Weighing myself in the U.K. and in the U.S.

J. wrote me early in the year, saying (among other, more interesting, things) that she needs to lose ten pounds of holiday weight. I almost wrote back to ask, “What’s a pound?”

It’s not that I’ve forgotten exactly, and it’s not that no one measures in pounds here. Like everything else about living in a country that isn’t at heart your own, it’s complicated.

In theory, most weights are still given in two systems, metric and imperial, to humor the folks who grew up calculating in a pre-metric world and are either too old or too cantankerous to switch over. Or in my case, too old, too cantankerous, and too mathematically incompetent.

Right. That's me, weighing myself. In grams and kilos. Photo by senov.

Right. That’s me, weighing myself. In grams and kilos. Photo by senov.

Our bathroom scale measures in both kilos (2.2 pounds) and stones (14 pounds). Stones are subdivided into pounds, so it’s not that the pound isn’t on there, just that it’s illegible. To make room for two ways of measuring, the manufacturer had to use small print. Insurance-form size print. But even if the print was large enough for me to read and therefore know that I was something stones and something else pounds, I’d still have to multiply the stones by fourteen, which I’m incapable of doing on the hoof and not interested enough to do with a calculator or a pen and paper. I mean, as long as your clothes fit, who cares?

Well, me, at least enough to step on, if not enough to work out the result.

A sensible person—or one who seriously cared to track her weight—would forget about pounds and switch to one or both of the new systems, but you might as well ask me to track my weight in tablespoons, or in cubits, because the new systems don’t mean anything to me. I look at the numbers. I think, I should remember this. And then I walk away, remembering only that I should remember. Numbers do that to me. I look at them and see an elaborate version of almost nothing.

I do have a kind of geographic memory of where the needle usually sits: halfway between two of the larger marks. When it creeps toward the one on the right, I’ve put on weight. When it creeps to the left, it’ll move back to the middle any day, so it doesn’t mean much.

What are the numbers that the needle sits between? I’m not being coy here; I honestly don’t remember. I mean, I still haven’t learned the multiplication tables. You expect me to know my weight in imaginary measurement systems?

But my weight in pounds? I could remember that. At least I remember what it was when I lived around scales that measured in pounds, because I understand in my body what a pound is. Maybe it comes from growing up with them—from measuring in pounds and feet and inches the growing amount of space I took up in the world. To the extent that I can guesstimate a kilo, it’s only in relation to a pound—twice as much with a little extra thrown in.

And a stone? Are you kidding me?

When I first started buying lunchmeat at the deli counter in our local supermarket (which no one but me calls a supermarket, but that’s a different tale), I asked for a pound. Because that’s also an amount of money, the kid behind the counter froze in front of his scale. Maybe I wanted a pound’s worth of lunchmeat. That’s a measurable amount, although not a hell of a lot, but no one asks for it that way. I said, “Half a kilo?” since in the essentially nonmathematical world I inhabit, that’s close enough to a pound to make me happy. He still looked as if he’d been swept up by a tornado and dumped back in math class: If lunchmeat A leaves display plate B at 10:45 and arrives on scale C weighing half a kilo, how long will it be before my manager yells at me for upsetting a customer?

“Five hundred grams?” I said, feeling as if I’d been swept up by that same tornado and dumped in some alternate universe where I could solve a math problem more easily that some other human being. It was destabilizing, but relief flowed over the kid behind the counter as visibly as if someone had poured it over his head from a bucket.

He weighed my five hundred grams, stuck the label on the bag, and handed it over.

To me, the vegetarian. But that, too, is a whole ‘nother story.

So I haven’t a clue how much weight I’d like to lose. Some of my clothes fit just fine, but the washing machine’s been selectively shrinking the smallest of my jeans. They’re not making denim like they used to. They are, sadly, making desserts exactly like they used to, and my body remembers them fondly. It doesn’t want to let them go.

What I know is this: I weigh something or other. It doesn’t really matter how much. When I stand on the scale, the needle moves and I’m reassured that I’m still present in this strange world of ours.

43 thoughts on “Weighing myself in the U.K. and in the U.S.

  1. WET FISH. I always wondered about stones, as it seemed to be only a human measurement, until I became a restauranteur: A stone is just the right amount in fish. It comes in a polystyrene box on ice, can be fairly easily handled, and for a small restaurant should last a night or two. Now when I think of stones I imagine how many boxes, and I thus have an easily imagined weight.


  2. You might see metric weights in the shops, but nobody really understands them. Most of us still convert. When it changed, there were handy rhymes, to help you remember them. One was ‘A litre of water’s a pint and three quarters.’ I know that there are five litres in a gallon, but still say ‘gallons’ I know that a kilo is 2.2 pounds, but still say ‘pounds’. Nobody is interested in kilometres, even though they advertise ’10K Runs’.
    As for money, I am still converting decimal into the old Pounds Shillings and Pence…
    Best wishes, Pete.


      • It is ‘old money’ (or as I like to say, ‘real money.’) It was easy enough as there were 240 old pennies in a pound, which was 20 shillings. So,12 old pennies made one shilling. Remember the old song ‘Half a sixpence’? That would have been a threepenny bit, pronounce ‘thruppence.’ It’s all clear now, isn’t it…
        Best wishes, Pete.


  3. Hi Ellen,
    well, a pound in the UK [and here in the US, at that] is not quite half a kilo, as it is in my native Germany, e.g. Just to make things even more confusing, a pound in the UK and US is 453 grams, whereas in Germany it is 500 grams.
    Have a great day,


  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your cross-cultural adventures in measurements! I completely felt the same during my time spent in Italy… I never truly grasped the kilo thing and would order far less or far more meat than necessary ! And not to mention the whole Celsius/Fahrenheit difference!
    Ps: loved your comparison of denim vs. desserts nowadays!
    Pps: I never understood what a stone is… Thanks for the explanation!
    Happy Friday !


  5. I am useless at this, too, and this applies to the height, too. I know how much my height is in imperial measures, and that’s it. When someone tells me their height in inch and feet, I just shrug. They don’t do metric; I don’t imperial. If anyone is desperate to know, this is what Google is for.


  6. Hi Ellen, nice to meet you on your blog. Now this post entertained me nicely :-): I am from Germany grown up with kilo’s and gramms and came to work on the fresh fish in a supermarket in the UK just about the time they decided to do both systems. Gosh I had a fun time. I can manage the pound but please do not ask me for ounces….. I don’t bother much with my weight though: If the trousers don’t fit anymore I have to eat less. Very easy system :-). Thanks for sharing.


  7. Pingback: Measuring time in the US and UK | Notes from the U.K.

  8. I just entered quite a long comment, Ellen, for the first time. Sadly by the time WordPress had failed to recognise my password, then failed to allow me to use my old password that it didn’t recognise as my new password (telling me that I couldn’t use it because I had used it recently … – yeah, because it was my password!), and I’d invented yet another new password, the page that had my comment on it had disappeared. Ah well, hopefully it will be easier next time … I think my point was that as someone who had to learn all this Imperial shit at school, I did at the time wonder if it was all an elaborate joke to keep the natives oppressed. I was delighted, as an adult, to discover that this did not happen all over the world! And then we went metric and life was sweet. Like you, I’ve reached an age where it is rare that I need to worry about any of these measurements of life!


    • That business with the passwords happens to me regularly: A site doesn’t recognize my password and when I change it tells me I need a new one because that’s already in use. By me. And there’s no one to argue with, so I incorporate some new bit of obscenity into the old password and that soothes my feelings. A bit.
      Sorry to have missed the longer version of your comment, because the shorter one was great.


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