm okay. 

So I know that you know:  A scale cannot tell you if you are okay. It can only tell you the mass of your body. 
The mass of your body is not the same as whether you are worthy or “okay.”

And, even more problematically, a scale can make you not-okay, emotionally or psychologically, by encouraging an unhealthy obsession with being a very precise weight. Because, inevitably, we will get on the scale and at least sometimes not like what we see.

So in that sense, I don’t think it is ever constructive or healing or helpful to step on a scale. It is not even really necessary to have such a precise measure of your body mass. If you’ve lost a substantial amount of weight, you will know without a scale. If you’ve gained a substantial amount of weight, you will know without a scale. You will know based on how your clothes fit and how your body feels. 

If you have lost or gained a small amount of weight, yes, perhaps you might need a scale to tell you that. But does it really, truly matter if you’ve gained or lost, say, 2.5 pounds?

But again, I know that you know this.

Part of why I wanted to answer this question was because I think you are not alone, in this icky, frustrating cycle of “I know that I shouldn’t care so much about my weight” and “I really, really care so much about my weight.”

I also think you are not alone in feeling rudderless at times, detached from the anchor that tells you that you are valuable, you are enough, you are worthwhile just as you are.

And indeed, part of the pain of your situation is that you are self-aware and thoughtful enough to see yourself in this cycle.

So if you remember one thing about this letter that I am writing to you, I hope it is this: your desire to get on a scale is a warning signal.

It is a warning signal that you have lost yourself.
It is a warning signal that you feel you are not enough.
It is a warning signal that you feel scared or nervous or excited or some other thing that is a bit (or a lot) too much for you to handle right now.

If we can accept that food issues are not really about food, we also must accept that weight issues are not really about weight.

Just as your desire to eat fourteen 14 cookies after walking in the door from work tells you something about yourself, your desire to weigh yourself also tells you something.

The good news is that if you’re already introspective enough to have done a lot of this personal work with your eating, I think you’re also going to be able to deeply ask yourself, “what does my desire to weigh myself tell me about how I’m doing?”

Because — and again, you probably already know this — only by really sitting in the question of what your intense concern about weight tells you about the rest of your fears, loves, desires, and dreams…can you actually hope to resolve this issue.

I think that this weight thing is telling you that there is some deep, personal work and growth with your name on it.

I think that this weight thing is telling you that there is a world in which you could feel a much deeper, surer knowing that you are on the right path, that you are enough, that you deserve love, right here and now. 

Of course, this is a big journey that I’m inviting you oninto. This Q&A Sunday didn’t fix your problem with a magic wand, even though I wish that it could.

But I want to give you at least one actionable place to start. So it is, Lisa (and everyone else out there):

When you find yourself about to weigh yourself, step away from the scale, go to a different room, set a timer for at least 5 minutes, and answer one or more of following questions. Answer them while writing longhand:

  • What am I afraid will happen — in all of my life — if I have gained weight?
  • What do I hope will happen — in all of my life — if I lose weight?
  • What generally happens after I weigh myself? Do I want that for me, today?
  • Why is it scary to think about not weighing myself?
  • Why do I need to weigh myself at this exact moment?
  • What am I resisting right now?

After that, you make a decision about whether or not to weigh yourself. But if you write each time, at least you will be getting to know yourself and your deeper motivations in the process. And in knowing your deeper motivations, you can question whether your fears are true and what you want to do about them.

Thanks for your question, Lisa. I hope you know that I’m rooting for you, with all of this.