I don’t “do” numbers. As an English major, I was drawn to an interpretative world of innumerable possibilities. Nothing is concrete. Nothing is finite. Each word, each phrase, each image possesses a myriad of meanings. The most appealing aspect of all, though, was the field’s lack of numbers.

Yet, during some impromptu weekend research, I actively searched for numbers.

Cotton swabs amassed on the counter as I swabbed away remnants of the previous night’s makeup. As eyeliner smudges darkened the ashen smears encircling my eyes, I began to question why I even bothered with the time-consuming process. The answer: to add a few years to my “baby face.” One inquiry led to another, and I began to measure the amount of time the process actually took. The answer: seven minutes. Seven minutes to artificially add maybe two years to a face I believe looks perpetually 16 years old.

Inspired by this discovery, I began to tabulate a list of numbers:

Five feet with the addition of two inches to comprise my height.
A “9” found stitched onto the tag of my jeans.
A dilapidated “7” faded by constant friction between sock fabric and shoe soles.
The length of my hair.
The quantity of pimples dotting the rim of my chin.
The inches circulating my ribcage representing my bra’s band size.
My weight.
My body mass index.

The numbers added together, in theory, could provide an unusual and faulty approximation of my physical appearance.

My miniscule data collection directed my thoughts toward the subject I was intending to research for my next column, and I began to consider more measurements. My mind flashed to the tiny, glowing green rectangles connecting into formation on a treadmill panel to enumerate the distance an individual runs or the calories they’ve burnt. That same person could tally the amount of weight they’ve lifted or the total hours they’ve spend working out daily. Another person might calculate the amount of calories they’ve consumed.

One might enumerate the instances when they’ve walked past a mirror only to be disheartened by the figure reflected back at them. Another may reflect on the quantity of times they’ve received disparaging comments about their appearance from others — or even from themselves. Conversely, one could tally the number of times someone draws attention to their body in a positive way, whether it’s desired or not. An individual who religiously maintains a strict diet may recount the number of times friends mockingly commented on their decision to eat a bit of “junk food.” For a sizeable population of individuals, their measurements may even include the number of meals they’ve skipped, a calculation of the instances when they’ve purged or the number of times they’ve binged in a week.

As a society, we fixate on these measurements. We try to modify them. We stress about them. We use them as motivation. As a result, these sums can often masquerade as markers of individual worth and can acquire enough power to demolish our self-esteem. Our own individualized assortment of numbers infiltrates our thoughts and daily lives to shape the ways we view the bodies we inhabit. According to a study cited by a Brown University webpage on body image and health, “74.4% of normal-weight women stated that they thought about their weight or appearance ‘all the time’ or ‘frequently.’ ” 46 percent of normal-weight men responded in a similar manner to the question.

While members of our society — myself included — may be in an ongoing battle with our own set of measurements, there are far more important figures requiring our attention. One-fourth of the national college student population — as reported by the National Institute of Mental Health — is afflicted by an eating disorder. A separate study found that “95% of individuals who have an eating disorder are between the ages of 12 and 25.8.” According to the National Eating Disorder Association, on the national scale, roughly 20 million women and 10 million men experience an eating disorder of clinical significance within their lifetime.

Numbers inform us, provide logical solutions and simplify our world. However, our perceptions toward and appreciation for the vast array of body types that exist should not be quantified. The human body, with its wide-encompassing variations, is a qualitative entity, incapable of standardization. Our fervent desire to align our bodies to match a set of idealized measurements only exacerbates these highly prevalent and detrimental mental illnesses. Even numbers are incapable of expressing the entire significance and impact eating disorders have on our society. To truly understand and raise awareness about eating disorders, society needs more than statistics. We need to understand the misconceptions, the stigmatization and the contributing factors — information I hope to cover in an upcoming column.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu

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