Before weight was taboo...

I stumbled across this little gem today, which really made me think about how we- as a society- look at weight.

Once upon a time, scales were displayed in parlors, not hidden in bathrooms

"A family would think it fun to weigh themselves before and after a big holiday dinner to see how much they had gained," said Deborah I. Levine, Ph.D., an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry Fellowship Program in the Humanities and Social Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Knowing your weight was a novelty, a kind of parlor trick, before scales became widely available through mass production," said Levine.

I can perhaps see that happening now, but as an act of humiliation rather than curiosity and fun.

Levine pointed out how these views changed as weight became equated not just with health but with morality. And suddenly, having family and friends know how much you weighed became a situation fraught with difficulties.

The number that popped up was no longer a random fact, but a statement about how "good" or "bad" you were. Which isn't the kind of thing that enlivens parties.

As the public's perception of weight changed, so did scales' places in fine society, Levine said. They were banished from their lofty spots in parlors to kitchens and finally, to bathrooms. Sequestered scales no longer needed to impress, and their ornate decorations gave way to the plain white or gray often seen today.

And perhaps one of the things that enabled this transition of body weight into a statement of morality is the easy availability of bathroom scales. We can measure ourselves any time of day, down to the fifth of a pound, to see how "virtuous" we are. Without that, I'm wondering if our culture's weight fixation would have reached such a high point.

Levine researches "the evolution of medicine and understanding of nutrition before and after the turn of the 20th century," which makes me want to move to St. Louis and pick her brain for an afternoon or four.


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Libby said...

Wow... just wow.

I have thought about putting a "YAY Scale" in my bathroom as a conversation piece. But it's really hard to wrap my head around weight not being a moral issue.

Very cool post.

A:) said...

Scales. Are. Evil.


Which is why the only scales I weigh myself on are my dietican's and my psychiatrists

Carrie Arnold said...


I know. I was quite startled when I read her research summary. How much we have changed...sigh.


Amen sister. Although it's interesting to see how they *were* neutral, and then society sort of grafted this pseudo-morality onto them.

And I realize I owe you an email- I have my last craft show of the season tomorrow and I've been frantically getting ready.

MelissaS said...

plus, weights vary from scale to scale. my boyfriends is usually five pounds more that my brothers. but some days it's three more and some days it's six. my doctor's scale put me right in the middle, but they also measured me at 5'4. i've been 5'6 everywhere for the last 30 years. who's right? who cares? i know i do, but someday -- maybe not so much.

Anonymous said...

Perfect timing for this post... the other day I accidentally kicked my scale (which lives in my bathroom closet -- speaking of banished!) and now it's giving me different weights. Now it says I am 5 lbs heavier and lots of irrational, disordered thoughs are running through my head. "I don't think I gained 5 lbs in the past couple of days... I mean, that's unrealistic, right? It must be because I kicked the scale... it is broken. Please let it be broken."

It is pathetic that I am obsessing over a number that a) probably isn't accurate and b) doesn't MEAN anything, anyway.

It's interesting (and unfortunate) how we let numbers measure our worth. Salary, grades, weight, age, # of facebook friends (just kidding)...

Anonymous said...

I am, alas, old enough to remember scales in public restrooms and even some stores but even I have never seen a scale in anyone's living room. I knew one person who had one in her kitchen and she was someone who weighed herself about 10 times a day and before and after eating. But aside from that, I've only seen them in bathrooms. I do recall that when I was a kid, it was kind of cool to put in two cents or a nickel, I forget how much, and get a little card that printed your weight.

As for the scales that weigh in tenths of a pound, I have always been baffled. Doesn't anyone realize that two glasses of water in (or the equivalent peed out) weigh a pound? Meaning that one glass of water is a HALF pound? What good is a scale that weighs fractions of a glass of water? I have an analog scale, and don't consider a weight change to be real unless it's 5 lbs.

Sarah said...

I recently asked my roommate to take custody of my scale. She hides it all week and then puts it out on Sunday night so I can weigh myself on Monday morning. Maybe I'll be able to even stop doing that someday but it's a lot better than the 5x/day I used to do . . . this morning I weighed myself at 4:00 AM. I'm not really happy that I did that. I couldn't sleep, though.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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