My Weight Loss Taught Me Not to Trust the Mirror

Photo by Charis Gegelman on Unsplash

One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve read regarding weight loss is not to put too much emphasis on the number on the scale.

In most contexts, I agree with the sentiment. Our exact weight is less important than our overall health. Even when we’re trying to bring our weight down, it normally makes more sense to focus on healthy eating and exercise than on the bottom line.

During most of my own weight loss, I tried to ignore the scale except for occasional check-ins to make sure I was still on the right track. This strategy worked, but then as I neared my target weight, the number went back to feeling more important to me.

The surprising twist to this is that I’m actually glad I started focusing on the number on the scale because it ended up saving me from taking my weight loss too far.

My Self-Image Has Never Kept Pace With My Actual Appearance

My problem began when I was still gaining weight. I had been on the skinny side for the vast majority of my life, weighing in around 155 pounds at 5'10". It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started gaining weight, but when I did, the weight came rapidly.

Over the course of just a few years, I saw my weight move all the way up to 216, which I think was my peak. (I didn’t always weigh myself regularly, so there’s a chance that at some point I weighed more).

216 was enough to put me in the “obese” category (albeit barely). And, it was enough that my clothing all went up by several sizes.

It also should have been enough for me to notice the changes in the mirror. Somehow though, when I looked at myself, I didn’t feel like I had gained all that much weight.

Even though I was aware of my weight-gain on an intellectual level, I couldn’t really see it. If I hadn’t known the numbers on the scale, I would have guessed that I had only gained ten or twenty pounds.

It wasn’t until after I started losing weight that I was able to look back at old photos and see how big I had really gotten. I was shocked that I hadn’t seen it before.

The Same Problem in a New Direction

Unfortunately, as I lost weight, I experienced the same delay in recognizing the changes to my body. Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw some improvement, but it never felt like much.

My target weight was originally 165. It was about ten pounds heavier than I had been when I was younger, but well within the “healthy” range for my height.

I expected that when I hit 165 I’d look completely skinny again. I was surprised when I actually got there and looked in the mirror. As far as I could tell, I still looked overweight.

I decided to keep counting calories and go a little lower. Over the next couple of months, I dropped down another 8 pounds. Even at 157, I still looked in the mirror and saw myself as being a little too big.

At that point, I made a really important decision that potentially saved me from seriously damaging my health. I decided not to trust what I saw in the mirror, and to believe in the number on the scale instead. The scale was saying that I had hit my target (and then some), so I would stop losing weight, even though I wasn’t happy with my appearance.

I’m happy to report that after another few months of maintaining the same weight, my self-image finally “caught up.” When I look in the mirror now, I no longer see myself as overweight, and I’m finally able to recognize that I’m back to a healthy weight.

I think if there’s a moral to what I went through, it isn’t as much “focus on the scale,” as it is “don’t put too much emphasis on what you see in the mirror either.”

Gaining and losing weight both played serious mental tricks on me. In both directions, there’s so much more going on than just the physical aspects of weight change.

If I had relied solely on my own subjective perceptions, I could have ended up really harming my health. Finding a more objective way to assess my weight was the key to keep me from going too far.

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at

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