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  • Writer's pictureHollie

The Numbers Game

Over the weekend, I finally watched the Barbie movie (some light spoilers, sorry!) and I was shocked how accurately it articulates some of the complicated and challenging aspects of being a woman in modern-day society. America Fererra’s powerful monologue starts “It is literally impossible to be a woman. You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to -say- you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.” It hit me hard. After complaining to my friend just hours before that I was annoyed and disappointed at having to buy a larger pant size than I normally wear, I felt called out by the harsh reality of her words. 

Why does even slight weight gain or forward tick on the scale have to feel so humiliating and morally WRONG? Surely feeling threatened by a double digit number on the polyester tag sewn into my waistband isn’t normal, or reasonable….right?! (Especially when you consider that sizes are often variable, even within the same brand) Why do we attach so much of our self-worth and value as human beings to something so arbitrary? Like Barbie, we impose on ourselves the impossible expectation of perfection. Whether it’s counting calories or the amount of carbohydrates we consume for lunch, the weigh-in or the tape measure, the numbers game doesn’t stop there. Unfortunately, we size up our bodies the same way we size up our minds.

Consider IQ (intelligence quotient) assessments which are often used for educational placements and evaluating job applicants. Is there a general correlation between this number and intelligence? Well, kind of… measures how well a person performs on a narrow set of academic questions compared to other people, but it’s quite limited. It can’t measure emotional intelligence, or capacity for empathy and compassion. It can’t tell how adept someone is at social interactions, how well they communicate, or whether they can read a room. It doesn’t consider their tendency to make good life choices, or whether they can remember where they put something 5 seconds ago. It doesn’t measure creativity, or sense of humour and wit.  All of this is to say, IQ tests are actually a pretty poor indicator of human intelligence!

I’m not the only one who thinks so either. Neuroscientist Dr. Howard Gardner first came up with the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983 which defies the well-believed notion that intelligence can be measured with a short-answer, standardised test. Instead, he believed that there could be multiple kinds of intelligence, and that everyone had their own distinctive combination. (Sidenote: Theory of multiple intelligences can have big implications for individual learning styles - especially if you happen to be of the neurospicy variety. It might explain the ‘smart but doesn’t apply themselves’ comments from teachers at school, or needing a ‘hands-on’ approach to learning). Intelligence is far from one-size fits all. 

So how can all of this help me feel better about my pant size predicament? Well, I think that things like weighing yourself on a scale or checking BMI work similar to an IQ score. These measurements can be an indicator of health, but they don’t see the whole picture. It’s only measuring one, very specific data point. Plus, when you think about things like muscle mass being heavier than fat, and the fact that women’s bodies, in particular, fluctuate each month in line with hormonal cycles, or when you consider that individuals can carry weight differently on their body depending on their genetics and body composition (65kg can look totally different on two people, even if they are the same height), it makes the numbers seem superficial. Maybe we can think of the scale, and calories, and BMI, or whatever, a bit like IQ. 

Then, perhaps we can bind this knowledge and belief to our values. If you value overall health, and having the energy to play with your kids, or having a body that will allow you to do the things you enjoy, then the number on the scale becomes a lot less relevant. We’re looking for a qualitative self-evaluation, rather than a quantitative one. So instead, perhaps monitoring things like……Am I getting enough sleep? Do I feel satisfied after meals? Are the things I eat nurturing my body and giving me energy to get through my day? Can I make it up a flight of stairs? Do I have brain fog? Do I want to have sex? Am I excited to wake up in the morning? Do I feel alive?

Maybe those are the kinds of questions that we can draw our attention to instead of only looking at the numbers with self-criticism or despair. I’m all for setting goals and having the tools to make adjustments and improvements as we go, but I think it could be good to reflect on how much energy we spend trying to play sudoku with our sense of self. How might it feel if we started focusing on the quality of our experiences over the quantity of our measurements?


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