Irrational Numbers

July 23, 2004

Administrative note: Thanks to everybody who joined the notify list. I have moved it to MT, and it appears to be working. If you want to get on it, just drop your email in the box over there under “Notify.” Now, it should not give you trouble. And . . . sheesh, where did all you people come from? Heh.

If you were trying to learn Spanish, you’d understand that your progress was best measured by looking at a variety of factors, right? Your vocabulary, your reading comprehension, your ability to speak and be understood? You wouldn’t stand there tracking the number of words you understood on the Spanish-language news broadcast that night and do all the math, and if you understood 46.7 percent tonight as compared to 47.2 percent last night, you wouldn’t conclude that all your efforts were in vain and the enterprise was best abandoned, right? And you wouldn’t conclude that you needed to spend $500 on Spanish immersion classes, right?

And yet.

I don’t know how it works in other places, but Weight Watchers measures weights in 0.2 pound increments. So they’ll tell you you’re up 1.2, or down 2.4, or down 0.4, or whatever. It used to be, of course, that nobody tried to get any trickier than a half pound. No more. Someday, I’m sure, scales will go to four decimal places, so that they’ll be able to tell you, “Congratulations, you lost 2.4337 pounds this week!” And I can equally guarantee you that someone will react to that development by saying, “But last week, I lost 2.4339 pounds! Why are my losses getting smaller? Why? WHY, WHY?”

And they won’t want to hear the answer, which will be, “Because the underwear you wore this week was more linty.”

Everyone’s been to the weigh-in where you know you had some extra cookies . . . and that one day, Chinese food . . . and you never got off the couch . . . and there was some beer that never got counted. And then you step up. “Congratulations, you’re down 1.6!” And you run away from the scale as quickly as possible, before it changes its mind. “Thankyouverymuch, Iwillbegoingnow.”

That kind of unwarranted result is to be embraced. It is not irrational; it is whimsical. Just another wacky chapter in the Wacky Adventures of Shrinky-Girl! Sooooo funny!

Not like the other kind of week. You ate all your vegetables. You drank bathtubs full of water. On your birthday, you politely declined cake and had a bowl of antioxidant-rich berries. You worked out six times, and once, while on the elliptical trainer, you believe you saw God.

“Congratulations, you gained a pound!”


It’s surprising to me that the leaders who weigh people in don’t wear full protective gear, like umpires.

Because yes, that will make you want to beat the living crap out of someone. You want your reward. You want your point. You want your pat on the head. Ah, those impish scale pixies, having their way with you again.

It is fear of the scale pixies that makes WW tell you not to weigh yourself more than once a week. They don’t want you to hurt yourself banging your forehead against the towel bar in your bathroom every morning. But honestly, I think that if you can learn to handle it, it’s not any worse to climb on the scale a lot than a little. Because if you do it a lot, you learn to look down at it and spit, “Yes, I’m sure I gained three pounds since lunch. Bite me.”

Because it’s true. It will go up for no reason, and it will go down for no reason. No — it will. First of all, most scales aren’t really awesome enough to reliably distinguish between 150.0 and 150.2. You’re lucky if they can reliably distinguish between 150.0 and 151.2. And you drink and eat and digest and go to the bathroom all day and all week, and you wear different clothes, and there’s nothing to be done about the fact that if you think all you’re doing when you step on a scale is measuring your level of Bad Nasty Fat, you’re going to find that it isn’t the case.

There are a million things going on in terms of your body chemistry and composition when you change those habits, and only one of them is going to show up in that one number. That number doesn’t tell you whether you got stronger, or your blood pressure went down, or your cholesterol improved, or you can walk farther without stopping than last week. It doesn’t tell you if your arms got smaller, or if upping your yoga allowance has made you more intrinsically bendy.

Yes, eventually, it will go down. Gravity works, physics works . . . in all likelihood, it will eventually go down. If you take, let’s say, a four-week moving average, that might tell you something. But one week? Pfft. Anticipating that drop of two pounds every single week is a good way to make yourself crazy, not to mention a good way to make yourself quit.

I just envision myself as a smoky Parisian jazz singer. “Zee scale, she goes up, she goes down . . . eet is very . . . how you say . . . mysteeerious. She is temperamental, unfaithful . . . she will make you cry weeeth sadness, make you shout weeeth joy . . . ah, zee scale.” And then I just mutter, you know, “Sacre bleu,” and have lunch.

27 Responses to “Irrational Numbers”

  1. Lora Says:

    my sentiments exactly. couldn’t have said it better and i had a true laugh out loud moment with

    ‘Everyone’s been to the weigh-in where you know you had some extra cookies . . . and that one day, Chinese food . . . and you never got off the couch . . . and there was some beer that never got counted. And then you step up. “Congratulations, you’re down 1.6!” And you run away from the scale as quickly as possible, before it changes its mind. “Thankyouverymuch, Iwillbegoingnow.”‘

    i sweat it out every week wondering if i will gain or lose. so far, i’ve been lucky and the scale’s only gone down but all we can do is keep site of the BIG picture

  2. Kimmy Says:

    I’m a little scared of the scale, so I only approach it once per week. I’m also doing body measurments, though, once per month. I want to know what’s happening with everything. That way if the scale stays the same, but the measurments go down, I still know I’m doing all right.

    Great post. Just great.

  3. Kaffy Says:


    I have been going through scale fluctuations when I know, absolutely know, I’ve been doing all the right things. Eating vegetables, drinking water, working out and seeing God on the elliptical. I finally got my mind to a place where the scale is a minor gauge of my progress. How I feel when I work out, after I work out, the fact that I walk faster on the treadmill, my resting heart rate is lower, my clothes fit looser. These are other, just as important, gauges.

    Freedom from the scale!!

  4. Melissa Says:

    Even funnier than the bizarro fluctuations in actual pounds is the fluctuation in body fat percentage on those scales that purport to measure both. I weigh myself every morning when I get up (naked of course, I don’t want lint throwing off the numbers!). I am always amused that this combo weight/body fat percentage scale tells me that on Thursday at the same weight I am today I was 1.5% fatter and that last Monday at two pounds heavier I was 2% less fat. I lost 40 pounds and it reported a mere 3% drop in body fat. I may not be a professor of mathematics, but those numbers just don’t add up. Irrational numbers indeed!

  5. Tracy Says:

    You hit it on the head! I weigh everyday. Naked. Afer I pee. Sometimes, if I don’t like what it says, I shave my legs and try again. And the scale, sometimes she is a bitch!

    I hated the fact that the scale could dictate my mood for the day. If the scale was unkind, I’d find myself crabbing at the kids. Uh oh, stay away from Mom today, she gained 1/2 a pound. Yeah, great way to teach your kids to love their bodies and boost self-esteem. Right.

    I don’t like the new digitals for that reason you mentioned about the gradations. I used to weigh myself on an “old school” scale without my contacts in and just kind of blurrily estimate if the needle was “in the range”. I was happier then. Now, I’ve learned to just try to do the right things 90% of the time and be happy with a 5 pound range.

    And I agree that those fat counter things are a piece of shite. I once gained 5% in 1/2 an hour!

  6. Elsie Says:

    Like Melissa I have one of those digital scales that tell both weight (to the 0.2 of a pound) and body fat percentage. Last month it said I gained 0.4 lb and lost 0.5% body fat… by using the restroom.

    So apparently I should either chuck out the scale or never use the restroom again. I’m undecided as of now.

  7. mystie Says:

    Oh you didn’t know that’s how it went? I know it. That’s why I choose NOT to know most of the time, and just keep on TRUCKING 😀 Mystie.

  8. Anne A. Says:

    Well, thank you for the smoky French lounge singer! You said it, girl. My scale is a bitch, too. I thought it was a good digital one, but I can step on it 3 times in an hour and have it weigh me different each time. Yeah, I think it’s f*ing with me…;-)

  9. Kathy Says:

    Well…a BIG thank you!
    I am a Weight Watcher receptionist and I wish more people had your wisdom.
    Sometimes I need that suit of armor, LOL.

    Can’t count how many times I asked a disappointed member, “Did you ever do everything ‘wrong’ all week and still have a loss?” They usually say, “Of course!” I then look at them and tell them, “Payback!”

    It’s all in the long run…ignore the blips.

  10. ladymisstree Says:

    Ahh, zee scale. She is a cruel and harsh mistress, non?

    I’m measuring centimeters as well as kilos, but even that gives me no relief. One month, when I’d barely lost any weight and I’d only lost 2cm total, suddenly my smallest pair of jeans fit, with some room to spare. WTF?

    Me, I keep plodding along and aiming at my final goal, a pair of Aus size 14 (US 10) Levi 501s fitting comfortably.

  11. Annie Says:

    Irrational is definitely the word for how I use the scale – one it every day – can you say: compulsive. In fact – just today I was going to go out and by a WW scale because my expensive Tanita keeps changing on me.
    Your words of wisdom have helped me put all those nasty fluctuations in perspective.
    So.. for now I’m feeling rational about it.
    Not sure how long it will last before those evil scale pixies get me all confused again.

  12. mamacin Says:

    What wisdom!!

    I see people get so bent out of shape because they gain 0.4 — for Chrissake…that’s 6.4 ounces!! So you gained 6.4 ounces? So what?? It’s not the end of the world.

    I see people who gain 3 pounds in a day…no way! That means that they’ve eaten 10,500 extra calories in one day…even I can’t eat 10,500 extra calories in a day!

  13. Threemommy Says:

    I was just turned on to your site by a WW message board buddy. So I read all your entries today. I’ve had a recent bout with the scale pixies, from which I’ve emerged, bruised but victorious, the culprit of course, being water. Arrgh!!

    But what I liked most was your first article. What I’m fighting right now, of all things is my sister, a triumphant pain in the ass who had the gall to continue losing and exercising while I was pregnant with my third kid. (Now I love her, and I think her WW journey is incredible, but, mind you I was the one that turned her onto it, and now she’s the Queen and I’m struggling.) And everything she says is right. And I’ve always made fun of people who wear those ridiculous workout clothes and go for “power walks” and now I’m one of them, making time in my busy schedule for me or some such garbage, when the time I want to make for me is reading abook all day long and consuming piles of cookies and hot chocolate. But I cannot do that, say fuck you to the world anymore, well, I guess I could but I’d be wrong, so now I’m stuck having stupid middle age women at Curves measure me, and being all “yeah” over their praise. Oh ick, ick, ick, I so do not want to be this person on some level….hence the cookies. Thanks for the illumination.

  14. Rebecca Says:

    My scale only likes certain numbers. Like, one week it will say 137.8 and the next it will be 138.2. Then the next it will be back to 137.8. All numbers between 137.8 and 138.2 don’t exist in my scale’s universe.

    Having lost 35 lbs on WW I noticed one major trend. I was a size 10/12 for the entire first 25 lbs lost. The weight was going away but you’d never know. The last 5-10 lbs was where my measurements and size really changed – in the past few weeks in which I have only lost a total of 2 lbs I have dropped to a size 4/6. So the scale? Yes, she is a bitch. The sale rack at Macys? Much more revealing.

  15. Shawna Says:

    A bunch of us weighed ourselves on a friend’s new digital scale and I wasn’t the heaviest… until the heaviest said “Wait a sec.”, went to pee and then came back to weigh in… at just under my weight. Wah! Beat out by the 1/2 pound of liquid she got rid of! Zee scale, oh zee cruel, fickle scale…

  16. Janine Says:

    And then there’s always those days where you have to shun the scales AND shun the tape measure, cause neither of them reflect all the days you stayed on track or how much you exercised. Those days are the hardest; you have to keep going in spite of yourself. If you’re cursed with bad genetic presets, then you just have to keep plugging away knowing that at least if nothing else, you’ll live a longer healthier life, even if you’re not actively losing weight.

  17. Kim Says:

    Have you noticed the size of the emotional reactions themselves are not proportional either? You lose 1/2 a pound and your like “Eh – should have lost two…oh well” but you GAIN 1/2 a pound an its all “Oh, my god. I might as well binge right now, because they next step is back to the ‘before’ photo”

  18. Julia Says:

    “Scale pixies”….love it! That’s the kind of phrase that makes me slap myself on the forehead and think “I wish I’d come up with that”. 😉 You’re a great writer.

  19. sara Says:

    I weigh myself every morning after I pee, with no clothes on. And just for giggles, sometimes I weigh myself after I work out or right before I go to bed. I’m obsessed with the scale but, at the same time, I know that it fluctuates. As long as my clothes still fit (or, even better, my clothes are getting bigger), I know that I must be doing something right. To hell with you, scale pixies.

  20. Julie Says:

    Scale fluctuations are exactly why I prefer to keep a healthy weight range in mind as opposed to one number. Makes the changes a little easier to take.

  21. Amanda Page Says:

    I weigh myself every day, morning and night. This is to remind myself that my weight wanders all over the shop without any assistance from me, on a regular basis. Period week? Here’s that extra 6 pounds. Week after that? 6 pounds gone away. Yesterday I weighed 193 pounds, today I weigh 189.5. I’m watching the waistband of my jeans get looser and looser, that’s my touchstone.

  22. Phil Yates Says:

    Keeping track of things makes a difference in what is being measured (if you want to make a difference).

    If you’d like to keep track of your weight (or anything else), I’ve got a new FREE service for you. Check out, which provides a new (patent-pending) self-monitoring tool called an “iMail.” I’m testing the iMail now, and for those people who sign up early, it will remain free for as long as we provide the service.

    Try it and let me know what you think.

  23. seahag Says:

    Oh, the scale monster!!! Too many people measure their progress by just that ONE number! Like you say, that’s only ONE measurement of success.

    I check my measurements each week. I’ve noticed that the weeks I lose (at my official WW weigh-in), usually no change in inches. The weeks I hold, inches are falling off like mad!

    I also check my resting heart rate every day. It’s dropped from 78-80 to 59-62. And the clothing sizes!!! Down they go!

    The scale is such a fickle, arbitrary thing. There are too many variables influencing it. When it’s REALLY hot and humid out, my clothes are tight, and I’m up a couple of pounds. Same with low atmospheric pressure and storms. Illness–even if I eat correctly for my activity level, I gain 2-6 pounds!!!

    I increase reps or weights in my strength training routine, and up goes the weight, or, at best, I have a month-long hold. Same if I increase my running mileage!

    On the WW boards, I keep harping at people who complain about eating correctly and exercising a lot, and are on a plateau–there are more ways to measure progress than the scale. Hang in there and the weight WILL follow! I’m so glad I’m not the lone voice crying in the wilderness about the one-sidedness of the scale.

  24. Nicole Says:

    Because of those silly scales I also take measurements. And when I do weigh myself (every Friday morning right after I wake up and go to the bathroom), I try to take the numbers with a grain of salt. If I go up I have to consider that I may have gained muscle or eaten salt or any of those other options…

  25. Zeb Says:

    How about this.
    Down only 6 lbs in 7 months and down 29.9″…still in the same size.No the clothes are not looser,infact over my thighs they are tighter.
    The scale is a meanie,but its the only thing that makes me keep trying because I can SEE something happening;good or bad.

    Thanks for another well written piece.

  26. Sara Says:

    Having suffered from eating disorders my entire life, and now weighing more than I could ever have imagined weighing and struggling to lose it, it’s so wonderful to hear others verbalize what I feel. You might enjoy a charming poem I wrote about the whole dieting thing. Check it out at

  27. laura Says:

    If the scale doesn’t budge but the clothes get loose, you are loosing fat and gaining muscle. Which is good because muscle burns calories and takes up much less space!!

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