Stories I Tell My Patients
101 Myths, Metaphors, Fables & Tall Tales for Eating Disorders Recovery
by Arnold Andersen, MD and Leigh Cohn, M.A.T.
Sadism and Masochism: The Scale and the Mirror
weight obsession, body image, scales & mirrors
One day scale and mirror decided to wreak havoc on the earth. Scale decided that it would terrorize people from the moment they got up during the day ‘til the moment they went to bed. Scale gradually infiltrated all the media until soon it became the thing to do to weigh yourself and to talk about how fat you were. Soon the nation was filled with people who felt bad when they weighed themselves in the morning. They approached the scale like a judge or God and pleaded that the number would be kind to them that day.
In the meantime Mirror decided it would create its own form of misery for the human race. Starting in the United States and Western Europe, Mirror would no longer be a small piece of glass in which a woman checked her lipstick and the hem of her dress and a man checked his tie. It soon became a leering, peering, distorted lens through which people could imagine themselves being unattractive, lumpy, and misproportioned.
“Hey Scale,” said Mirror, “I’m going to get people to think that they’re not perfect so they’re horrible. Women will see themselves as having too big of a stomach, too large hips, fat thighs, and start believing there’s nothing right about them except maybe their eyes or not even that. Soon men will look at themselves and think they are puny and skinny and unattractive, not at all like the men in the fitness magazines.”
Soon Scale and Mirror were wreaking their modern forms of sadism and masochism on the whole world. The use of large mirrors spread until people saw their reflections everywhere: in elevators, restrooms, along the walls of restaurants, and throughout their homes. Thus, people became more and more dissatisfied with themselves.
Along came Amazonia. She was captain of the Special Rescue Squad that The Counsel of Planets sent to Earth to save it from the sadistic practices of Scale and the masochistic practices of Mirror. Amazonia, with arms that could extend around the Earth and an ability to move at 99% of the speed of light, soon scooped up all the scales and threw them on a trajectory that would take them past Neptune and eventually out of the solar system. Amazonia clapped her titanium hands, and all the mirrors on the Earth cracked and bent, so that only small mirrors with wavy glass remained. At best, they could only be used to straighten one’s hair or shave.
Very gradually the misery and unhappiness of the human race receded. People got up in the morning, stretched their limbs, and went off to work, play, or school without first getting judged by a scale or suffering from the distorted message of the mirror coming through their cultural eyes. Amazonia went back to the Interplanetary Counsel but kept a close eye on Earth.
As far as the happiness and comfort of human beings, the scale and the mirror have contributed very little. The scale has been given the power to judge people and make critical comments, telling them whether they will have a good day or a bad day, whether they are in fact good or bad people.
When you ask yourself why women who are 5’10” are not shortened and women who are 5’1” are not stretched on the rack, the answer is obvious: There’s a normal natural variation in height. The same goes with weight but many people, and unfortunately too many doctors, think that a women or a man of a certain age and height should weigh exactly so many pounds. This is as ridiculous as saying that only women 5’5” should be considered normal. Much better are multiple predictors of fitness and health including waist-to-hip ratio, percent body fat, blood lipids (cholesterol, HDL, LDL, triglycerides), exercise capacity, and resting heart rate. If people would discard the scale and its pseudo-scientific BMI, they would be happier and healthier.
The same goes for the mirror. As mirrors have become larger and more prominent, people have become more and more unhappy. When you look into a mirror, you look into the eyes of cultural distortion. You also generally don’t take a glance at the whole package and see how it hangs together, but rather start focusing on individual parts and deciding they’re not perfect. This or that is too big. This or that is too small. This or that is out of proportion.
While scales inflict damage on others, the mirror lets an individual inflict damage on himself or herself—one definition of masochism. Why in the world would someone want to look in the mirror in the morning except to see that their tie is straight, their the hair is neat, and that there’s no cream from the hot chocolate on their lips? The pseudo-objectivity of the mirror is an illusion. Looking in the mirror always leads to a distorted view of oneself.
Mirror gazing and asking the scale for affirmation of self are no-win situations that would better be abandoned since they’re incapable of reform. Up with fitness, self-esteem, and mutual support. Down with the sadism of the scale, the masochism of the mirror.