Weighing the American Dream

It took me a long time to decide what to implode over. But finally, I have decided to write about something that feels quite difficult, an artifact that looms over my life from the far right corner of my room.

This object I speak of is a scale.

The earliest scales were developed for practical purposes, in order to determine the value of certain goods. The accuracy of the scale improved in 1770, when a man named Richard Salter invented the spring scale. Scales, however, didn’t come into more frequent use until after 1840, when the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in the United Kingdom called for an even more precise scale for the weighing of packages. A man named R.W. Winfield would become the inventor of this more precise device. It was not until the 1940s however, that scales came into more widespread usage when their accuracy was perfected. More and more, the scale was appropriated into the household for the sake of measuring body weight.

Over the recent decades, the scale has become even more high tech. The mechanical scale has been replaced by the digital, which enables us to determine our body weight up to a single ounce. But the digital scale now measures far more than precise body weight. People now have the opportunity to discover their body fat percentage, their BMI, lean mass, muscle mass, and water ratio. The numbers on the little digital screens then take on a much greater significance. Some people use the information to determine their lifestyle choices, including very specific food choices, water consumption habits, workout regiments. The list goes on.

As scales have gotten increasingly more precise, we have gained the possibilities to monitor our bodies more closely. It is perhaps not coincidental then, that body ideals for both men and women have evolved to such high standards that call for the miscellaneous body information that scales now provide thus enabling closer body control.

While early scales were developed to value goods, it is now almost as if our society, which puts so much emphasis on physical appearance, has programmed us to view the numbers on the body weight scale as the determinants of our value as human beings. As a teenager, I allowed myself to be consumed by this unhealthy ideology.

My scale is a simple white plastic square, with a little digital screen located in its top center area. It’s a small device, yet, I am ashamed to admit that on many occasions I have permitted the 1’ x 1’ object to take control over my confidence and my general perception of self, as I believe many people do. I have allowed numbers to affect the way I see myself, the way I feel about interacting with the outside world, my relationship with food, my clothing choices, and much more. My relationship with the scale, perhaps more than with any other object, has evolved as I have grown from being a child, into a teenager, into a young woman. As a child, gaining weight is indicative of good health. It means we are growing, getting stronger and taller. Once our growth evens out and we reach the teenage years, suddenly any weight increase becomes anxiety provoking. Some of us even compromise our bodies’ health by pushing our bodies to their extremes in order to get some arbitrary number to appear on the tiny screen.

Still, I realize that many of our relationships with the scale come from positions of privilege. I recognize that my ability to be so nervous about weight gain comes from the fact that I have lived a very lucky life in which I never had to deal with food shortage. Both my ownership of the scale, which is a luxury not a basic necessity, and my expectation regarding the numbers it displays, are closely related to my socioeconomic status.

Though my perception of weight is now much healthier and has shifted radically since my teenage years, for a long time I clung to an unhealthy mentality and unhealthy habits – habits and ideals I picked up from the culture in which I grew up, not from my family. Whenever I return to visit my grandma’s scale-less home back in the rural Czech Republic, I experience both an anxiety over an inability to track my weight and a feeling of relief and release from the constant monetarization of my body.

Both my parents grew up in very humble conditions under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Access to food wasn’t always a certainty, and their relationship with the body weight scale reflects that. They had never owned a scale until they immigrated to the United States still before the Velvet Revolution.

For 30 years now, my parents have owned the same scale. It is a hefty mechanical black scale, that creaks when you step on it and the red needle spins up to your number. Though the scale is outdated, my parents always viewed their ability to own it as a luxury rather than a practicality.

It was only this past summer, that my mother decided to upgrade. She found us an elegant new scale with a glass platform and multiple digital screens indicating the miscellaneous numbers that are meant to tell us something about our bodies. Still, I know that my mother’s rationale behind the fancy scale is simply motivated by her desire to suit the aesthetic of her modern new bathroom. She displays it proudly in the middle of the shiny white tiled floor. She has no interest or desire in programing the little digital screens with her age and height to insure the accuracy of the digital readings.

My mother’s relationship to the scale highlights a whole other significance of the body weighing device. The scale has evolved far beyond its practical purposes with which it was initially conceived. The presence of the aesthetically pleasing scale in the bathroom has become a way to show assimilation into an expected lifestyle, even if it is one that one may have no particular interest in authentically embodying. For my parents, owning a high tech scale shows them that they have successfully achieved their American Dream.



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