The Thing About Numbers

TW: discussion about disordered eating.

I got a Peloton last month. I’m one of those people now. I sit on my stupid little bike almost every day for as long as I can stand it and I pedal nowhere for 8 or 10 or 12 miles until I feel like I’m going to puke and then I unclip myself and I drink a lot of water and stretch my dumb little legs. It is fun, in the way that anything you spend $2000 on in a series of monthly payments can be considered fun. Spin class is the only kind of communal fitness class I miss, and it feels good to move again (not that my 15,000-step days when I walk from Brooklyn to Chinatown and then walk back again aren’t also movement). Every time I take a class with Cody Rigsby and he plays a deep cut song from Britney Spears’ first album I incredulously find myself enjoying an exercise. It’s fun, like actually, really fun, and I’m still not sick of it. I don’t own a lot of nice things, and the Peloton, you see, is very nice, and it’s nice to have something to take care of that isn’t just my corporeal form.

But here’s the thing with the Peloton, and I absolutely could have seen this coming because the same thing happened when I discovered Flywheel a few years ago (more on this much later). There’s a numbers element to Peloton. The Peloton quantifies everything about your performance: when you look at the app, it shows you how many of each type of class you’ve taken. Tap into a particular class and you can see your total output, your distance, the calories you burned, and your average cadence and resistance and speed throughout the ride. It tells you exactly, numerically, how good you are. There are little charts showing you your output and cadence and resistance and speed throughout the ride, your highs and lows, where you stopped for a minute because your hamstring cramped up or you needed water. And of course, there’s your leaderboard ranking. I’m looking at my results for the 20-minute 90s ride I took last week. I’m ranked 12,421 out of 96,431 riders, which is roughly the 13th percentile, which would maybe feel good to someone else but just feels bad to me because there are 12,420 people doing better than I did.

If my obsession with numbers ended with spin class that would be fine, but that’s not really the deal here. I remember exactly when precise numbers became part of my life: The summer before high school, in 2006, I had complete and total internet access and little parental oversight, and I spent a lot of days on websites like LiveJournal and MySpace and Xanga, where the featured accounts of the day were often pro-anorexia blogs — web pages with soft pastel formatting, written by anonymous teen girls whose bios stipulated their “SW” (starting weight), their “CW” (current weight), their “GW” (goal weight), and their “UGW” (their ultimate goal weight). They would, with painstaking precision, diarize their food intake, their water intake, their exercise output in calories, all with the goal of weighing less. I had been raised to view eating disorders as bad and my body as fine the way it was (thanks in part to a worldview fostered by my mother that included the copy of the American Girl “Care and Keeping of You” book I was wordlessly handed as a 10 year old) and these girls with their thigh gaps and pastel-pink MySpace layouts were doing their best to make them seem a little cool to me, an incredibly impressionable teen. I followed along with these anonymous girls, my peers, all in different U.S. towns and cities, similarly bored and tortured by the humiliating nature of being 13. I saw a lot of myself in them, aside from their whole raison d’etre, which I got from a female beauty standards perspective but couldn’t really see myself putting into practice. If I went over to my friend Kristen’s house for her annual family pool party I was gonna eat a hot dog and a big slice of cake, even if the calories would offset my track practice workout earlier in the day.

I never fully assimilated to these girls’ habits, though over the course of the summer, they did their best to invade my subconscious — I’d occasionally go a full day without eating a meal, go to soccer practice or ride my bike to my best friend’s house, come home lightheaded and feeling awful because I hadn’t eaten anything all day, and then eat a bunch of my mom’s pasta salad for dinner and, of course, feel better. I tried to drink a bunch of water (I was a known water-hater until I went to college, consuming liquids primarily in the form of Diet Coke) and eat celery because a girl on a blog said that you would feel full that way without consuming any calories. But the habits never really stuck for me, mostly due to a family-stipulated nightly collective dinnertime overruling any daytime attempts to sabotage my own body.

My numbers obsession manifested itself in a number of annoying perfectionist-related ways in high school and college. For the first three years of high school I was obsessed with perfect grades; when I was editor of our school paper I obsessed over column widths, word counts, the proportions of images in paleolithic versions of Quark XPress and InDesign, which I intrepidly mastered on a very old Mac in the back of the newspaper classroom. I stayed late after school, printed out every draft of every page of the paper and tiled them out on the floor of the room, and pored over details in an agonizingly exacting way that probably drove everyone else insane. In 2009 and 2010 I kept a list of all the colleges I applied to (13 was the right number, I thought, because if they all decided to reject me I would at least have gotten into Drexel, which had rolling admissions and accepted me almost instantly), tracked how many I got into (11), and for one miserable month in early 2010 based my self-worth on that number. Freshman year of college I outfitted a closet door in Post-It Notes and used it to check off every assignment I had for every class I took, and every reporting assignment I took on for the Daily Orange. When I edited our campus music and arts magazine I pored over budget count and ad space and due dates.

When I went to Spain my junior year, everything bad felt like it happened at once. Within a week of me leaving the U.S., both of my dad’s retinas detached and he had to have emergency surgery so he could retain his eyesight and my mom had a heart attack. My boyfriend, who was back in Syracuse and had sworn he’d come visit for Thanksgiving was cheating on me with a friend of his who looked suspiciously like Kat Von D. I didn’t know it at the time but kinda suspected it anyway and had preemptively decided to feel speculatively bad about the whole thing. I pretended nothing was wrong instead of dumping him on a FaceTime call because I couldn’t really handle any more instability in my life. When it took my mind off of my problems back in America I loved being in Madrid, assimilating, meeting people in their early 20s who grew up in Spain, not going to the Irish-themed pub all my classmates preferred because the servers there understood English. I was pretty broke, and as such I spent a lot of that semester buying drinks at bars for the free tapas and walking everywhere to make the most out of Madrid. It was the cheapest way to see the city and also to try to forget that my parents had both experienced major health scares while I was thousands of miles away and my relationship was essentially dead and I felt totally helpless about it all and guilty for being there and not back home but also guilty about feeling guilty when I knew my parents would feel bad if they knew I wasn’t having fun. The numbers I studied religiously during this period were my bank account and my pedometer steps. Also, my weight, because for the first time in my life I had regular access to a scale in my host family’s house.

I’d feel the panic rising in my chest when I woke up in the morning so I’d skip my pointless classes and walk from our host parents’ house, which was a couple miles outside the city center, and go to Reina Sofia so I could self-soothe sitting in front of Picasso’s Guernica and then walk around Templo de Debod or Retiro Park or go see a concert at Sala Cats or La Riviera and come home at night. And because our host parents fed us, if I missed a meal that was that, unless I wanted some leftovers, which I didn’t. I could feel myself becoming smaller, which is not really a word that I’d ever used to describe myself up to that point. I didn’t really like how I looked, or how I felt, but I liked being in control of something, even my weight, when so much was wildly outside of my control and happening to me. It brought me a modicum of comfort to take control over a life that felt very out of control, but I hated feeling like such a cliche. When I came back to America I’d lost 30 pounds and everyone told me how good and tiny I looked. I was so resentful that it wasn’t apparent to everyone that I had spent months in excruciating emotional pain.

At my first website job I sat at a desk next to a big television screen. The screen, which was always on, even on the weekends or late at night, had everyone’s faces and names on it, and it moved in real time according to whose stories were the most popular. The goal (nobody outright told me this was the goal, but it really was one of the goals of being a writer at this website, or any website in the 2010s) was to be at the top of the leaderboard. Sometimes this meant doing a slideshow (an easy way to boost pageviews) or a story you weren’t particularly proud of, but a story that would get you clicks. There were some writers whose beats lent themselves better to getting traffic than others, and expectations were adjusted accordingly. If you got the most traffic in the newsroom in a given month, you got a bonus — an editor would come give you a $50 bill. In a year and a half there, I got two $50 bills.

But traffic could cut the other way, too — it could be a cudgel. Sometimes writers who were sliding and who didn’t get a lot of traffic for months in a row would get a talking to. Often there were other issues — these people weren’t a “cultural fit” at the company, or more often, they were simply burned out, but they’d be warned that they had to get their numbers up. Sometimes it worked, and their numbers went back up for a month or several months or years. Sometimes these people would just leave because it was easier than the stress of trying to manufacture numerical success. I had stress dreams about not meeting my traffic numbers, about being unemployable because if this was the universal metric applied to journalists how could anyone hack it for more than a year without wanting to give up. When I left my job at the website to go work for a magazine, I showed up on the first day and finished my first story in 20 minutes, more time than I’d usually allow myself to write a story at the website. I was so used to the grinding, fast pace of a digital newsroom. “You can take your time with this,” one of my editors gently told me, clearly not sure what to do with me, a 23-year-old content robot. There were analytics at the magazine, and they mattered, but they felt like they mattered much less viscerally than they did at the website.

Anyway, this whole thing leads us back to spin class. The leaderboard and your output numbers are even more apparent during the classes you take: you can see, in real time, how your score compares to everyone else’s who took the class you’re in now. You can also filter it so that you’re just looking at the people who are in the class with you right now. It is impossible for me not to actively compare myself to everyone else, not try to beat my own personal best every time, and not try to make a harmlessly gamified system into a bigger deal than it actually is. This is not dissimilar from the first time I went to Flywheel, where I was aghast to learn that there was a board in the front of the room that looked like the newsroom leaderboard. I was struck by the comparison between the Torqboard (I’m sorry, but this really is what it’s called) and the leaderboard at the website, and how they both made me feel — like I was constantly treading water, comparing myself to the people around me, trying to be the best, or at least not the worst, instead of just trying to beat my score from the last class. You could opt to have your name on the Torqboard, and it would track your score through the 45-minute class — a score that increased the harder you worked, the more resistance you added, the faster you pedaled — along with everyone else’s scores. I usually didn’t opt to put myself on the board, but I still tracked my progress against the people who did.

Now I have nothing but time, a moderate amount of self-loathing, and an endless ability to compare myself to my pseudonymous peers on the bike on Peloton. On your little Peloton screen, you can hide the leaderboard, and you can hide your own analytics, but I can’t imagine being motivated without knowing how fast I’m moving, or how much weight I’m adding under my feet, or how well I’m doing comparatively. I would have no intrinsic motivation to work harder if I hid my own progress (and everyone else’s!) from myself. I push myself to beat my PR every class and I beat myself up if I come a few points shy of it. If I don’t do so hot in one class I’ll just tack another onto my workout, which is one of the benefits of the thing: you have a gazillion classes there waiting for you to take.

I keep struggling with how to end this one neatly because it’s not like it’s over. I’m still held captive by numbers and I have been for as long as I can remember. My obsession with them has just taken a new form in recent months. Sometimes I wish I weren’t like this, but it’s inextricable from who I am, and I’m not even sure it’s always a bad thing: It’s part of what pushes me to succeed just as much as it’s part of what makes me feel like a failure sometimes. Realistically I’ll eventually get bored of the Peloton, or I’ll finally learn how to ride an actual, real bike on the streets of New York, or I’ll find something else to obsess over. Because it’s not really about the bike, or about my leaderboard ranking in a HIIT class or whatever—it’s about finding a crumb of control in a world that sometimes feels very much outside of my control.

Written by

i’m a freelance writer and editor. you can also read me in places like the new york times and vanity fair.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store