I couldn’t figure out why I was gaining weight. I mean, I had recently been on a trip to New York for a reading. There, I had not eaten particularly well — cereal bars and yogurt with fruit on the bottom for breakfast, whatever I could buy at a cafe or museum for lunch. More desserts than I usually eat. Once, I’d had pizza. Once, a cheese plate. So yes, I might have gained a few pounds on the trip, but it should have been easy to lose them . . . after all, I was home now, eating healthy food, exercising regularly. And yet the number on the scale kept going up.
I should explain that once upon a time, before my life got so busy, I used to take ballet classes several times a week. I had taken them as a child, and then started again as an adult. A ballet class is the hardest, most intense workout I know. In order to survive them, I had to make sure that I was very healthy — sleeping enough, eating well, and at the right weight for my body, the weight at which I felt strong and fit. I had to stretch every day, do Pilates and yoga regularly, so I wouldn’t be injured by the bar exercises, the floor routines — especially the jumping. So I got into the habit of monitoring not just numbers like weight, but whether I was eating enough vegetables, going for a walk every day . . . Even now, when I’m so busy, I try to make sure that I’m taking care of myself, staying as fit as possible. I don’t have to make it through ballet classes anymore, but my ordinary life is just as stressful.
So anyway, there I was with a dilemma. The scale was telling me that I was gaining weight. And yet I was eating normally, exercising normally. Why wasn’t the number on the scale matching how I felt? I figured I must be eating more than I thought, or perhaps it was stress — I didn’t have much time to think about it, because it was the end of the semester and I had papers to grade. So I just tried to eat especially well — no cookies! And still the number on the scale kept creeping up.
I felt like such an idiot when I walked into the hardware store to buy a new scale. I mean, it wasn’t the scale’s fault, right? Clearly I was doing something wrong . . . After all, I’d had that scale for probably ten years, during which it had functioned reliably. I bought the exact same model, took the new scale home and stepped on it, expecting to see the exact same number . . . and found that I was the same weight as I had been before the trip to New York, even a few pounds lighter because I’d been so diligently not-eating cookies.
In other words, the old scale was broken. Which leads me to the life lesson here: Sometimes it’s not you. Sometimes it’s the scale.
Sometimes the problem isn’t what you’re measuring, but the way you’re measuring it.
Are you happy enough? Are you rich enough? Are you successful enough? We have scales for all of those things, and sometimes our scales need to be recalibrated, or we need new scales altogether. I’m the sort of person who finds large meanings in small things (which is probably why I was a literature major). So this realization led me to all sorts of philosophical questions: What did I really want out of my life? How would I know when I had achieved it? How was I going to measure my own happiness and success? What did I need, financially, to get where I needed to go? It was a small experience that led to some larger resolutions.
I could connect it to even larger issues: I recently heard a very smart presentation by the Prime Minister of New Zealand in which she talked about using measurements other than GDF to evaluate the effectiveness of economic policies. GDP didn’t, she said, accurately represent the well-being of the population. If wealth was concentrated at the top, GDP could look fine, but there could be poverty and deprivation below. The method of measurement could actually mask information.
I hesitated to start by talking about my scale, because I knew someone would inevitably tell me not to use a scale at all, that I should focus instead on being healthy. But I am healthy . . . And I think we have to be honest about the fact that here in the United States, we live in a society that makes it almost impossible not to take in more calories than our bodies actually need. I know this because I spend part of the year in continental Europe. There, I have a scale, but I don’t really need one — and I eat whatever I want. As soon as I get back to the United States, or (with apologies to British friends) set foot in England, I have to watch what I eat again. Why? Because the food is literally different. It’s grown and packaged differently. European foods have fewer additives, and no high fructose corn syrup. Also, the servings are smaller. Americans visiting Europe can be surprised by how small the pastries and cups of coffee are. How there are no muffins (those 400-calorie American extravaganzas pretending to be health foods) in the cafes. There are circumstances in which we need to measure and monitor things — we just need to make sure our instruments are accurate.
This is a topic I think about a lot because I’m a teacher: I both give grades and deal with the effects of imperfect measurements — by which I mean the SATs and AP exams. My students have been taught to write to their standards, so part of my job is teaching them to write as though they’re not taking an AP exam — thoughtfully, with care and conviction. Many of them assume, based on past writing classes and exams, that they are bad writers. But none of them are bad writers — they are just writers who could improve, as we all can. Hopefully my scale is a little more accurate, and conveys better information, than the ones they’re used to. I don’t think not grading them at all would be helpful, just as I’m not going to throw away my scale altogether. I just need to make sure that my grades are fair, and that students understand how and on what basis they’re being given.
I’ll end this long, rambling post with the takeaway. Here’s what I want you to remember:
Maybe it’s not you. Maybe your scale is broken.
(The image is Justice by Pierre Subleyras.)