For the Ottawa Citizen on March 14, 2017.
It’s hard to overstate the naïveté at the heart of Carleton University’s initial decision to remove the scale from its fitness room at the athletic centre.
The move, ostensibly “keeping with current fitness and social trends,” sought to promote a “more holistic” approach to fitness, body image and overall wellness by discouraging focus on weight. (In an email update Tuesday, however, Carleton said scales have now been put in the change rooms.)
Contrary to some reports over the heated debate sparked by the university’s decision, the scale’s initial removal wasn’t prompted by any specific request or complaint, but was an independent choice of the recreation and athletics department.
“We don’t believe being fixated on weight has any positive effect on your health and well-being,” Bruce Marshall, manager of health and wellness, told Carleton’s student-run paper, The Charlatan. “It takes weeks, even months to make a permanent change in your weight. So why obsess about it?”
Marshall, without a hint of irony, offered other numbers on which anxious gym-goers should fixate: “You can start by recording measurements in multiple areas, for example your torso, hips, chest, legs and arms. You would then revisit these measurements after a few weeks to keep tabs on your progress.”
He also suggested “the best indicator” in measuring success “is how well you feel in your body.”
Setting aside the comparative limits in tracking girth versus tracking weight – neither can provide any significant gauge of fitness, as neither separates the lean body mass from fat mass in those numbers – to advise success be measured in terms of self-perception speaks to lack of thought behind the attempted culture shift.
Recent years have seen a rise in this “body positive” approach, where emphasis is placed on learning to love your body and all its imperfections. This is not, at its heart, a bad thing. It offers permission to be flawed, and provides comfort in being human.
However, determining fitness-related progress by “how well you feel in your body” is a terrible strategy. Being remarkably lean and muscular, having a body others might envy, for instance, doesn’t magically translate to confidence, self-worth, or any real sense of accomplishment. Relying on “feeling” as a marker of success in the gym can be a route to self-destruction, and no less so than obsessing over numbers on a scale.
Tangible, reliable methods of tracking success in health and fitness are essential to sustained progress and maintained well-being, both inside the gym and out. While an imperfect tool, the scale serves as an easy, reliable motivator and monitor.
And while most associate the scale with the quest for weight loss, it’s essential for those whose goals in the gym include gradual, sustained weight gain.
It’s entirely normal to approach a scale with some hesitation. Having an unhealthy relationship with the numbers that appear, however, to a point where it interferes with daily life – where it consumes all one’s attention, drives irrational dietary habits, causes relentless anxiety – is a problem, and not one that is solved by the scale’s disappearance.
If there’s genuine concern over those struggling with body image or eating disorders in relation to the scale, then provide a list of resources, such as psychological and nutritional counselling, support networks and peer groups, one-on-one consultation on making goals and tracking progress, next to the scale, rather than removing it altogether.
There are far better ways to cultivate a more welcoming, well-rounded atmosphere for gym-goers than the athletics department initially chose.
And the increasingly hostile sniping between sides over the merits of the scale suggest the university has only served to create an even more unsympathetic environment for those already unsure of taking part.