Who can we blame for the bathroom scale?

In the late 1500s, those accused of witchcraft were forced to take a 'witch test' at the local weighhouse.

Sadaf Ahsan 5 minute read January 21, 2021
Bathroom scale

In the 19th century, measuring your weight became more comon. Getty

I haven’t used a scale in years, apart from the standard weigh-in at the doctor’s office. It’s been a considerable relief to my self-esteem and, now, whenever I spot one in my friends’ or family’s homes, I cringe. As a teenager, I was glued to it, having grown up in a weight-obsessed family and culture, as many of us have.

So who invented this cursed thing?

Well, that individual does not entirely deserve our ire, as scales were first created to measure the weight of goods, with the earliest relics of one having been found in the Indus River Valley (present-day Pakistan), dating back to around 2,000 B.C. These scales were essential for trade and business.

At that time, they were considered counter scales, and consisted of two plates attached to an overhead beam with a fulcrum at its centre. A measurement was taken by putting the object being measured on one plate and a standard reference weight on the other until equilibrium was reached. This was the first known instrument created to measure mass.

Egyptians, too, used counter scales, with evidence dating back to around 1878 B.C. They weren’t just important for practical measurement, but served as spiritual symbols. In fact, paintings from these early civilizations presented a god who was known to weigh the heart of the dead to determine if they were filled with good or bad deeds, signifying whether they were destined for heaven or, you know, hell. That was, in a way, the beginning of “scales of justice” iconography.

By the 1500s, scales still possessed a haunted mythology in some cultures. Weighhouses, for example, which were used to weigh crops and livestock and are now a thing of the past, had a whole other purpose. In the late 1500s, those accused of witchcraft were forced to take a “witch test” at the local weighhouse. That conspicuous activity involved a suspected witch being weighed, and if she was lighter than the set weight, she’d be labelled guilty and her weight would be deemed evidence of her supernatural abilities. Jury’s still out on just how much an average witch and her evil spells weigh, but the rumour was one should be light enough to float on water. Noted.

Counter scales became less common by the industrial era, when the spring scale was invited by Richard Salter, a British spring maker, around 1770. He called them, rather cutely, “pocket steelyards.” This scale determines weight by the force exerted on the spring, and was significantly cheap at the time and, therefore, quite popular.

Measuring one’s weight started to become the norm by the mid-19th century, when soldiers were examined ahead of joining the military. Measuring their weight, among other vitals, helped streamline the recruitment process.

Although this has resulted in a culture obsessed with body shaming and weight loss, back then, the simple goal had been to observe and help enhance life expectancy

This was also about the time Belgian astronomer and statistician Adolphe Quetelet developed what he called “social physics” and a mathematical formula that we now call a body mass index (BMI). By measuring height and weight, the formula allows one to deduce just how “fit” (or not at all fit) they might be. Although Quetelet had seen the formula as being more appropriate for measuring groups or populations, it’s now come to be used by the individual. Over the years, BMI has been criticized for being a poor indicator of health, shifting the attention to weight loss, when in fact, quality of life and managing other health conditions should be the focus.

By this time, what it means to be “thick” versus “thin” took hold in everyday life, as scales were used for health check-ups at school and in the doctor’s office, and wealthy societies were busy looking for solutions to their rising obesity statistics. Although this has resulted in a culture obsessed with body shaming and weight loss, back then, the simple goal had been to observe and help enhance life expectancy.

Public scales, where you could insert a coin, hop on and get your weight read, were popular, too, particularly in European cities, including Paris where you can still find some now. Healthy weights on adjoined size charts were classified as “normal,” presumably marking anyone else abnormal.

Ads in local papers, meanwhile, specifically exploited weight as markers for clothes or hygiene products, giving birth to diet culture. Take, for example, a Loring & Co. ad from 1915, featured in the New York Times. Promoting diet pills, it warns that “Fat Is Not Good Flesh,” and labels fat as a “destroyer of health” and sign of “unsightliness.”

A 1910 ad for the Sargol Company, also promoting diets, similarly reads, “How To Get Fat Free…excessive thinness is very mortifying. Thin men never look like ‘real money.’ They are pushed aside in the race for success. Bony women are seldom very popular. Dress will not hide skin and bones. All men admire fine figures.”

From there, the preoccupation with weight only grew. Once smaller, portable scales went into mass production in the 1960s, public scales became less common as one could weigh themselves and obsess over their BMI in the privacy of their own home.

Nowadays, electronic bathroom scales are the poison of choice, with some able to calculate body fat, BMI, muscle mass, the list goes on. They work by using electrical resistance to spot differences in conductivity based on the pressure placed on the scale. Digital scales can be wireless, with smartphone integration for your fitness app, so that you can self-track your weight wherever you go, 24/7.

It’s clear the scale has its value as a measure of one’s health. But in its evolution from a public economic tool to a personal self-tracker, scales are responsible for a whole lot of unfortunate trends, too, from dieting to body shaming.

Modernization, after all, is never without its price.

Sadaf Ahsan is a Toronto-based culture writer, editor and stereotypical middle child. She can be reached here.

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