by Amy Herskowitz, MSc
I work in a large government health department doing policy and program consulting geared specifically to the mental health and addiction service sector. I share the floor with others who work in supportive housing, organ donation, cancer care, acute and chronic disease programming, AIDS and Hepatitis C health promotion and treatment, and blood/transfusion services. We’re quite a mixed group of programs, expertise and interests, and we rarely get to work together on collaborative projects, so many of us don’t know one another well.
International No Diet Day (May 6th) presented me with a perfect opportunity to try something new with my coworkers. I drafted and sent an email the preceding Friday about INDD and Health At Every Size® and I brought in my hot pink, fluffy Yay! Scale™ to house temporarily in our designated Wellness Room over the following week.
Our Wellness Room was the first project that our branch’s almost two-year-old Health and Wellness Committee worked hard to execute. I use my membership on this committee as a means to infiltrate our wellness initiatives with HAES® practices and principles. The room has comfy couches and recliner chairs that were donated, books and magazines for a lending library, soothing photos of nature on the wall and even a lava lamp for ambience.
In my email, I explained that the Yay! Scale™ was a symbolic teaching tool developed by the brilliant and beautiful Marilyn Wann. The Yay! Scale has no numbers but instead, registers positive messages about the person who steps on it. Far too many people step on the scale and determine their self-worth by whatever number they see. The Yay! Scale seeks to change that. I concluded the email to my colleagues by encouraging them to make peace with their bodies, to enjoy their food and the ways in which their bodies move and respond, and to realize that they are not numbers and that we all deserve to feel respected, accepted, validated and celebrated at whatever weights we are, and however we look right now.
To be sure that my workmates got the message, I then took the Yay! Scale around the office and personally introduced myself to everyone and invited them individually to step on the scale. I re-calibrated the scale every so often just to keep the results different, or whenever someone registered with an adjective that didn’t completely resonate with them. For example, many women didn’t like weighing in as “cute,” so I’d re-calibrate it and say “we need a do-over!”
What happened afterwards can only be described as an intriguing sociological event.
The men in my office are among the minority and represent about 30% of the people who work in this branch. They are mostly white men who range in age from early 30s to mid-60s and all of them stepped on the scale without question or hesitation. They just accepted the idea and agreed to my request.
The women were altogether different. The women in my office range in age from late 20s to mid-60s and represent a good cultural and ethnic mix that is common in the diverse city of Toronto. We also have a fairly broad range of female body sizes in this office, which is part of the reason I was so interested in conducting this fun, unscientific experiment.
The first woman I approached was a 50-something administrative assistant whose first language is not English. She is a newlywed; she always walks home from work and she practices Tai Chi on a regular basis. I showed her the Yay! Scale and asked her to step on it to see what would happen. She weighed in as “Ravishing” and asked me what that meant.
I said, “It basically means that someone wants to rip your clothes off because you’re so sexy!” (Okay, so a walking dictionary, I am not. I may have been confusing it for “ravaging”…).
She blushed something terrible and then giggled, saying, “Oh – that is good! But what weight is that?”
I said, “Whatever weight you are is ‘Ravishing.’”
She looked confused for a split second and then happily said, “I will tell my husband this!”
I went on to the next cubicle, where a 40-something petite colleague of mine who is a serious runner in her spare time, sat at her computer working on a document. She looked up at me from her monitor and shot me a menacing look of “What in the blue hell are you up to?!” and then reluctantly agreed to step on the scale.
She registered as “Beautiful.” She grinned and then her demeanor suddenly changed to skepticism and she eyed me suspiciously and said, “But what’s the number associated with that description?”
I said, “I have no idea…a beautiful one?”
She rolled her eyes and demanded, “Seriously, what’s the weight underneath?”
I said, “Seriously – I don’t know. The whole point is not to associate your body weight with a number! I have no idea how the adjectives would be associated to an actual weight.”
She looked sheepish and then relaxed her stance and said in a more gentle tone, “Oh. I was a bit worried that you knew what the corresponding numbers were under each descriptor and that you were secretly documenting our weights.”
I was completely taken aback by the idea and told her she had nothing to fear in my wellness efforts to get people thinking and feeling differently.
I continued on my quest.
Many of the younger women in my office were eager to step on the scale and see what adjective would be revealed for them, and each would blush and giggle or smile broadly, thanking me for making their day. I said, “It’s not me making your day; it’s actually you thinking differently about yourself. Wouldn’t it be great to feel this way about your body all the time? Wouldn’t it have such a beneficial effect on your daily outlook and self-esteem?” Everyone agreed it would be so, and there was a noticeable buzz after I’d leave each workspace.
One of the younger men in the office looked at me dubiously when I approached him in his cubicle while he was chatting with a female colleague. He shrugged his shoulders at both of us and agreed to participate. When I checked to see what the scale revealed, I told him, “Well, it seems that you are smack dab between “Hot” and “Sexy” so I don’t know what to tell you.”
He grinned at us while his friend laughed and said, “Oh honey, I could’ve told you that!”
My manager is a 61-year-old guy who tries his hardest to retain his easygoing nature, but smokes to relieve the stress of the job and hates technology with a passion. He still owns 8-track cassettes and actively resists the workplace convention of outfitting every senior manager with a Blackberry®. He stepped on the Yay! Scale and discovered he was “Perfect.” He walked around the office for the rest of the day chirping to himself and others with a smile, “I’m perfect!”
One of the female supportive housing analysts overheard him quipping delightfully about his perfection and she complained, “Hey, my reading said I was perfect. I can’t weigh the same as him!”
I said, “You’re both perfect in your own way. Trust me, you’re a unique kind of perfect than him.”
There were more than a few laughs as I went around the office with the Yay! Scale. One woman overheard me disclose to her neighbouring male colleague that he weighed in as “Hot” and she teased him by joking over the cubicle partition, “Well now I know that scale is off!” That particular man was in his late 50s and seemed confused by the descriptor; he wasn’t familiar with “Hot” as a synonym for “very attractive;” he thought I was telling him he was feverish. He seemed quite pleased with his verdict when I explained the colloquial definition to him.
One of the last people I weighed on the Yay! Scale was my Director: a 60-something, nearly-retired woman who is a new grandmother and who always makes disparaging comments about her weight and aging appearance whenever she sees photos of herself. I presented her with the scale and she shot me a look of malice so vile, that if looks could kill, I’d have died on the spot.
“I’m not getting on that,” she spat.
I showed it to her more closely – the hot pink furry scale with no numbers that looked nothing like any ordinary weigh scale.
Her executive assistant reassured her by saying, “Don’t worry – it has no numbers. It tells you how great you are!”
She glared at me one more time (probably not my best career move yet) and stepped begrudgingly onto the scale. The resulting display was between “Sexy” and “Beautiful” so I told her, “today, you’re just slightly over-sexy and beautiful.” She couldn’t help herself; she laughed while her face flushed and shook her head as the fear that gripped her just moments before seemed to melt away.
I can’t say that I was surprised by the expressions of dread, anger, doubt and anxiety with which my coworkers received my little experiment, particularly if they hadn’t read the email that foretold my intentions. I was, however, amazed at how fixated most of the women were on the underlying number that wasn’t exposed and how deeply ingrained a traumatic practice weighing often is for most of us.
The Yay! Scale is the only scale I have ever purchased for my home and is the only type of scale that I will ever use for myself. I re-calibrate it often so that each time I use it, I can experience a range of charming adjectives that I may not normally use to define myself.
Amy Herskowitz, MSc, is a senior policy and programming consultant for the mental health and addictions sector in the Ontario provincial government who has almost 15 years experience working with the eating disorder support, treatment, research and advocacy communities in Toronto. Amy serves as ASDAH’s Vice President and chairs the blog committee, as well as serving on the internal policy and membership committees.