The beautiful, bloody blubber scale

Topsham,Devon January 1, 2004 New year, new moi? Every January, it's the same old thing. A year of excess culminates in an orgy of festive eating and drinking. I wake up on New Year's Day with the mother-of-all-hangovers, and on that blowy, always freezing-cold walk on Dartmoor I make my annual vow once again to take myself in hand and do something about it. Immediately.
Last year, admittedly, was a good one from an exercise point of view. I managed to cycle over 7000 miles, more than twice as much as I normally do. Why then do I suddenly wake up to find myself a good 10 lbs heavier than my normal weight?
"It's your winter coat," says Kim, supportively, grabbing my expansive 'love handles' in both her small fists and giving them a good jiggle.
I wonder, after the physical rigours of this year, could all that extra avoirdupois be solid muscle? Well, sadly not, I’m afraid. You see, for my birthday this December, Kim gave me a Tanita blubber scale which measures not just weight but percentage of body fat. Our old scale was a lovely, rusty, mechanical Salter; you had to fiddle with the dial on the front, making the needle point slightly (or more) to the left of zero, otherwise it weighed outrageously heavy. But this new baby, super-sexy glass with metal footpads, and an impossible-to-cheat digital read-out, is infuriatingly precise and accurate. Weight is given to the tenth of the pound; blubber to the tenth of a percentage point: this exasperatingly beautiful bloody machine tells the truth, the whole naked truth and nothing but!
I discover unknown vagaries and weird new things about myself. For example, my weight and body blubber vary wildly throughout the day and night. At different times of the day (or night) I can weigh a full five pounds more (rarely less). On waking, I may be lighter or heavier, but invariably my body fat is at least two percentage points higher than at other times. After a shower, the weight's the same but blubber is down a couple of points. (The gizmo apparently works by sending electrical charges through the soles of your feet to the tip of the skull – blubber has a different density than muscle and other tissue so said gizmo is able to calculate, but the whole equation is effected by water retention, hence the variations at different times of the day). I weigh-and-blubber myself in the morning; I do it in the afternoon; I try again (hopefully) in the middle of the night (well, what else is there to do at 3.43am but live in hope). My god, I've even noted that if I answer a call of nature, I might well lose as much as .6 of a pound yet gain in body fat percentage (due to being .6 lb less hydrated)! I tell you, it's a minefield. Life has never been quite so complicated...
Diligent study, clearly, is called for. I put on my reading glasses (another thing I've had to accept this year) to peruse carefully the small print of the extensive user's manual (is it only me or are the manufacturers deliberately choosing smaller and smaller print these days?). Hah! Study has its rewards! On scouring this mini-tome, I discover that there are in fact two modes for measuring body fat: normal and elite athlete. (It seems that the highly-trained, granite-sculpted muscle of the elite athlete has different physical properties than the blancmange, milk-pudding structure that most of us have so a different calculation is required.) I toggle between the two modes. At the mere touch of a button, I find myself see-sawing between Mr. Blobby and Mr. Universe. The difference is immense! At a stroke, I can either halve or double my body fat percentage. Ah, but what defines an elite athlete, that’s the rub of it. I read further, examining minutely the criteria. It looks promising: yes, with my hand on my heart, I think I might, just might qualify.
Just to be sure, I telephone the Tanita ‘elite athlete hotline'. The nice young lady who answers the phone listens politely as I earnestly explain my lifestyle and innermost secrets. She is sympathetic, understanding, kind and finally gives the blessèd benediction I am praying for: "You should," she congratulates (as if I’ve just won the Pools), "set the machine to...elite athlete."
Hurray! I puff up my manly, athletic chest with pride, examine my granite-sculpted right bicep (not bad), then my left (looks a little puny if I'm entirely honest). Then I set the blubber scale to 'elite' and step on it again. The fat percentage reading is now actually on the low end of acceptable (instead of the high) and as for those extra few pounds (OK, OK kilos), well, it seems they must be solid muscle after all. As every schoolboy knows, muscle weighs at least twice as much as blubber. I look at myself in a full-length mirror. Not bad. Maybe not quite Mr. Universe, perhaps, but not too bad (provided I hold in my stomach and try not to breathe out and that I look at myself from the front on so as not to reveal my thinning hair).
The next week, I go out cycling with my usual training partner and friend, Ben. He's a GP and spends his working life (well, at least a part of it) doing things like measuring body fat with callipers, scales, you name it. He himself weighs less than 10 stone and has virtually no discernible body fat whatsoever. Not surprisingly, he's a jackrabbit up the hills, probably the fastest of us all. I relate my experiences to him, seeking corroboration, if not the absolute truth (which frankly I think is a very overrated commodity).
But instead of confirming my elite status, Ben bursts into huge guffaws of laughter. "You, us, elite athletes? You have got to be kidding. Set the scale to normal like the rest of us, otherwise you're living in a fool's paradise."
"But...but..." I stammer, "what about the Tanita 'elite athlete hotline'? The young lady said..."
"Forget what she said," dismisses Ben, "Forget you ever even spoke to her. Steve Redgrave is an elite athlete. Jonny Wilkinson is an elite athlete. We aren't even close." He’s got a point, I have to concede.
And yet, and yet, it seems we live our days on the knife-edge of the possible. Our very happiness can be determined by random variables set down by others. I play with the blubber scale distractedly. Normal mode: Mr Blobby. I feel bloated, heavy, rather tired and careworn. Toggle to elite athlete: Mr. (almost) Universe. Strong, powerful, fit and with a definite swagger of confidence in my step. Is this Man’s eternal condition? To live in limbo, jiggling our way through a no man’s nether world of uncertainty and doubt, confused and forever in-between? Who am I? Mr. Blobby or Mr. (almost) Universe?
New year, new moi? Nah, come to think of it, I’ll stick with the old.

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