Today I stepped on the scale for the first time in months. Honestly, I’ve been afraid to look. The scale teetered between numbers and I held in my breath and froze in place, as if one wrong movement could somehow determine the amount. As if I had some sort of control.
But why is this number so important? It doesn’t change how my husband looks at me when I enter a room. It doesn’t change me as a person, a mother, a friend.
I’m reminded of when I was fifteen years old and that number became important. I had just joined the track team. I made a friend on the team; I’ll call her Arielle. Arielle was special. She was pretty, long blonde hair that she never tied up and eyes that changed from blue to green. She was a champion hurdler and accomplished sprinter. She was also one of the few chosen for a position on the coveted relay team.
Together we trained as sprinters. She even had an Ipod, back when they were new. I couldn’t afford that so I settled for the muffled noises coming from her headphones. She chewed peppermint gum while she ran and talked about her current boyfriend without even sounding winded while I struggled to keep up. She’d already had two serious boyfriends whereas I hadn’t even kissed a boy.
She started inviting me to her house where we listened to music, talked and did the running drills our coach had given us. I was so excited she wanted to be friends with me. I remember the first day I went over she asked me to come to her bathroom with her after we’d finished our hill workouts. There in the corner, next to a calming houseplant and under a harsh fluorescent light, was a small bathroom scale.
She stepped on it, confidentially. “Oh, I gained a pound. 99,” she said with some disappointment. She then looked at me expectantly. There was an awkward moment of silence, her eyes on me, and her pale hand with blue fingernail polish on her thin hip. “Don’t be silly,” she said, sensing my hesitation, and motioning towards the scale.
I stepped on it carefully. Get it over with, I thought. I was 115 pounds. I remember the number because I remember the smug but subtle smile on her face. The look that meant she was competing with me, not only in the 100 meter but in some other way I was only beginning to comprehend.
I pushed myself harder and harder, running more and more. I begged my mother for spikes for my birthday to help my speed. I spent my free time running up hills in the cemetery by my house. I also began a diet, which was easy to go unnoticed since we never had much food at the house anyways.
My running performance suffered as I lost weight. I wasn’t making enough energy to burn. My coach spoke to me about eating more protein. My doctor became concerned after I’d lost eighteen pounds.
But still, the scale was an enemy. I now weighed less than Arielle did despite being two inches taller. When she saw the amount I weighed in digital numbers on the scale, her eyes flashed green for just a second and then she waved her hand in dismissal. “It looks like you’ve probably lost muscle and gained fat. Muscle weighs more than fat, you know.”
The season ended. Arielle and I spent less time together and I found myself feeling less pressured. We didn’t even own a scale at my house. Over that summer I not only gained my weight back but I finally grew breasts and my body was transforming from a child’s to a woman’s. Better late than never.
As I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin I began to come out of my shell. I began hanging out with more people and even got my first boyfriend. My grades improved and my teacher recommended me for honors courses. I even joined an intensive college preparatory program where I made a whole new group of friends.
Arielle would call me after practice and beg me to come to her house, even threatening suicide when she’d heard I’d made plans with someone else. Every time she did this I would dutifully ride my bike to her house to comfort her and apologize for neglecting her but I refused to step on the scale.
“Step on it!” she shouted one day when I refused. I crossed my arms, stubbornly. She screamed it again, her beautiful eyes welling with tears. “Fine!” I said, stepping on it with a defeated eye roll.
I looked at the number and shrugged. “It’s a stupid number. It doesn’t matter.”
“You know why you’re boyfriend broke up with you?” she asked, her voice shrill. My first boyfriend had recently broken up with me and it was still a fresh wound. I stepped off the scale, arms still crossed. “I’m actually surprised he even liked you. He usually only dates hot girls. You’re not even hot.”
“That’s mean,” I said, weakly, holding back tears. Sixteen year old me wondered if she was right. I started out of the bathroom towards the front door.
“Wait, I’m sorry… I just meant…” She paused. “You’re pretty. Just not hot. I mean I’m not hot either.”
It was the closest I would get to an apology.
I wish I could say that in that moment I turned around and told her off. I wish I had the strength to walk out on that friendship in that moment. I wish I had felt the value in myself.
But I didn’t have that strength then. We remained friends but I quit the track team. No longer did we run side by side but I kept her at an arm’s length. I began running alone. Our friendship fizzled out after I went away to college and later pursued a graduate degree in the city. When I returned home one day I saw her working as a cashier at a sporting goods store. She waved excitedly and gave me a hug. As she rang out my running shoes she told me she still lived at home with her parents but was thinking about moving in with her new boyfriend.
“Oh, him? I remember him.”
“Yeah. I liked him all through high school but he was always so in love with you. He loves me now, I guess.” She said with a shrug.
“Well he must if you’re getting a place!” I said, encouragingly.
“Yeah. Hey maybe we should get lunch together, the three of us.”
“Yeah, maybe next time I’m in town. I already have plans.”
“Okay. Facebook me.” She smiled and bagged my items. Ten years later and Arielle was still, bubbly and pretty. She also still weighed less than me.
But somehow that doesn’t matter as much anymore.
I thought about Arielle when the scale teetered today and then I stepped off before it settled. Because that number doesn’t matter. It never will again.