My mother’s bathroom scale was like a Magic 8 ball, carefully positioned in the corner of the room adjacent to the sink, slyly waiting until she presented it the opportunity to evaluate her and offer its judgment. I learned to weigh myself by watching her — to approach the scale first thing in the morning, stomach empty, to strip and to wait, to sigh with relief or with self-loathing, to do it over and over again, every day, matching my mood and my hopes and my value to the singular digital number it revealed after a moment’s pause.

I learned to pinch the sides of my torso, first when there was nothing to grab, then when there was. To shake my head with frustration when a familiar pair of pants wouldn’t button. To remind myself that unless I tried harder, unless I exhausted myself day after day after day striving for something completely unattainable, I would never be worthy. Of a man’s love, of the world’s love, and of course, of self-love.

I took it a step further, checking in before and after meals. Twice a day. Four times a day. Watching with fascination as it endlessly calculated my worth. Like my mother, I learned that a weekend’s desserts or a heavy brunch could derail me, could set me back an entire pound or more. It was an uphill battle with no end in sight, because when would it end? Why would it end? There was no ideal weight, and even when I reached some ambiguous goal, each and every time, I naturally set my sights on another one, and another one, and would have gladly whittled away into nothingness if the scales allowed and I was strong enough to give up food entirely, which of course I never was.

The summer before I left for college was a beautiful one, with perfect weather most days. I spent all of my free time in my room, working out, or in the kitchen, carefully measuring out 13 honey braided pretzel sticks and a clementine and a V8 fusion I took for lunch. 315 calories. With every sip of V8 fusion, I felt the liquid’s bite run down my throat, the acid like a slap, a reminder that I was too weak to stop eating altogether. My fellow graduates spent their summers at the beach, or at pools, or at the movie theater, carelessly passing food back and forth without paying it any attention. I thought about food almost every waking minute.

Even now, I have to fight the urge to inspect the loose skin of my stomach, my dimpled thighs, scoping out my reflection as I work to determine whether today will be good or bad, regardless of the gorgeous blue skies and the birds’ summer songs surrounding me. As if my body’s shape or size at this exact moment will tell me something I can’t otherwise know. Even now, I have to remind myself that the scale doesn’t see me. It doesn’t tell me anything about myself. It has no right to decide whether I love or hate myself.

We can pretend that this is an individual problem, a matter of chance, but it’s not. It’s something we hear over and over and over — we are worth what we see reflected back in that tiny little box on that tiny little machine. How can we teach little girls that their worth as individuals can be condensed into a single number and then hold them accountable when the scale becomes their best friend, their resolute opponent, their god?

I’m writing this because I’m still trying to dig myself out of a hole that’s decades deep, each inch and foot and mile another moment when I felt my worth slipping out of my hands and into a machine tucked in the corner of my mother’s bathroom, patiently awaiting the opportunity to pass judgment and assign worth in a position of power it had no right to occupy.

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