Perfectly round. A circular platform encircled by a raised bar. Like a stage! The kind that lights up underneath and lifts the performer above the crowd as mist billows beneath! And indeed I am being watched. But there is no applause and I am given no chance for a monologue. Perhaps, I think – silently, to myself – it reminds me less of a stage and more of a teleportation device. Closing my eyes I wait for a beam of light to descend and obliterate the particles of my mortal shell, to reduce me, no more no less, to the same matter that permeates the universe. No light comes. My atoms stay rigidly arranged, the faulty DNA that is Broken Me still intact, still informing.
I wish it were anything but what it actually is: a scale.
The brushed steel platform on which I stand, obediently thinking defiant thoughts, does not look like any scale I am used to. Certainly it doesn’t resemble either of the torture devices to which I have arranged my bathroom, and my life, around. (Two: one to check the other. Accuracy is paramount.) This is an industrial scale, large enough to weigh an elephant but stark enough to weigh an anorectic. Even if she is too weak to hold herself up and must lean on the circular rail for support. But not comfort. No scale has ever been comforting. The very idea of weighing and measuring a human being is not so they can be loved but so they can be compared.
I know quite well what I am being compared to. The problem is that I don’t know how I measure up. The digital display that shows the all-important numbers is across the room. Across the room! And turned away so only the nutritionist can read it. Upon first entering the eating disorder clinic, I had protested vehemently at this weighing ritual. “But I’m at a healthy weight!” And then, “But I’m not anorexic! I’m here for compulsive exercise and orthorexia!” Then finally, “My shoes (large wedged heels) and my coat (thick for winter) are so heavy!” All of these things were quite true.
“It doesn’t matter. This is just to get a baseline. All patients are weighed at every appointment. Please step on the scale.”
“But I’m not even trying to lose weight!!” My final plea. This, incidentally, was not true.
The nutritionist didn’t blink. “We can’t continue until you are weighed.”
There was a standoff. I held out for a half hour, picking my nails, studying the pastel 80’s artwork, staring blatantly at my nutritionist – a woman so thin that she must always get asked if she has an eating disorder, if she is a size 0, if she has any tips . Of course these things are filtered through the madness of my illness. I can’t see anyone in any other light except fat or thin, evil or righteous, rebellious or obedient.
The thing that breaks me is knowing my babysitter can’t stay past an hour. White as a sheet, I step on the scale. The silence that had started at our inauspicious beginning continues to blanket the room. I make not a peep as my worth blinks in black and white. She makes not a sound as she writes it down on my chart, her face inscrutable. Surely, I think, she had never seen someone weigh as much as I do. Surely, I think, she is horrified. Surely she thinks I’m faking sickness. It makes me feel so angry and impotent and worthless that the only thing I can think to say when we finally sit down in proper chairs – as if one of us hadn’t just subjected the other to an invasive and dehumanizing ritual – in her office is, “My shoes have solid rubber heels, they probably weigh two pounds each.”
She nods, unsmiling, “I’ll make a note of that on your chart.” And she does. Although I do not know whether she notes it under my weight or under the “disordered fixations of patient” column. I reassure myself with the thought that next time I will wear tiny sandals and take my coat off in the waiting room, no matter the fact that it is winter. No matter the fact that I am always, always freezing. Next time, I vow, that number will be less.
“Excuse me,” my lips stretch and I show my teeth in what I hope is a smile, “but I didn’t catch the number. What was it?”
“I already told you, the number doesn’t matter. It’s just a baseline for our charts. Something to see if the intervention is working.” Her bony chest, visible through her v-neck sweater, rises and falls as she sighs.
Intervention. I bristle at the word. Bristle at the thought that something as intensely personal, as intrinsic to my corporeal self, as my weight is kept from me. It’s mine! I want to scream. It’s all I have left! I don’t want to add.
“Now, since it took so long getting started,” she pauses and I stare right back into her hollow-cheeked face, “I won’t be able to finish all of the intake questions. But I’d like you to take this and read it before our meeting next week.” She slides a bound booklet across the desk to me. It has a clip-art picture of a fruit bowl on the cover. Nutritional Guidelines the title reads. It is tacky and I hate it without opening it.
But then I remember Pam, my beloved therapist, the one who insisted that I go to this meeting, do this intake, finish this outpatient program. I can’t face her next week and report yet another week of no progress. Flipping open the booklet, the first page tells me to eat a protein, a grain and a fat at every meal. The nutritionist leans over to point out more clip-art pictures illustrating each of these categories. As if I don’t already know every macronutrient, every calorie, every gram, every vitamin, every category that a food could possibly be compartmentalized into by heart. Did you know an apple is a fruit?
My sickness does not make me stupid.
The nutritionist thinks it does. She hands me a list and asks me to circle which foods I will eat. Scanning the everlong list – is every food in the world really on there? Because I am an adventurous eater. At least, I used to be – I draw a heavy X through them all. This will be faster: I scrawl on the bottom “salad, berries, nuts, steel-cut oats and non-starchy vegetables.”
“This is what you will eat?”
A lump forms in my throat as I realize that several days ago I struck oatmeal off the list. Grains are bad for you, our primal ancestors didn’t eat them, our systems haven’t evolved to digest them without inflammation. See? I had to take them off. It was the right thing to do.
I’m not aware that I’m not saying any of this out loud. What I know is this: I am crying. And my babysitter can’t stay any longer.
“I’m sorry, I have to go now.” I stumble over my too-tall, too-heavy shoes. (How could I have ever thought these made my legs look thinner? Clearly I am huge and no shoes are going to hide that.)
“All right, I’ll see you next week?”
“Sure.” By the waiting room I have chewed my lip raw. Mothers don’t have the luxury of eating disorders. By the elevator I have dried the tears. I can’t go back to my children with red rimmed eyes. With problems. With heavy shoes. By the front doors I have recovered myself. I toss the booklet in the garbage can under the cigarette sandbox.
I don’t come back.
I prefer my small-scale scales. The ones that don’t have the power to transport me to another world. The ones that won’t take me apart piece by piece, demanding my faith that it will put me back together in the end.
* Note: I wanted to end the essay here. But I worry that some of you will think that this is my contemporary state of mind. And it isn’t. This incident happened several years ago and I have made amazing progress with my disordered eating. The reason I write about this today is to try and describe what it felt like for me. Why the scale still holds such prominence in my life. And because today, for the first time since my baby’s birth, I weigh the weight that I did that day (of course the first thing I did when I got home and paid the babysitter was to run upstairs and weigh myself, shoes, coat and everything). Before you worry – do realize that my weight today, totally naked, is what I weighed then fully (overly) clothed. It isn’t truly the same but seeing that number brought back this memory. It seemed important to write it down.
Do you have a weight that holds particular importance for you? A number that brings back a particular memory, good or bad? Edited to add: I ask this not to have you fixate on an arbitrary number but to encourage you to challenge the beliefs that you hold about yourself and your weight. You are so much more than a number.