The Numbers Game
First there were the scale numbers. That started in middle school, when once a year they would line us up in the hallways during P.E. and weigh us on one of those old-school mechanical scales where you have to knock the slider around a few times while squinting critically in order to get a reading, creating a sublime moment of suspense. I remember that at some point, in seventh or eighth grade, the number 100 became a frightening possibility. I didn’t want to be triple digits – the first ugly number.
Then there were calories. How much I need in a day. How much I need to eat to lose two pounds a week. How much I need to eat to not pass out by sixth period. Those numbers were diverse, and could be fun to play with once I found some healthy foods I enjoyed. I can eat SO MUCH FRESH FRUIT. Viva la celery sticks! But there were also the games of chance – devouring the entire pint of ice cream only to do the horrible multiplication of 340 calories x 4 servings = yahtzee motherfucker, that’s your whole day. All through high school I alternated periods of obsession and apathy.
Next were clothing sizes, which were directly influenced by both scale numbers and calories. The unit of measurement here was not kind. I wore the same size 8 pants when I was 135 lbs as I did when I was 142, and that just doesn’t reflect that amount of work (and obsession) that took place between the two. Sizes were one-digit numbers – heavy, absolute, unforgiving. They were hulking stone obelisks, and about that stubborn to move. But oh man, to drop a clothing size, now that was something. That was Samson bringing the columns down. I was ashamed at how much joy it brought me.
After college, the clothing sizes became double digits for good, not just on a binge-y month, but romance had made me complacent and I was distracted by other numbers. Months we had been dating. Weeks until our wedding. Dollars of our combined income versus our rent versus our car insurance versus a million other things. I smiled in pictures but I had to position my body strategically so my stomach didn’t pitch when I saw them.
Trying to conceive introduced a whole new set of numbers that I had never paid attention to before and a unit that became my new torture: days. Days since my last period. Days that I’m fertile. Days until I can pee on a stick. Days until I can technically pee on a stick and possibly get a positive even though it’s less than forty percent accurate and I should save my money like a rational person and wait a week. Those were the other new numbers, percentages. Percentages were often scary, but they always came with the dogged delusional hope that I would beat the odds. I would be special. And when another month culminated in period cramps and the dissipation of half a dozen imagined pregnancy symptoms, I buried those numbers in thousands of calories that laid me out like a narcotic.
My numbers were the highest when I got pregnant the first time, but something began to shift. For the first time in my life, the elusive possibility of losing X pounds and fitting into X size by X date was gone. My efforts were stonewalled for nine months. No matter what I did, I was going to swell. The numbers were going to go up, and it was good and healthy and right for them to do so. I should have felt horrified, but instead I felt free. Suddenly I could approach food from an angle other than the quest for subtraction. I could eat to nourish. This was a foreign concept. Everything tasted new.
It wasn’t to last, though. I couldn’t stay away. With my newfound energy and what I thought was a “cured” attitude, I began exercising during pregnancy—consistently-- for the first time in my life. The gym was a cathedral of numbers to play with, and I built shrines with minutes on the elliptical and calories burned on the stair master. These were different because you wanted to see them go up, not down. And because there was no upper limit. The bounds of my perfectionism were unleashed. I told myself that this was progress, that these new numbers would save me.
In the year following my daughter’s birth, my numbers plummeted and soared in all the right places. I worked out like a maniac, propelled by postpartum anxiety and drunk on my successes. Breastfeeding + exercise allowed me to lose weight at an unparalleled rate, and created an entirely unreasonable pace to maintain. I lost 30 pounds. I was squatting 150. I fit into a size 4. A SIZE 4. I was so goddamn validated by that number it’s unreal. I thought: this is it. You did it. You can lay down this burdensome mantle of vanity and turn your attention to things that actually matter in life. You can go be obsessed with recycling now.
On the outside it seemed like I did. I got stronger and fitter over the next few years and I talked about how fitness had changed my life. I didn’t talk about the panic attacks I would have when I overate on the weekends and saw the scale jump up two pounds, or how the rest of my day would be destroyed if I didn’t beat my last bench press PR. I didn’t talk about how the numbers had crept back into control, if they had ever really left at all. Instead of “dieting” it was “watching my macros.” Instead of praying for the scale to go down, I was praying for my reps or my miles to go up. And eventually, when a new job and the demands of parenting a toddler sliced my gym time in half, I feared what I once thought was inconceivable – that the numbers could turn on me again.
Another year of trying to conceive. Another pregnancy, and this time all my numbers were the lowest they had ever been. The most ideal conditions. Yet I’m now four months postpartum and still struggling to recognize this new body. I’m still trying to quiet the numbers. It may be a battle that I fight my entire life, a possibility that I don’t yet believe even as I type it. I still scan the horizon for some defining event, some epiphany, that will cause the scales to drop from my eyes. I still hold out hope that I can let this shit GO and embrace a vision of wellness outside of my toxic numeracy. I’d like to end this by telling you that I’ve found my solution, or even that I’m confident that I’m going in the right direction. But the truth is that I’m still searching, although perhaps a little less secretly than before.