The meringue in this lemon Jell-O custard is fluffy as I dip my spoon into its creaminess. My face pouts a little at the sour taste, but the Jell-O goes down smooth. No, it’s not the real thing—lemon meringue pie has crust, for one—but this pseudo-lemon pie cup fulfills my sweet craving. Sort of, anyway. It’s only 80 calories, I think. I went to the gym this week. My goal is to try to go three times a week at the minimum, and since I only worked out once, I’m sort-of hating myself silently. Hence the Jell-0-80-calorie thing. I take another bite of the lemon custard. Sour. I’ve never been a numbers girl—I skipped school in second grade to avoid math class. I loathe geometry. Hate accounting. Yet, as I sit here eating this Jell-0 cup and recalling its calorie count, I realize this is not the first time I’ve thought about calories. Come to think of it, I spend a significant chunk of my headspace thinking about numbers on a daily basis—not only thinking about numbers, but deriving my worth from them. I sit back, repeat this realization out loud: I rationalize my self-worth as a human being—regardless of my capacity to love, to be happy, to help others—based on basic numbers. Wow. I sigh at its truth. Over and over again on a daily basis, I repeat numbers in my head and base my feelings about myself on how those numbers stack up to expectations—society expectations, others’ expectations, but most of all, my own expectations. Numbers on the size tag of my jeans. Numbers of “Likes” on a Facebook status. Numbers of friends, salary digits, guys I’ve kissed. Numbers on the scale. All of these numbers bounce around in my head. I feel like I’m living in an episode of Sesame Street: “Today’s episode is brought to you by the number FIVE. Lindsay should have gone to the gym FIVE more times this week!” Screenshot of a giant red “5” dancing and pointing at me. Mocking me.
When did this happen? I wonder. This numbers equals worth thing? Looking back, I have a sneaky suspicion it has to do with that unspoken competition in fifth grade with Samantha Mieder. Every day in the safety patrol line, Samantha and I would brag to each other about how many pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio we had hanging on our bedroom walls.
“I have like, 87 now,” she’d tell me. “Well, I have 92,” I’d lie. I didn’t want her to have more Leo pics than me. I loved Leo, and I needed to show my love through the amount of pictures I had of him, of course. Samantha could not have more than me. If she did, I might as well have sunk to the bottom of the ocean in Titanic, too (Why didn’t Rose let him on that door?! He COULD HAVE FIT. He could have). The Leonardo DiCaprio Contest is the first time I remember really equating worth—worth of my Leo love—to numbers. From then on, I just added different types of numbers to the bunch, whether it was high school sport Varsity letters or amount of friends. If I met the number in my head, I was okay. But numbers aren’t my friend. They can always go up or down, and they rarely stay the same. Numbers love to taunt me, to echo that I should have gone to the gym more, could have ate less, etc., etc., etc. Regardless of when I started equating numbers to worth, perhaps the more important question is Why? Some answers could be the media, societal expectations, comparisons to others. So many numbers to meet, to measure up to, to use to compare and contrast. We should be asking ourselves different questions. Not “How many calories did I eat today?” but “Am I full? Did it taste good?” Not, “Why do I suck and am fat and gross and awful because I can’t fit into these jeans?” but “Am I a good person? Did I help someone today?” Not, “Can I work out harder and more this week so I can be skinny?” but “Was I actually nice to myself today? Am I happy?” I think back to a time before the jean sizes, the Jell-O cups, the Leonardo pictures. I see my mom’s face, smiling down and looking at me with the same brown eyes that she gave to me. “Beauty,” she said, pointing at my chest, “is in here.” “Beauty is on the inside.” And she’s right. What’s inside a person—hope, faith, emotion, love, abilities—cannot always be determined by a number, let alone a pant size or calorie count.
I vow to remember this, and throw the empty Jell-O cup away.