Avoid Scales, Not Doctors

By Carolyn Getches

No matter how I feel before I step on a scale, I feel worse after I step off. This has been true at my lowest weight and my highest. When I was struggling with an eating disorder, so much of my life was structured around my next weigh-in. I’d restrict, exercise, purge, pee, and pray that the number on the scale would be less than it was the week before, the day before, the hour before. Like a shitty boyfriend, my scale dictated what I could eat, what I could wear, and how I felt about myself. It was relentless.

Six years ago, my scale and I went through a series of messy breakups. The first time I threw out my scale, I bought another one within a week. Several tries later, I made it a few months before I snuck into my parents’ bathroom to check my weight while I was visiting over the holidays. After an afternoon of tears, I vowed to stay away from scales for good, and I did. Except at the doctor’s office.

Early in recovery, I requested blind weigh-ins during my visits to hospitals and healthcare centers. I’d step on the scale backwards and will myself not analyze the sound of the nurse’s pen scratching against paper. Still, the simple act of getting on a scale left me with a murky, shameful feeling. On the days leading up to an appointment, I’d find myself dipping my toe back in disordered behaviors. I decided that my no-scales rule had to extend to doctors’ offices as well. At my next routine appointment, I mumbled to the nurse that I did not want to be weighed.

“I don’t have to tell you your weight, but I have to weigh you,” she said.

My pulse spiked. I was not used to setting boundaries or prioritizing my own needs. A big part of me still wanted to be the good little girl who did as she was told and got her sticker on the way out the door. “I have an eating disorder and getting weighed messes me up,” I said.

“Fine,” the nurse replied.

I followed her into a small room with plastic chairs. We were both silent as she took my blood pressure. I heard the familiar voice of that shitty boyfriend in my head. You’re just scared to get weighed because you know you’re too fat. Luckily, I knew better than that. I knew that I deserved treatment for my physical health, without having to sacrifice my mental health.

Each time I told a doctor or nurse that I’d rather not be weighed, I got a different reaction. Some were supportive, some said nothing, and some openly shared their judgements. In nearly all cases, they seemed confused by my request, revealing the limited training most healthcare professionals receive in regards to eating disorders. Often, I could feel them searching the shape of my body for answers. Why doesn’t this young woman want to be weighed? Does she think she’s too fat? Too thin? Has she gained weight or lost it? The initial high of becoming an advocate for myself was replaced by a tired vulnerability, and soon, I began avoiding doctors’ offices all together. I’ve had asthma since I was an infant, and I started rationing my inhalers, allowing myself one puff instead of the recommended two. I toughed out sinus infections and skipped flu shots to sidestep the dreaded weigh-in.

It turns out, I was not alone in this calculation. A University of Pennsylvania study showed that many women feel a high level of discomfort when stepping on a public scale in medical offices. Every time I’ve mentioned these findings to friends, the response has been the same. No shit. As women, we are taught that our value goes up as our weight goes down. No wonder so many of us don’t want to let an object decide our worth, down to the decimal point.

It’s unsurprising then, that the first time I saw blood in my stool my thought process went something like this—gross, that’s not good, doctors, scales, weight, forget it. I assured myself it was nothing when my body seemed back to normal a few days later. Unfortunately, my symptoms returned the following month, inspiring me to search the internet for answers. I read a WebMD article titled “Blood in Stool” so many times that I now have it committed to memory. I adjusted my diet and began taking probiotics. The blood would vanish for a while, but reappeared time and time again. It wasn’t until a friend sent me an article from the New York Times detailing the increased rates of colon cancer in young people, that I decided the aid of an in-person medical professional was required. Colon cancer runs in my family, and both my mother and uncle were diagnosed with other types of cancer before reaching middle-age.

It took three appointments, and three awkward I-don’t-want-to-be-weigheds, to determine a colonoscopy was in order. If my anxiety surrounding stepping on a scale was an eight, my anxiety around abstaining from solid food for 24 hours, drinking huge amounts of laxatives, and pooping all night, only to have a camera threaded up my butt, was an 11. Fortunately, the reality wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined it would be. The no solid foods mandate was a good excuse for a frozen limeade, and the prescribed drink had a faintly fruity flavor. The constant trips to the bathroom were the worst part. I was exhausted by the time I showed up to the hospital the next day. I exchanged my clothes for a medical gown and climbed into a sturdy cot that was surrounded by thin, blue curtains. I stayed quiet while a nurse hooked up my IV, making it easy for me to hear the other patients chatting away, clear veterans of the process.

“Looks like we don’t have your weight, sweetie. What is it?” the nurse asked.

“I had an eating disorder, so I don’t get on scales,” I blurted out, readying myself for a fight.

She smiled and asked if I wanted a warm blanket. My whole body relaxed as she unlocked my bed and wheeled me down the hall. I felt like I was on the world’s slowest Disney ride, where the only attractions were chipped linoleum tiles and smudged white cabinets. We passed through a set of double doors into an exam room. Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” poured through the speakers. My colon knew how Swift felt—it, too, had problems and bad blood. A second nurse sang along to the song and fiddled with my IV.

“Here comes the medicine. When you wake up, it’ll be all over.”

A few days later, I learned the bleeding was not the result of cancer, but rather a sign of irritation and straining in my colon. More fiber and water were the likely cures. I felt such relief. After more than a year of worrying, I finally had my answer. Next time, I won’t let myself wait so long.

Occasionally, I’ll see a scale at a friend’s house and feel tempted by the seductive fallacy that weighing myself will somehow lead to weighing less. Then, the memories of the drama and misery fill my head. Remembering how hard I worked to get out of that relationship allows me to walk away. Those are the same thoughts that inspire me to push through the discomfort and refuse to be weighed during every one of my visits to the doctor’s office. As eating disorder awareness in the healthcare community improves, I hope more doctors and nurses respond with literal and figurative warm blankets. In the meantime, we must continue to be our own advocates and allow ourselves to be bolstered by the knowledge that each of us deserves access to medical care, without being asked to risk our mental health.