Girls Who Hate Math But Love Numbers

A week or so ago, I did something…unadvisable. Not wise. An objectively poor choice.

I weighed myself in the middle of a grocery store.

Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The scale was on the perimeter of the supermarket, predictably tucked next to the pharmacy pick-up counter. I was with my boyfriend, waiting for his prescription to get filled, when we spotted it. Dan has a pathological compulsion to avail himself of any free service, and a “comprehensive” set of health metrics (weight, blood pressure, and body fat percentage) is no exemption. He giddily surrendered himself to the machine, and hummed calmly as the Bioelectrical Impedance analyzed[1] away.

I guess I felt jealous. I envied the way Dan could look at his weight and body composition on a whim, and see them as nothing more than a couple of mildly interesting statistics. So I thought to myself, “I’m more or less healthy now. I haven’t purged in months, and I’ve stopped obsessing about my body 24//7, so it’s fine to see how much I weigh.”

You know, it’ll just be a sequence of three numbers, with no meaning or implications whatsoever.

So I let the machine do its calculations, and was not shocked by the results (good news: my blood pressure has always been in the normal range, and still is!). My weight was also higher than it used to be, back when I was using my ED behaviors, but it wasn’t much higher than I expected. However, when graphed on a BMI chart, my weight places me firmly in the “overweight” range. Despite the knowledge that BMI is hopeless outdated and virtually useless as an indicator of fitness, this fact has always made me extremely self-conscious. And in this instance, the touchscreen before me flashed yellow, as in “warning, you’re almost an unhealthy, gross pariah,” a yield sign from the body police.

Yet I walked away from my “comprehensive digital health exam” emotionally unscathed, maybe even in a lighter mood than before.

The reason for this calm was the result of the other measurement, body fat percentage. According to the admittedly flawed, supermarket-quality technology, my body fat is well into the healthy range, even in a subcategory labelled “athlete.” Given that I have visible muscle outlines on multiple parts of my body, this should not be as reassuring (or panic-reducing) as it was. But I got a lot of vindication out of this one stupid number, and that is a problem.

A characteristic shared by almost all the ED patients I met in treatment was a preoccupation with numbers. Pounds on the scale, calories in and out, food measured by the gram. For me, the numbers associated with my athletic pursuits, in addition to calories burned, clouded my consciousness: fastest mile time, 800 meter splits, max push-ups completed in one minute. These were not just numbers of interest, as they must be for an athlete: the mental noise of these numbers reached an obsessive, unrelenting pitch, such that could not be quieted for more than a few moments at a time.

In fact, I never had the extreme anticipation and fear of the scale that many others do, partly because the ideal body in my mind’s eye was not a conventionally thin one. Free of fat, yes, but heavily muscled, and even a bit masculine. I could accept a higher scale number as long there were light striations in my quads and biceps. Before treatment, I weighed myself at the gym once or twice per month, but if I had had round-the-clock access to body composition measurement, I’m sure I would’ve used it several times per day.

In light of this obsession with numerical figures, it seems hilarious to me now (hilarious in an ironic, sad-making way) that I always had such an intense aversion to mathematics, and a distinct lack of confidence in the subject. Even when I was placed in algebra two years ahead of time, as a 7th grader, or when I scored in the 90th percentile on the math section of the SAT, I bemoaned my lack of talent. I could be caught saying, “I just don’t have a knack for numbers.” Perhaps what I really meant is that my brain did not have functional room for more numbers. If I had fewer calorie counts and mile splits running on a manic ticker tape through my head, who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have dropped out of calculus (twice…).

I wonder how many women with a penchant for manipulating numbers exclude themselves from math-related fields for this same reason. I have a hunch that the amount would not be statistically insignificant.

The bottom line is that no one should get such a high from a number assuring them that they are “not fat,” or not too fat, as though having ample body fat is a sin, a shame, or a personal failure. Now that my behaviors have been under control for a while, and overall I consider myself more enlightened on the subject of body positivity than I was before, putting faith in numbers that make me feel “safe” from fatness is something I need to work on. I am also identifying my own fat-phobic tendencies, and take notice when I judge myself, negatively or positively, based on my body composition rather than, you know…shit that actually matters.

[1] Bioletrical Impedance Analysis is the cheapest and most readily available technology for measuring body fat. It is also the most notoriously inaccurate, as factors such as hydration, most recent meal, and most recent workout can skew results as much as 10%.

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