Our place in Stonington, like many American households, has a bathroom scale. It’s a small, square scale — which is a good thing, because the bathroom itself is not spacious and the scale has to be wedged into a pretty tiny space.
And this particular scale, like all bathroom scales I’ve ever owned, seems to chronically overstate weight. Does anyone else have that experience? Are bathroom scale manufacturers part of some shadowy conspiracy with junk food producers to disappoint Americans who are trying diligently to shed a few pounds and cause them to give up hope, forget the diet, and dive once again into that bag of pork rinds?
To be honest, I don’t really use bathroom scales. If I’m feeling especially trim, I’ll step on one in hopes that the scale will confirm my optimism, but then I see that I weigh pretty much the same as I have for the past 15 years, shrug, and decide not to worry about the scale going forward. When I made my one use of this particular scale this summer, I noticed that it goes up to 320 pounds. 320 pounds! It’s hard for me to imagine a 300-pounder teetering on this puny scale, or the protests the scale might make if a 300-pounder actually tried. But it turns out that the a 320-pound limit is on the low side for modern bathroom scales. Amazon offers a number of scales that have a 440-pound capacity. It’s hard for me to imagine that many people who might test that limit would be using a bathroom scale, but apparently that is the case.
Bathroom scales have an interesting history. They first came into popular culture in the early 1900s, when life insurance companies decided that heavier people tended to kick the bucket sooner, and began publishing tables that showed ideal weights for people of certain heights and then factoring that data into coverage decisions and calculating the premiums for policies. Setting an “ideal” weight helped to fuel a broader focus on personal weight as a measure of both healthiness and attractiveness, and that meant people needed to start weighing themselves more regularly. Because people worried about their weight weren’t all that keen about stepping onto the penny scales at the local emporium, in full view of the public at large and neighborhood busybodies, a market for a private means of weighing yourself was created, and the bathroom scale was invented to meet the demand.
People who obsess about their weight have rued that day ever since.