“How often do you weigh yourself?”
While I’ve had this exact same conversation with clients hundreds of times over the years, a client (let’s call her Zuri) said these words to me again a few months ago. She was blushing, embarrassed to admit to something “so stupid and crazy.”
“Three times a day on a good day. Up to six or ten on a bad day. Sometimes more.”
The interesting thing is that Zuri is a personal trainer. She’s intimately aware of the science of fat loss, because she helps clients with it all the time. She knows you can’t “gain weight” by having a big snack or meal, and she knows fluctuations throughout the day only reflect changes in water weight or digestion/bathroom timing, not fat.
Three times a day at least, Zuri gets on a scale to find out “how she’s doing.” To find out “if she ate too much.” To determine what kind of mood she should be in, how she should feel about herself, and how much food she can eat the rest of the day.
If you’re thinking this is some crazy behavior, I encourage you not to push Zuri’s story away and “other-ize” it. Obsessive body checking may not be healthy, but it is sadly pretty damn normal. Way more people than you would ever realize are doing it, constantly aware of and obsessed by the micro changes in their weight, size, shape, appearance, or health. (Plus all of us have our own coping and numbing behaviors— maybe instead of weighing yourself you scroll instagram endlessly, or online shop, or binge. But in some ways, it’s all the same.)
Also, if you’re thinking “omg I’m Zuri,” I encourage you to hold this fact with curiosity and compassion as you continue to read. You are not crazy, or abnormal.
Anyway, the first step I take with a client in this situation is to acknowledge that she has come to believe the number on the scale has power. At a certain point in her development she learned that this number was important, that it held great significance, and that without it she would be thrust into a terrifying world of out-of-controlness and danger.
When I asked Zuri what would happen if she stopped weighing herself, she said “I don’t know. I feel like I would die.”
After years (or decades) of checking this number constantly, the discomfort of giving it up can be so great it feels practically unsurvivable. The thing about compulsive habits is that no matter why they start, at a certain point they turn to superstition, to a feeling that without doing them everything will crumble.
So we make space for how uncomfortable and vulnerable this is, for how dangerous it feels to be in charge of her life, her day, her body without knowing the number.
The next steps are always the same: give it up, and deal with the fall out.
Give it up and fight, day by day, to deal with whatever arises in the absence of the compulsive behavior. Give it up and sort through the vulnerability, the feelings, the thoughts, the stories.
What has weighing yourself been distracting you from? What has it been helping you not feel, or think about? Because really, your work will be to face that thing— not make it go away mind you, but face it head on and learn to tolerate it, integrate it, accept it, and deal with it, whatever it might be.
For some clients that means acknowledging extraordinary loneliness, or anger, or grief. For others it’s the deep sense that something in their life is wrong or broken, and needs to be changed or mended. Sometimes it brings up intense stuff around sex, gender, intimacy, attention, or safety.
When Zuri stopped weighing herself, she discovered that she felt terrified by the sheer volume of her own feelings. They were “too big,” she told me a few days after throwing away her scale. Too big to bear. Like she might die.
But something kind of magical happened in our sessions around then.
Up until this point, about 5 weeks of working together, she had only wanted to talk about her body, her weight, and her fucked up relationship to food and fat and exercise. Once she stopped weighing herself, we started talking about her feelings instead.
Now we talk about her anger at her husband, her slow simmering resentment and loneliness and his gradual withdrawal of intimacy over the years. We talk about her feelings of conflict about her work in the fitness industry, and whether she’s making the world better or worse. We talk about her losses— the children she had not been able to carry to term, a dear friend who ended the friendship without saying why, the loss of her parents. We talk about boundaries, and desires, and fatphobia activism, and self-care.
In short, once we stopped talking about Zuri’s weight, we started talking about her life.
Already through this work Zuri is learning to identify and tolerate her feelings more, and to notice what’s really going on with her (emotionally) during the “bad body image” moments when she’s dying to bust her scale out of the attic… so that she can deal with the truth directly, instead of dealing with a distraction.
What I know to be true is that with time and practice and courage, Zuri will learn that her feelings aren’t dangerous, and they’ll start to get quieter and more neutral. She may still want to be thin and in control, but the volume and intensity of those feelings will go down, and she’ll be able to view them with curiosity and distance instead of experiencing them like a hurricane.
We all turn to coping mechanisms when we’re outside our “window of tolerance” for feeling uncomfortable shit. It’s why we naturally want to get fucked up, or eat a tub of ice cream, when we go through a breakup.
If you have a small window of what feelings you can tolerate, you’re gonna need a fuckton of coping mechanisms, and odds are pretty good they won’t all be healthy. What happens for a lot of my clients is that coping mechanisms like weighing themselves, dieting, binging, or body monitoring have actually prevented them from increasing the size of their window of tolerance, so they can barely tolerate anything.
Only when they give up those habits do they have the opportunity to feel everything, and deal with it, and expand that window so that daily life doesn’t feel so scary and overwhelming.
So, maybe you don’t weigh yourself all the time like Zuri did. Maybe your coping behavior includes wine, or marijuana, or online shopping, or scrolling endlessly through social media, or gambling, or reckless sex, or constant busyness. Maybe it’s dieting, starving yourself, binging, exercise obsession, or an inability to stop stressing about how you look.
But make no mistake: if you’re relying on any coping behavior like this to help yourself feel safe, or in control, or good enough… you are avoiding something.
And until you identify and directly face whatever that thing is, you will always find yourself struggling with the feeling that something outside of you (such as the scale, or other people’s opinions of you) is controlling your life