What’s your number?

My number is 112 — and has been for much of my life. That’s the weight that, at 14, I decided was the most I could weigh and still be acceptable (to myself, to society, to guys — and who knows who else). I didn’t sweat over it, obsess about calories, or spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about my weight, but that number was there in the back of my mind and, like many, many women, it has nagged at my throughout my life.

Most women have a number in their head that we set up as a limit for our weight — if we weigh less, that’s great, if we weigh more, we’re unhappy, sometimes self-abusing until we either get back to our number or adjust our thinking (which is so ingrained and bone-deep that it’s easier to stop a freight train). There is no logic behind how we choose our numbers, most of us form them early enough in life that we don’t base them on body type, muscle mass, fitness levels, or medical or family history. We simply pick a number that we feel is acceptable and often spend years trying to achieve and maintain that number.

Society tells us a lot of things as women, but most of all it tells us how the ideal woman should look. Don’t be too fat, too skinny, too lean, too muscular, too curvy or too slim — and be unique. So, we diet, we exercise, we try crazy fads — all in the name of hitting that sweet spot in between it all. And how do we measure ourselves to find out if we meet these standards? How else but a number — the “sweet spot” is whatever weight we decide we should be regardless of its feasibility.

The most ridiculous thing about all of this is that our numbers have nothing to do with health and, sometimes, they don’t even match the picture we have in our heads of what we want to look like.

Take my own experience for example. As a preteen and teen, I was mildly overweight, carrying an extra 5–10 pounds. I played sports, but wasn’t especially active, and being a short girl, I carried my weight a lot more noticeably than the taller girls. That’s when I invented my number: 112. It was about 6 pounds less than I weighed at the time, achievable if I worked at it, and certainly the key to blossoming into a pretty, confident person who got noticed a lot more than the quiet bookworm I was at the time.

So, I did what many girls and women do — I decided to limit my calories by eating small meals or skipping them altogether. Of course, being a teenager, I still ate junk food and had a few drinks on the weekends. I never saw any real change and I never blossomed into the perfect person I saw in my head.

In university, I was mostly too busy to focus on my weight, but the unhealthy eating habits I started in high school followed me, skipping a few meals, followed up with not-so-healthy late night snacks. I didn’t make time for sports anymore, and my weight shot up a bit. Nothing dire, but I was unhappy enough to make a change again.

I cut out the junk food almost completely in the months after graduating university and, because I spent a few months backpacking in Europe and walking every day, I lost quite a bit of weight. Upon returning, I took an office job for a year to earn money for grad school and was determined to keep the weight off (I was below my number!), so I kept away from junk food and, because that alone wasn’t working completely, I started to exercise a few times a week.

While you might argue these were healthy choices, you have to remember that I wasn’t motivated by my health — I rarely gave it a thought — I was focused on that magic number. I weighed myself almost daily to monitor my progress, and my happiness and confidence flowed accordingly.

When grad school started, I was busier than ever — work, classes, internships — and I fell into the habit of skipping meals when I was stressed (which was pretty frequent), I kept exercising a few times a week and voila, I hit my lowest weight ever: 103 pounds.

But, funnily enough, I didn’t look as great as I thought I would. I was thin, sure, and below my number, but I wasn’t as strong, toned, or fit as I thought I would be. So, I began to reexamine things a bit and I came to what was arguably one of the most important realizations of my life: you can’t achieve a contradiction, which is exactly what society’s image of the ideal woman is.

I started to question what I wanted my body to be for me — and, with the benefit of life experiences such as family illness and the deaths and accidents of friends, I decided I wanted to have a strong, healthy, fit body that would allow me to continue to do all of the things I love 15 years down the road. I decided to relax my stance on junk food just a bit — and to start working out with a focus on building fitness, strength, and flexibility for the sake of my body’s health and abilities.

Now I do balanced workouts 5 times a week, but I’m flexible about and I take breaks when I need to. I rarely skip meals, and I try to ensure I focus on eating great-tasting food that will help my body stay healthy and strong. I also eat chocolate, cookies, and deep fried food on occasion. I’ve become stronger, fitter, and more flexible than I ever have been. I’m proud of having strong, toned arms that can lift my nephews over my head and strong legs with a nicely toned butt. I feel better about myself than I ever have and I like what I see in the mirror a lot more often than ever.

And I don’t even own a scale. I know approximately how much I weigh, and I know it’s probably on par with what I weighed at my heaviest in university. But I don’t feel bad about it — partly because this body does not look the way that one did, the extra weight is mostly toned muscle and partly because I have a way better relationship with my body now. I like my body, I take care of it because I recognize that it’s not the enemy, but a partner in a happy life.

Looking back at my 14-year-old self, I realize that at 29, I have become a version of the person I wanted to be back then, both physically and personally. I’m still a bookworm (and proud if it). But I’m also a confident, smart, intelligent woman who is comfortable in her own skin, embraces her foibles and even feels pretty a lot of the time. While I’ve lived a whole lot of life since then, I must say that the biggest change in my self-perception came when I let go of my number, consciously locked it away in my mind, and stopped measuring myself against my own impossible standards as well as society’s.

So — what’s your number? I know you have one. And if there’s any advice I can give you, it’s to close your eyes, take that number and mentally tear it into a million tiny pieces. Become the person you picture in your head — and don’t do it by the numbers.

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