The Award for Best Adversary in Life Goes to Numbers

By: Mili Chizhik  |  May 19, 2021

By Mili Chizhik, News Editor

Today, I have declared numbers my enemy. 

My strong dislike for numbers does not stem from a difficult mathematics course or a phobia of some sort, even though the former has caused many sleepless nights and countless tears shed. It didn’t start from the lack of understanding of what numbers represent and their role in life. Instead, it was the realization that numbers define our lives. 

No matter the field or lifestyle one leads, numbers play a part in every individual’s reality. A farmer must ensure he calculated the proper amount of materials needed to produce a certain amount of a product and a stay at home parent must estimate the proper fractions of flour to put in their cupcake recipe. Numbers have an undeniable role in the world. 

Not all uses of numbers are inherently bad — such as figuring out how much paint one needs to be able to paint one’s bedroom walls based on its size or remembering the nine-digits of social security numbers. Aside from the myriad of essential uses of numbers, many are utilized to lead many people astray and can affect the way an individual behaves, thinks, and interacts with society. 

Throughout time, the ideal body shape has evolved from an apple-shaped figure in the renaissance to the heroin chic-style in the late twentieth century to the contemporary hourglass figure. With this evolution came unhealthy habits, whether it was disordered eating, excessive exercising, or an obsession over keeping track of what is consumed. Millions upon millions look at the numbers on the scale or clothing size as something that defines them; the calories listed on the nutrition label determines whether one can enjoy dessert or should superficially quench their hunger by drinking water or eating a “healthier” alternative. All of this can lead to detrimental and potentially fatal consequences; however, the food, fitness, and health industries do not seem to make any substantial moves to counteract the years upon years of their promotion of these unhealthy eating and living habits.

Like many, the numbers in my weight, waist size, and calories and grams of carbohydrates consumed occupied the main role of an antagonist in my life. After years of crash diets and fixations on what and when and how much I consumed, I abandoned all forms of “healthy” living and started to focus on eating whole foods and implement mindful eating practices. The only positive thing that the totally inaccurate body mass index (BMI) scale provided me, after years of anguishing over my apparent obese status, was the ability to receive the COVID-19 vaccine early. The emotional, physical, and mental toll that my years of unhealthy eating habits took from me was astounding and despite my progress in addressing these issues, I know that I am just one of millions of people who have, are, and will struggle due to these numbers. 

Another example of numerical scales that leads people astray is the academic scoring guidelines. For numerous decades, the grade point average (GPA) and use of the hundred percent scale of grading has been used. While these can both demonstrate the strengths of many students, it does not demonstrate everyone’s hardworking abilities and their true understanding of the information. One who has a difficult time with test performance, whether it is the test questions that are challenging or the mental aspects of taking a test, will generally not be able to be portrayed accurately according to their grades. Furthermore, many can take shortcuts to ensure a high GPA without properly learning the information and in a way that will allow the consistent use of the information retained. 

Similarly, any standardized exam and the score that comes with it does not necessarily demonstrate one’s capability of succeeding in whichever academic program one wants to attend. For example, the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) requires extensive knowledge on several subjects and skills, like biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, behavioral sciences, and reading comprehension. While the test is testing both content and ability to apply scientific knowledge to the questions, the test takers with the hopes of achieving high scores must be able to decipher the test and its questions. The MCAT, in addition to GPA, plays a major role in the medical school application processes and can determine whether one is accepted into the program. 

The intent to standardize the tens of thousands of applicants is completely understandable as each university has their own curriculum and way of teaching, however those who do not have the ability to spend money on all the practice materials required or are bad test takers do not have any way to show their capabilities because of the emphasis on high grades and MCAT scores. The obsession to achieve the highest scores possible many times leads to intense stress, anxiety, depression, and countless other mental health issues and unhealthy habits. With students focusing on these numbers and not the information, they will no longer be able to devote their all to simply being able to learn and retain the lessons learned.

This lack of desire to learn and thus lower retention can then lead to less-informed individuals who have an increasingly difficult time in their careers and further studies. Perhaps this lack of passion is due to the idea of getting into top academic programs and high-paying jobs. Salary and money in general are yet other rivals of mine. To succeed in such a world would be impossible without making enough money to pay for all the necessities, like food, shelter, healthcare coverage, schooling, and so much more. Those with high salaries have the advantage of not worrying over whether they’d be able to afford a critical procedure needed or to purchase all the top notch and excessively expensive study resources for standardized tests. However, the remaining majority still leans over their finances trying to prioritize which basic need should be covered and which gets to be neglected. Multitudes of career paths have implanted a mentality that to achieve such a career, one must go through a series of obstacle courses, whether it be mentally, emotionally, physically, and/or financially burdensome. It is almost as if the academic programs and field experts don’t really want people to endeavor these jobs and only favor those with the privilege of not having to worry over finances. 

To try to make a case to eradicate the use of these types of numbers would be foolish, for how would we function with no better alternative? Rather, the mentality of it all must be modified. While I have become very strong and have learned a tremendous amount from my experiences, the internalization of these numbers as something that defines me became overwhelming on innumerable occasions. The hours spent in front of the mirror analyzing every inch of my “obese” body or the sleepless nights of trying to maintain a high grade in a course so that graduate schools don’t pass me up for someone else with a higher score than me. Or perhaps the time I had to explain what student loans were to my undergraduate peers who were not aware of such a thing existing and could not fathom a life that their parents couldn’t pay for. 

Instead of the stigmatization of having a higher BMI or eating carbs, healthcare providers and those in the related industries should approach health in a generalized way. Without focusing solely on weight and recommending everyone to lose ten to twenty pounds, a whole medical history should be discussed and not be disregarded. This can allow the healthcare provider to gain a deeper understanding of the situation and not make hurtful and prejudiced comments. With this change in approach, fitness and food industries would shift their focus onto the promotion of healthier products and ways of life. 

Similarly, a more holistic approach and perhaps a different scaling system should be incorporated in schools. Grades and scores do not show whether a person can handle the rigors that come with the occupation or program; they simply show whether the person can test well and satisfy the instructors. A stronger emphasis on tasks and experiences that showcase an individual’s potential would maximally illustrate what would be needed in the fields of interest and not discriminate against those who have a natural barrier to success. One can even suggest that the whole education system needs to be corrected and shifted to be able to address all kinds of students and build on their strengths. If all schools and programs are directed towards the same types of student, the lack of diversity and strengths would negatively affect all fields and would pose an obstacle to those who are not able to succeed in those environments. Each and every individual learns a different way and style, but if all programs teach the same things and in the same way, only a fraction of the total population would be able to successfully make it through; thus leaving many unable to work for their dreams or live the way they intended. 

Beyond just the styles of education being revamped, the costs associated with schooling must be addressed and enable those without being financially privileged to attend. With fewer loans being taken out, more students can go into fields that do not necessarily have as high salaries and would worry less without the burden that debt puts on one. Furthermore, the standardized exam industries have grown to a point where it now seems impossible to get a desirable score without dropping a grand or two on practice material, thus putting students in even more financial stress beyond just their original situations.  

An entire shift in society would be necessary to counteract what these numbers bring about: high self-doubt, low self-esteem, and defining oneself based on these meaningless numbers. These ways of life will most probably still play a major role in the next few decades, but with a change in mentality and more all-inclusive approach, the healthy improvement in mental and emotional states of millions of people would flourish. Society would progress towards a more comprehensive and less discriminatory way of life, thus positively refining the world at large. 

So, while today I declare numbers my enemy, I for sure hope that I can call them a friend in the future … that is a friend whom I only see occasionally … when necessary.