Janu Yasotharan was 13 when she learned her body wasn’t “right.” After a particularly upsetting shopping trip with her aunt during which only the largest clothing sizes fit, she came home and was told to step on the bathroom scale. “That’s when my downward spiral started,” she says. “I felt so guilty, so self-conscious. Like I was a bad kid.”
Growing up in Montreal and Toronto, Yasotharan was an avid athlete, playing soccer and running track and field competitively. Over the course of a few years, her body went through changes and she “filled out,” she says—but puberty was a turning point. Her changing body became a growing concern for her family, who weighed her, served her food in pre-planned portions and continually measured her. “My mom wasn’t a seamstress; that’s not why we had a collection of measuring tapes,” she says with a laugh. Instead of eating rice or potatoes with her family’s Tamil meals—the carbs that would have provided energy for her games and meets—she was served mountains of vegetables.
But no matter what she did or didn’t do, ate or didn’t eat, her weight stayed the same. It didn’t matter that she was a healthy, active young woman. What mattered, she says, was that the number on the scale didn’t reflect what her family wanted from her and ultimately what society expected of her: to be slim and petite and to play into Eurocentric ideals of beauty.
By 14, she was given a scale to keep in her bedroom. Scales were all over her family’s home—in the bathroom, the kitchen, the hallway, the family room. They were presented, not hidden, with the intent to inspire her family to be healthier, smaller, better. For Yasotharan, these machines were like monsters lurking around every corner.
The bathroom scale is a common and unremarkable piece of home decor, like a bed frame or an armchair. And it continues to grow in popularity, aided by a ballooning weight-loss industry—the bathroom scale market is projected to be worth $3.7 billion by 2027.
Tracking body weight can be traced as far back as the 1500s, but it was initially driven by curiosity: During the Scientific Revolution, Italian physician Santorio Santorio studied his weight fluctuations to better understand bodily functions. Scales didn’t appear in North American health care settings until the 1870s, though they were not a part of standard health measurements. Weight was still largely considered subjective, rather than an indicator of health, all the way up to the 1940s, when it was suddenly understood to be profitable. In 1943, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company collected data from five million policies in the United States and Canada to build a “desirable” height and weight chart based on mortality rates. From the 1950s on, North American doctors were using this chart, revised slightly in 1983, to set goals for their patients.
The body mass index (BMI), a measurement based solely on height and weight, further connected the idea of health and body shape and size. In his now-famous 1972 paper published in the Journal of Chronic Diseases , American physiologist Ancel Keys and his colleagues re-popularized BMI as a way to measure body fat—despite acknowledging that the measurement was not initially intended to be used this way.
Belgian astronomer, mathematician, statistician and sociologist Adolphe Quetelet developed the BMI—then known as the Quetelet index—in the mid-1800s to quantify the average man’s weight. Quetelet’s goal was to prove that the mathematical mean of a population was its ideal. Not just normal: ideal. In simple terms, the BMI wasn’t intended to measure individuals but populations, and it is most accurate when determining weight cut-offs for white populations. The measurement doesn’t take into account age, sex, bone structure or fat distribution. It doesn’t consider nuances like internal health, genetics or socio-political determinants of health. It is a simple math formula: your weight divided by height, squared. Yet BMI, an inaccurate scale with many flaws, has become a standard indicator for overall health in many a doctor’s office.
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Since body weight and health became conflated, not much has changed in the Canadian health care system. In August 2020, the Canadian Medical Association Journal released guidelines on how to approach the treatment of obese patients, moving from a weight-loss method to a focus on societal and systemic determinants of health—and how to do more to validate patients’ lived experiences and move past simplistic “eat less, move more” approaches. Still, this assumes that higher-weight folks need to be treated, and treated differently, than their thin counterparts—even with evidence showing that, for certain conditions, higher BMI values are associated with lower risk of death.
“The Canadian system is still very stigmatizing around weight, from the size of the chairs in physician clinics to the campaigns used to advertise for health policies and programs,” says Catherine Sabiston, director of the Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre at the University of Toronto. “It continues to value thinner, muscular bodies and demonstrate exclusionary practices that perpetuate weight stigma,” she says, adding that it creates a socially acceptable form of bias against fat people.
Plenty of research shows that this stigma, not the weight itself, causes psychological and physical health problems. Similar findings have been observed in studies linking racial discrimination with health issues such as heart disease and respiratory illnesses. Additionally, it’s been shown that years of chronic dieting actually leads to weight gain for many people. “This speaks to the narrative that isn’t observed by the Canadian health care system,” Sabiston says. “Imagine that: It is the stress and anxiety about weight that sets off a cascade of health effects.”
Yasotharan can relate. She fondly remembers being a kid whose weight and body didn’t preoccupy her day-to-day thoughts. She enjoyed movement, marvelling at the ways she could kick a soccer ball with her friends. She worries that she will never again be so carefree.
With her team, Sabiston is currently working on a pilot study that followed 51 Canadian women over the course of a week. These women were prompted to share how they felt after weighing themselves daily. Unsurprisingly, they reported higher guilt and shame, and a sense of failure and loss of control, after weighing themselves. “These are the very types of feelings that we want to avoid rather than foster,” Sabiston says. The bottom line? “Weight is measurable, so people like it, but we need to move away from measuring body weight at all. Overall health is so much more than that,” she says. “Flourishing, resilience, recovery, well-being and life satisfaction are much more powerful indicators of health than any number.”
Turning away from pressures of weight loss can be extremely challenging, especially for those struggling with stress, anxiety, poor body image and even body dysmorphic disorder, says Jamie Feusner, clinical scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Someone who obsessively weighs themselves can be temporarily egged on if they see their weight go down, but also destroyed by the number going up or staying the same—it’s an addictive habit. “The behaviour itself is time consuming … and can lead someone to think about their appearance too much, causing emotional ups and downs based on a number,” Feusner says. Weight fluctuates naturally from day to day, and even within the same day, so frequent weighing, encouraged by at-home scales, just isn’t healthy.
Dismantling the connection between body size and health is central to fat activism, which has a long history in this country. Just ask Jenny Ellison, the sport and leisure curator at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. In her book, Being Fat: Women, Weight, and Feminist Activism in Canada , Ellison studied Canada’s earliest strands of fat activism (which she notes were white, majority heteronormative and able-bodied) and how it grew from a shared sense of unbelonging—in gyms, in clothing stores, in doctor’s offices and in society at large.
“This feeling was such a common experience that it became the basis for organizing,” Ellison says. “It grew out of the experience of going to the doctor and being told to lose weight, even if they were there for another issue.”
Many of the 52 women Ellison spoke to for her book lamented getting weighed in school and the sense of shame that came with their peers witnessing it. “Even if the messaging wasn’t explicitly about being a particular weight, there was still this objectification and this sense of monitoring the body that became the norm,” she says. Ellison notes that a search of the Canadian Museum of History’s online collection catalogue only turned up one bathroom scale, despite being such a common household staple today (though in-person collections are more robust, so there may be some artifacts there). Maybe scales are taken for granted, she muses—their impact on our collective history not yet fully understood.
Yasotharan received a new scale for her Toronto apartment, which she shares with her husband and younger sister. The device from Walmart sat unopened in her hallway for some time. Her mom gave it to her when they moved in, as something of a housewarming gift. That scale was a reminder of an old home, a bygone set of beliefs that Yasotharan fought against since the first time she was weighed. But unlike the scales of her childhood, Yasotharan didn’t put this one out on display. It sat there underneath jackets and a shoe rack. She knew weighing herself harmed her self-worth and esteem, but she was used to having scales around. She debated whether she should keep it. “It’s like, why would I throw it out? What if I need it? But my immediate response to that now is, what would I need it for?” She laughs before answering her own question: “To weigh my luggage, maybe.”
Eventually, Yasotharan did get rid of the scale. Even though the device was unused, she opted not to donate it. “I put it in the bin,” she says. “I didn’t want to start something for someone else.”
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