Thursday, July 31, 2008

Weighty Matters

There I was in the lockerroom after swim practice on Tuesday.

“Oooooooooeee! Let’s see what we got goin’ on girls.”

Obviously I was part of some strange ritual in which older women sit on wooden benches wrapped in white terrycloth towels while each takes a turn to weigh in on the scale. Up next, a woman boarded the scale clad in towel and shoes while having the most interesting conversation with herself.

“Mmhmmph. A little bit a this, a little bit a that and hmmm, mmmm, WELL! Bless the lord, my soul and everything in between. That number CANNOT be right!”

The crowd responds:

Take off your shoes, someone yells out. They’re worth at least a few pounds!

Meanwhile, I’m trying to remove my swimsuit, grab my shower items and make my way through 10 women and their towels. I realize though that the drama on the scale might be worth sticking around. The woman removes her shoes.

The towel, too! Take the towel off!

On second thought, maybe I should just head to the shower. This is starting to remind me of that one late evening masters where I was the only woman in the lockerroom at 9:30 pm – or so I thought – when I heard giggles coming from the shower next to me. Like two sets of giggles. And then when I got out of the shower I heard giggles coming from a few rows down. Like two sets of giggles. Only to see two women cavorting about the lockerroom trying on clothes from the gym store – one wearing her underwear and one wearing nothing at all and then they started talking…in polish…and in front of the mirror look at one’s new jog bras and I was like – wow, who got lucky here to be part of some skin flick in the lockerroom and how further lucky I am that it’s not even in my language.

Bizarre.

Back to the scale…

“Oh lordy, I ain’t taking this towel off. No matter how much it weighs!”


The woman is back on the scale. She stands there with towel – no shoes – setting the balances when she starts talking again…

“A little bit a this, little that, and there, and here, and mmpph, and you know scale if you say what I want you to say you know I’m gonna treat myself to a steak and fry dinner…and, oh…lordy…oh….uh-huh.”

We’re all waiting. Hanging actually. We are women after all. We’re dying to know – what did they scale say? And, if it says the right thing - who’s paying for the steak and fry dinner?

“I’m down a few pounds.”


SUCCESS! The women cheer. Someone says see, I told you to take off your shoes! And then no one else braves the scale after that, for who would want to jump on to find out that they had gained a few pounds and then have to report it back to the group.

Not I.

But it got me to thinking about women and the war we have with the scale. Not too long ago I too was one of them. On the scale, off the scale, with the towel, without the towel, before the shower, before wet hair, after the bathroom – anything and everything to make the scale say that number. The magic number we are all looking for.

And what is it? The magic number? Who knows. Because how many times in life have we actually found it? Once. Maybe twice. Maybe not at all. I’ve had so many magic numbers I can’t remember what the most magical one is any more.

If you’re an athlete, the scale is perhaps the most evil trick. You are fitter than ever. You train more than ever. And your weight keeps going up. Keeps happening to me. I can’t explain it but the pounds keep appearing on the scale. I look the same. I feel the same. But the number. THE DAMN NUMBER. Not the same.

Ironman is the worst. If you are training for Ironman there are things you should know. You will weigh in about 5 pounds heavier than ever. And you will be more confused than ever. How could I have trained 25 hours a week, sat on bicycle for over 7 hours, ran 20 miles and STILL come out 5 pounds over? HOW!? It’s just the evil curse of Ironman. That and of course very inaccurate scales.

I know the numbers really mean nothing. I know all of this. I’m sort of smart. At least rational. Yet when I see a scale – I want on. I want to weigh myself and see will it be a good or a bad day. Good number and you feel lighter than air, beautiful, fit, strong, confident, alive. Bad number and you want to curl back up in bed and try again another day. Subsist on grapes and water and hope you drop a pound. Or a few.

Eating disorders aside, I think it’s something that plagues most women. The battle with the scale. But think about it. Why even have a scale? What are we looking for? What good is it to know? You have clothes, right? Why not let them be the measure? They fit – you’re good. They fall off – you’re better. They are tight – lay off the ______(insert your vice) for awhile.

I think we all know this. We know what’s wrong with the idea of the scale. Yet as women we still live – and die – by the scale. A few months ago when I realized my weight kept going up, I up and abandoned the scale. But it wasn’t easy at first. I would make my husband weigh himself just in case. In case the scale was off. The measure and balance precision device – OFF. Yes, that’s it. Well it wasn’t. He weighed in – oh damn him he weighed in less than what he thought. Stupid man. Steady diet of corn chips and a beer a day and still down a few pounds. So then I decided husband was reliable but not valid. I replaced the scale battery instead to improve validity. And...same thing.

It’s even worse at the doctor’s office. Not only do they weigh you on something you know can’t be accurate after half of America has gotten on and off the scale but they announce it to you as you stand there and then....then....they write it down. Great. So what you’re telling me is that wearing jeans, a belt, shoes, I weigh 8 pounds more than the start of the day. Well that’s useful to know. And because you didn’t take into account my jeans, belt, shoes, etcetera, when the doctor sees that number he is going to say to me so you’re weight is up. Doctor once did that to me. I looked at him like…seriously. S.E.R.I.O.U.S.L.Y.

But when you hear something like that or see something like that – that your weight is up – no matter how smart, logical, rational, intelligent you are you start to think – what does this mean? Am I fat? Useless, ugly, worthless, out of control, not perfect, slothlike and done? Is this why I’m running so slow? Is this why I never seem satisfied with myself?

Probably not. It’s just weight. And as an athlete you often gain weight as you add muscle mass. Or water retention. As long as you eat good the number is probably not much good to you. But there is another tricky thing for women – eating good. I work with women. Lots of women. Women of all ages, shapes, sizes, backgrounds, abilities. And I see this all the time:

I went on a bender last week where I subsisted on cupcakes, coffee and peanut butter and now I feel like crap.

That may have been me. Or someone else. Either way, it’s not a good place. And we know that. We know we don’t need all that crap yet we can’t help it. We feel we deserve it. We’ve earned it. Or we want one and that one turns into….twenty six. Ok, so here’s the problem. We all know it feels bad to eat bad and then get on the scale to see a number that is “bad” so why do we do it? I don’t know. I think it gets back to a strange relationship or understanding with food. But I think there are some things we can do to help.

First of all, abandon the scale. Free thyself of the magic number and focus on how you feel instead. Before you get on the scale ask yourself – what will this number tell me? Seriously, what is the answer you are looking for? Do you really need one more thing to judge you each day? And a non-living thing at that? We have enough “things” in life judging us, critiquing us or monitoring us. Don’t add another by putting yourself on top of the scale.

Secondly, understand you are a woman and you will have fluctuations in your body throughout the month. You cannot control that. So obviously don’t spend that week complaining that you are heavy and fat. Guess what. You are. We all are. Deal with it and make yourself comfortable instead.

Third, quit taking the easy way out (visiting vending machines, eating fast food, skipping meals). Good nutrition is not hard to do. It does not take more than 10 minutes to assemble a healthy meal. It takes careful planning, smart shopping and commitment. Deciding that you will take the time and effort to care more about yourself. How hard is it to whip up some brown rice (microwaveable), cooked spinach (5 minutes) and chicken (open a package or can, salt free of course)? Once you have the basic ingredients for good eating you have no excuse. Sure this means shopping perhaps twice a week to get fresh ingredients but it’s worth it. Anything worthwhile in life takes time.

Fourth, no more complaining that it costs more to eat better. Yes it does. News flash: we were not designed to live on frozen pizza, fruit snacks or chicken nuggets (neither were our children for that matter). I know it’s cheaper but you get what you pay for. Plus, last I checked diabetes, heart surgery and cancer are very expensive. So, pay now or pay later.

Fifth, stop giving yourself a free pass. I just came back from Ragbrai and witnessed an entire week of people giving themselves free passes to binge. Bad! You can be fit and fat. Trust me. There was just a recent article somewhere too about people that look skinny but have BMI’s over 30. Not that BMI is accurate but you see where that’s going – fitness/training does not cancel out bad food. Bad food is bad food. A long bike ride is not a free pass for lunch at McDonald’s. Fruity Pebbles is not a breakfast of champions. Treats are good – they give us reason to live sometimes (I know this first hand) but the treat itself cannot be the motivation. Look inside for what drives you. Don’t put that responsibility on food. Be honest that calories in must equal calories out – no matter how long you ride!

Sixth, live by this rule: if the first 3 ingredients contain something I cannot pronounce I will not put it into my mouth. Your body knows what to do with food – natural, real wholesome food. A tomato – yup, know where that goes. A cucumber – I’ll put that right over here. Salmon, eggs, nuts…all have a place. Processed foods, dairy, refined grains – confuse your body. It was not designed to process processed foods. Think about it. If your food item has more than 3 ingredients listed – is it really something your body needs? Or knows what to do with? Give your body what it knows.

Seventh, stop the sugar habit. A little piece of candy, a handful of chocolate, a pastry, a muffin – sugar sugar sugar. Ride the sugar wave and at some point you will crash. You get a headache and think to yourself – I need something, anything, quick to make this headache go away. More sugar! It’s a cycle that can take days to break but once broken the headaches and dips in energy will dissipate. Be sure one of the first three ingredients in your food is not sugar to avoid the sugar wave (and be careful because sugar is sneaky and hides as honey, evaporated cane juice, syrups, juice, brown sugar, molasses).

Eighth – and last, commit to it. It takes how many days to create a new habit? And how many days are in a year? Your commitment to good eating is a small price of time and effort in exchange for so many benefits. Give it a month and I promise you will feel better. Admit it – eating like crap makes you feel like crap! For many reasons – one being that what you eat is closely tangled with our self-esteem. How easy is it to gain more self-esteem? This easy: eat better, look better, feel better. You are worth it.

I’m sharing these ideas because I work with so many women that seem to be at war with food and, in turn, in conflict with themselves. Many women eat too much of the wrong things and too little of the right things. They eat too little in general and end up creating a cycle of starvation – overcompensation. Remember, as you skip meals, starve yourself or deprive yourself of food you actually cause your body to slow the metabolism and hold on longer to the little food it does get (code for: store as fat) because the body becomes scared that you will not feed it again. This causes you to actually gain weight as you eat less. You are better off eating better, more frequently than to create long periods where you go without food and “bank up” your calories to spend on something “big” (which becomes monumental and stored as fat because you’ve deprived yourself so long).

Nothing is simple in life and not every situation can be solved easily. There are predisposing conditions and body types that shape us to look certain ways. But in general feeling better - and looking better if that is what you are looking for - goes along with eating better. Stop the silliness with numbers and the scale. When you focus more on what you put into your body and less on what the numbers say, you become free of the prison you create with the numbers and food and instead enjoy eating and life again. When you eat right, you look right, you feel better about yourself. Sure you can slip up and should enjoy it when you do – but like athletic training, it’s patterns over time that matter. Not measuring yourself day to day...

14 comments:

Wes said...

So stopping off at Mickey Dees for two cheeseburgers and a 700 calorie box of fries after a 4.5 hour ride is a bad idea. Fine!! {hangs head}

Did I mention I'm in the best shape I've been in since I was twenty? Yet, for some reason, yea, I've put on three or four pounds in the last month.

I blame Boss...

Mark said...

One of the best things that happened when I moved to FL last June, was that the movers broke our digital scale that used to set the mood of the day. Only after a couple months of not having a scale did I realize how happy I was and how senseless a scale is!

I mean, for what purpose would any human being need to actually know their weight? Think about it....why?

STOP THE MADNESS!!!

:P

Kim said...

great post! :) although i decided to binge after IM with ummm everything in sight, including captain crunch and crab rangoons :) now it's back to the core diet (well, but cheating once a week!)

Andrea said...

The other night, my girlfriend said that she was going to start working with a personal trainer this fall to help her lose some weight. The funny thing is, currently, this girl trains 5 days a week for her next race. I wanted to tell her to lay off the beer and weekend cocktails if she wanted to lose weight - but I held my tounge.

I bought a scale only for my sweat tests. I never use it otherwise. My clothes tell me when I need to take off weight - or put it back on.

I'm also sick of my co-workers, friends and family telling me to eat that extra cupcake - and giving me crap for not partaking with them.

Good post!

TriGirl Kate O said...

elf,
I'm surprised you didn't mention sodas! Coffee is of course the elixir of life, but many people I know can't get going in the morning without that diet Coke, and then proceed to drink at least a liter a day of the stuff. Talk about a list of ingredients you can't pronounce. Even though it says "diet," it can't be good for you.

I'm with you on the how your clothes fit is the best measure of how you are doing weight wise. I have kept one business suit from 1989 (a size 6) as my "ideal." Years have gone by where I couldn't get the skirt up over my hips (I blame the childbearing). It fits now even though I weigh a good 15lbs more than I did then.
Thanks for a good perspective on being healthy!
ko

Erin said...

One of your best posts, Liz! This is so right on, and something I need to do better on (I'm a great one for the, "I just worked out for 5 hours so I deserve to have pasta, or a rice krispie treat, or three glasses of wine."

I don't own a scale, and won't -- ever -- because it's too easy to get into letting that number determine your entire day, your entire view of yourself. Not worth it, says I.

Sarah said...

Thanks for writing this today. I really needed to be reminded of a lot of it right at this very moment.

Jessi said...

Great post, Liz, and very timely for me!!

Stef said...

I have gained 25 pounds since leaving law school in 1994. Looking at pictures of myself back then is SCARY. I was way too thin for too many years.

Funny thing is I'm still thin at 140 pounds now but I'm so much stronger and have so much energy. I step on the scale occasionally to make sure I'm not losing. And for sweat tests.

Clothing fit and body fat percentage are good ways to measure how we are doing.

I don't give the number on the scale much credence at all except in the sweat testing context.

I cringe when I hear people say they need to lose weight when really what they need is to lose some fat and gain some muscle to rev up metabolism.

And the way you start to do that is by making healthy food choices. Plus exercise of course but without the nutrition the results WILL NOT be there.

Okay I'm done now. :-) Excellent post!!

Seeley said...

Great post Liz! As far as I'm concerned, scales are a torture device and serve no purpose except to drive women beserk. And the BMI theory has its' issues as well. Can't people just concentrate on eating more healthy food than processed, and getting a little bit of exercise everyday? For most people, that's all they need to feel and stay healthy.

Train-This said...

Now the best thing about coffee.... it has one clean ingredient list!

Muppetdog said...

Thanks for an inspirational post...helps to think about these things.

Kathy said...

Great post - I gave up the scales when I was training for Ironman, but for some reason went back to them afterwards. I am now off them again and it feels good to not have my mood dictated by that senseless number.

Thanks for all the tips, I know this stuff, but sometimes you need reminding!!!!! I am having major energy swings, so have to try that sugar thing!!

Lauren said...

Thanks for the great post, Liz!

The best advice I ever received from a nutritionist was to stop weighing myself and working towards "the golden number." I'm much less mental about body weight now and have learned to go by how my clothes fit. Now I can obsess about eating to fuel my body, rather than the stupid number on the scale!

Hope your season is going well!

Lauren H