Sunday 23 October 2016

Katie Byrne: cheating the scales

Weight gain and denial go hand in hand

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

Apparently I've gained a stone. This is according to the bathroom weighing scales, which we all know can't be trusted. I'm going to buy a new one. In fact, I'm going to demand a recount or call the Ombudsman for these matters. It's a conspiracy. I'm sure of it.

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Fourteen pounds! That's the same as 14 packets of Kerrygold butter! No, no, no… there seems to have been a mistake… there's nobody here by the name of Fatso.

Denial is a fascinating coping mechanism. When my bra started to feel tight, I blamed the tumble dryer rather than the chocolate Oreo malts. When my top button wouldn't close, I attributed it to bloating rather than the daily feeds of peanut butter and honey toast.

They say you can't deny data. Well that's nonsense. Of course you can. As all women know, the number that the weighing scales dial points at must first be finessed before it is accepted as fact.

Garment weight must be deducted (five pounds for a flimsy nightdress seems fair) just as water retention has to be considered (five, six or seven pounds depending on how fancy you're feeling).

Weigh-ins should be done first thing in the morning - after emptying the bladder - and it is obligatory to round down to the nearest stone if there's only a couple of pounds in it.

I read somewhere that people weigh less on a hard surface… and limestone could be described as a soft and porous rock. I read somewhere else that you weigh more at certain times of the month… and let's not forget that time is an illusion…

There were possible health issues to consider too. I Googled 'sudden weight gain' and discovered that I could have a problem with the glands that secrete hormones or an ovarian cyst.

It could also be something perfectly explainable, like a phantom pregnancy…

Weight gain and denial go hand in hand. It seems we can't accept that we've gained weight, even when the scales give us the cold, hard truth.

Countless studies bear this out. One found that 90pc of obese people underestimate their weight. Parents of obese children are often in denial too. Experts call it 'Goldilocks Syndrome' because many parents, when asked if they considered their overweight child to be overweight, underweight, or the correct weight, answered that their offspring was "just right".

We don't just contrive the figure on the scales. We somehow invent the vision in the mirror too - assuming we even stand in front of it.

Weight gain makes us very canny. Often we start avoiding the full-length mirror just as we start buying clothes with elasticated waists and wearing leggings. Some women stop buying clothes altogether and invest in increasingly sparkly shoes and accessories instead.

There are all sorts of cognitive biases at play here but it fundamentally comes down to one thing - control. Nobody wants to admit that they are losing it. If I concede that I put on 14 pounds from eating giant duty-free Toblerone bars, then I also have to accept a sense of powerlessness.

So, for now, it's water retention.

It doesn't help that it happens incrementally. It reminds me of Milo of Croton - the Greek wrestler who, according to legend, carried a calf on his shoulders every day from its birth until it became a full-sized ox.

We look at obese people and wonder how anyone could allow themselves to get that big. Yet we forget that weight gain is progressive, cumulative and insidious.

How many times have you heard an overweight person say that the weight 'crept on'? Likewise, how many times have you heard an overweight person say that they didn't realise the extent of their weight gain until they saw a photograph of themselves in an ill-fitting bridesmaid's bustier dress? (Brides have no respect for their fat friends.)

Nobody chooses to become overweight. It's generally the symptom of a setback or a lifestyle change - a bout of depression, a move to a new country; the first year in college or the last year in a relationship.

This too is part of the denial process - we compartmentalise the weight gain and store it in a part of the brain called 'stuff I can't deal with right now'.

A friend of mine holds me responsible for her weight gain many years ago. She says I should have told her when it started. I used to laugh and call her a drama queen whenever she brought this up. Now I see her point.

If denial and weight gain go hand in hand, then we have a responsibility to our nearest and dearest when they go eastwards on the scales. Accountability partners? I'm in. Mandatory weigh-ins in schools to curb obesity? Fantastic idea.

Granted, it's a sensitive subject, but there's much more at stake here than feelings.

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