The Body Image Mistake You May Be Making, Long After You Stop Relying on the Scale

I’ve been holding myself back in my self-acceptance journey, long after I stopped relying on the scale. Can you guess what my mistake was?

Here’s a hint: if you lift weights, you may be doing this, too.

“Don’t focus on the number on the scale going down; focus on the number on the barbell going up.”

More and more people in the fitness community are acknowledging that the scale does not measure our health, and many people have fraught relationships with the scale. Due to the limitations of weight in determining health, and the fraught relationships many of us have with the scale, some people advocate ignoring our bodyweight completely. As a backlash to focusing on leanness,  I see a lot of body positive fitness culture focusing on strength. Focusing on what you can DO instead of how your body LOOKS. Heavier numbers on the barbell are glorified and seen as “badass,” similar to the way lean bodies are glorified elsewhere. Heavier lifts are met with approval and admiration. This is not inherently bad. In fact, I love almost every part of it.


Some of us need to be aware and be careful not to substitute one false barometer of worthiness (physical strength) for another (leanness). We can inadvertently end up fixating on another set of numbers as a barometer of worthiness: the amount of weight we can deadlift/squat/clean/snatch/press/jerk. I know I’m not alone in this.

Here’s the thing: both bodyweight and barbell weight can be somewhat within our control in the short term, giving us the illusion of control and power. For example, even people who vehemently believe that diets don’t work will say that almost anyone can lose weight in the short term (even though almost everyone regains that weight in the long term). Similarly, barring certain disabilities, injuries, and medical contraindications, most people can get stronger in the short term with a good program and consistency. And some people can undoubtedly get stronger in the longer term. If I had to guess, I would guess that long term success with strength improvements is much more common than long term success with intentional weight change (though I am not aware of specific statistics on this).

At some point though, an injury or a health issue or other priorities in our lives may demand our attention. We may have a baby and need to protect or rehab our pelvic floor function. We may simply get older and not recover as quickly as we used to. What happens when injury, illness, lifestyle, or medical contraindications indicate that the best way to care for our bodies is to slow down, take a break, or stop lifting entirely? If we conflate our worth with the number on the barbell, we may feel lost and worthless for a while.

We in the body positive fitness world would do well to remember that athletic achievement, while a great alternative to being aesthetically focused, is not the same thing as health, nor is it necessary for health. Becoming stronger or faster may result in better health for some people….and the compromises involved may result in worse physical or mental health for others, and it may not even be an accessible option for some people. We can’t make judgments about a person’s health by how athletic they are. (And if you currently do this, you are not alone. I was guilty of this for a long time.)

For the record, I think much more highly of lifting weights than I do of dieting. I’m simply pointing out that we don’t need to be conflating strength improvements with personal worthiness any more than we need to be attaching our worth to the number on the scale.

We need be able to separate both vanity AND “badassery” from health. People need to know that doing so is a valid option. The scale and the barbell both tell us objective information about our bodies. The scale tells us about our body’s mass. The number on the barbell reflects the mass of objects we are able to move. We need to allow for both of these numbers to fluctuate along with our life circumstances. We need to internalize the belief that neither one of those numbers measures our worth.

Personally, I needed to reframe the way I viewed my relationship to lifting heavy weights. Now, I think of lifting heavy weights as a cool, fun and sometimes impressive thing to be able to do, when my body is up for it….which is not right now. My body may be up for it again in the future. Or it may not. Either way, it does not say any more about my value than the number on the scale does.

I hope I will never give the barbell that kind of weight again.

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