THE BLOG
05/15/2013 06:28 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2013

Hey Baby, What's Your Number?: Step Off the Scale

Getty Images

All 115 pounds of actress Zoe Saldana graces the cover of this month's Allure Magazine. The 115-pound actress known for her role in Avatar and in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness blockbuster opens up in a revealing interview to discuss a range of topics from Hollywood's racial politics to her views on dating all 115 pounds of her.

In fact, Saldana's weight is one of the only issues she fails to discuss in the interview. Why bother? Allure already covered that in their headline: "Zoe Saldana: 115 Pounds of Grit and Heartache." And the collective sound of a million face-palms echoed across the cybersphere.

Allure's highlighting of Saldana's weight is part of the larger body image conversation about reinforcing ideals that may be unhealthy and unattainable, about reducing this talented performer to a one-dimensional image and about a strange and fraught relationship women (and men) have with one of the most reviled twentieth-century innovations: the bathroom scale. You know how it goes. You hold your breath a little as you step on the cold, judgmental base. You try to not even think about food (even imagining that cream-filled doughnut you're craving can pile on the nefarious ounces, true story). The seconds that feel like epochs thud along until the needle wags or the digital numbers scroll to land on "the number" deemed either magic or tragic. It's like a Vegas slot machine in reverse, where you actually hope to walk away with your pockets lighter.

The scale did not become a household item until the 1940s, when technology and mechanics evolved to the degree that "personal weighing machines" were compact enough for private home use. Until this time, scales were part of novelty culture. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, any person might happen upon life-sized scales on street corners and in department stores, their gimmicky signs encouraged folks to hop on the platform, plug a coin in the slot and discover their weight! Imagine, clamoring to step on the scale, giggling alongside your friends, and waiting with flushed excitement for this magical device to tell you in cold, hard facts your heft or lightness. Me neither.

The post-war rise of new domesticity enhanced the popularity of the home scale as another handy gadget to help make her life wonderful. Electric stoves, toasters, washing machines, and vacuums comprised the wizardry of the future homemaker, designed to make labor appear desirable, easy, and fun (Honey, how do you get the rug around the minibar so darn clean?) Houses were not the only things trussed up to seem attractive, as the faces and bodies of the domestic space women were instructed how to primp, cinch, and purty-up for their hard working men. Maintaining an attractive figure was crucial. Enter the home scale, a gal's best friend, that bitch.

There are some pretty fantastic advertisements for Borg scales, the Cadillac of scales in the 1950s. One depicts a lovely Barbie pink device with gold inlay around the viewing window. A perfume bottle, the silver heel of a strappy shoe, and what looks like the edge of someone's wedding garters "casually" frame the scale. Maybe as part of her ritual in getting ready for a swell night out with Biff or Tad, Mitzy makes sure to weigh herself. Hm! She thinks, I can order the filet tonight! "Keep your figure lovely with a Borg in your bath," reads the ad copy. "You'll never gain weight without knowing it." Honey, you are preaching to the choir on that one. Another Borg ad from the 1955 holiday season proclaims the scale the perfect gift for her: "What a wonderful way to say, 'This totally reminded me of you!'" In fifteen years, she would return the favor with something totally made for him: divorce papers.

Fast-forward almost six decades and it is nearly impossible to escape the tyranny of the scale. Fitness apps that track weight and calories with every Altoid ingested puts the power of the "personal weighing machine" literally in our pockets to fuel our preoccupation with the arbitrary numerical markers of our personal value. It is time to step off the scale. Women do not need any help feeling anxious about their bodies and they certainly do not need a piece of tech becoming another wagging finger, another clicking tongue, another reason to doubt themselves or their self-worth. When Zoe Saldana clocks in at 116 or 120 pounds, will she stop being an actress, a friend, a daughter or a businesswoman? Or will she be like you: greater than the sum of her numbers?

Subscribe to the In(formation) email.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers.