Don’t get me wrong – I think numbers can be great. They’re often necessary and can be quite informative.
I’ve had countless positive experiences with numbers in the past and they’ve helped shape my curiosity. I’ve often gotten strange looks from my friends when I ask questions like, “Do you ever wish there was a tracker somewhere that knew the exact number of times you’ve walked through this very door?” I still think that’d be kind of cool.
When I first went on a diet several years ago, I had no idea how detrimental numbers would become in my life. Looking back on my experience with anorexia, it’s scary to even think about how much of my life I’ve spent measuring, calculating and waiting for a number to appear on a hunk of plastic. It’s even scarier to think about how much these digits affected my self-image.
Throughout college, I’ve been able to observe how much my peers and I define ourselves by numbers – and not just in terms of body image. From physical measurements like body mass index or height, to academic scores like grade point average or class rank, to financial measurements like student loan debt or bank account balances, we’re constantly attributing numbers to ourselves. Don’t even get me started on how much some people care about how many like they have on their Facebook profile pictures or how many followers they have on Twitter – is the follower to following ratio really a thing?
I try often to remind myself and remind others to not define themselves by digits. I even wear a ring that says “you are not a number” as a reminder that I much prefer to define myself as silly, curious and creative than by something like a pant size or BMI. But it’s a battle I’m still fighting – recovery from every aspect of an eating disorder takes significant time and effort.
When it comes to body image and relationships with food, a quick look at what society shows us and it’s easy to see where this obsession with numbers stems from. For years, our grocery stores have been filled with snacks or yogurts advertised as having 100 calories per serving, putting an emphasis purely on the energy that we would consume rather than on the nutrients we could gain.
When we’re not presented with calorie counts, we’re told that our health or self-worth is tied to the number that appears when we step on a scale, like when Jenny Craig reminds us that we could “lose 20 pounds for $20” as part of our New Year’s resolution. As Regina George from Mean Girls eats her Kalteen bar, she tells the other Plastics at the table, “I really want to lose three pounds.” What she craves is the affirmation from her peers that she doesn’t need to lose any weight, as she uses this number to shape her self-confidence.
Perhaps the most problematic of all these numbers is the Body Mass Index, which accounts for one’s height and weight in an effort to measure one’s health. From a scientific perspective, the Body Mass Index has many flaws, including the fact that it doesn’t account for other factors of human health, like bone density or muscularity.
The index is also problematic from a societal perspective, however. By assigning categories such as “normal weight” or “overweight” based on a calculation, the index gives the impression that there is a standard that one’s body should conform to, that we should forget diversity in natural body shapes or metabolic rates. At some point, one’s height is pretty set in stone; in an effort to conform to the standards of the index, some begin to manipulate their weight, and that can often lead to a destructive obsession.
So yeah, I think numbers can be pretty problematic. The irony of my hatred for numbers, though, is my love for how powerful they can be in demonstrating the detrimental effects of using digits as our definitions. Take these statistics on self-esteem and body image:
– About 91% of women on college campuses have attempted to control their weight by dieting
– Of girls surveyed in the fifth through twelfth grade, 47% reported wanting to lose weight based on what they saw in magazines
– Among girls in the first, second and third grade, 42% want to lose weight
– Based on a survey of students in the seventh through twelfth grade, 30% of girls and 25% of boys said they’ve been teased about their weight
– Each year, the American weight-loss industry brings in about $55.4 billion in revenue
– At any point, it is estimated that 40-50% of American women are attempting to lose weight
I hope you find some of these numbers as powerful as I do. College students – look around and think about how 9 of the 10 women around you have likely tried to control their weight. Looking at these eye-opening statistics, it scares me to think about how many of these people will progress to pathological dieting or disordered eating.
But if you are one of the people who ever defines yourself by your weight or some other number, I hope these statistics bring you some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. If you ever catch yourself associating numbers like weight or BMI to your confidence or identity, know that other people are struggling with that same mentality. Together, though, we can remind ourselves and remind others that we are so much more than digits.
Perhaps some of you will even join me in becoming that (slightly annoying) friend who’s known for reminding everyone, “You are not a number.”
To see what others have to say about numbers, visit: http://notanumber.weebly.com/gallery.html