Tracking and the Panopticon

Who among us who has tried to lose weight hasn’t “tracked”? That’s when you write down every morsel of food and drink that you ingest, including the portion to the gram.

I have weighed and measured, counted “points,” calories, fat grams, fibre grams, carbs and protein, and written it all down dutifully and precisely in a journal or on a chart or on special forms issued to me by various programs I have paid over the years to help me lose a few pounds. I have also tracked exercise by time, intensity, etc.

And after my lengthy experience with tracking, I have come to despise it. It’s not because I’m lazy (though I can be) or it’s inconvenient (though it certainly is). It’s not because it doesn’t “help” to see it all in print or to know that the “if you bite it, write it” rule is in effect. It helps in its own oppressive way.

The reason I despise tracking is that I see it as a kind of monitoring and self-regulation that functions very like the panopticon.  In case you don’t remember (or never knew), Jeremy Bentham (18th C philosopher) came up with this design for prisons such that the inmates wouldn’t be able to tell whether they were being watched at any given time.

Michel Foucault built on this idea, driving home the point that the power over the prisoners arose from their ignorance about whether they were being observed.  The discipline came through their self-monitoring more than through external force.  Feminist philosopher, Sandra Bartky, gave this scenario a uniquely feminist interpretation, arguing that women exert this kind of self-discipline over their bodies. The monitoring is internalized and self-imposed. It’s that self-imposed monitoring and need to exert control that concerns me about tracking.

I know that there are studies that show quite definitively that it’s difficult to lose weight if you don’t track, that tracking keeps us “accountable,” and even that it enables us to know not just when we are eating too much but when we are not eating enough.  But it is also oppressive and somehow reveals an attitude of mistrust about our ability to make good decisions for ourselves.  We need to be disciplined, controlled, regulated — but since that’s too difficult to do, we need to be talked into disciplining, controlling and regulating ourselves.

I remember joining a weight loss program once that was big on tracking.  If I had a “bad” week, the “leader” would ask to see my tracker the week after.  So for that week, the tracking had to be flawless. But half the time she wouldn’t even look at it that next week. Just knowing that she might was enough to “keep me in line.”  Very panopticon-esque, don’t you think?

But today I have a different vision for myself.  And it involves more freedom, less self-monitoring. And if it means carrying a few more pounds than I would if I tracked regularly, then it’s worth it to me. My version of fitness includes commitment, but doesn’t include close self-surveillance. [image is from the wikipedia entry on the panopticon, drawn by Wiley Reveley, 1791]

About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, vegan, triathlete, sailor, philosopher, sometimes knitter.

15 thoughts on “Tracking and the Panopticon

  1. Manon says:

    I like you comparing the obsessive tracking, we sometimes do with our diets ,to the panopticon Tracy! Good analogy!

    We as a society can be so stuck on the details of our caloric intake and expenditures and forget that bodies are self-regulating organisms.

    Once we become one with the current self as it is and listen to our body’s need for nutritious foods, the perfect body weight, for us, is more likely to surface.

    I like your attitude Tracy to stop monitoring everything and to accept your body as it is. All the best!


  2. Tracy I says:

    Thanks, Manon! Glad you like the approach. 🙂


  3. […] co-blogger Tracy explained why she despises tracking food and doesn’t do it these days. When we first talked about this blog we agreed that it […]


  4. […] I tracked my food for three days (two weekdays and a weekend day).  As some of you may know, I am not a big fan of tracking.  What I learned is that I do not in fact eat too much.  I eat the right amount over a day but I […]


  5. […] Both Tracy and I have blogged about our different reactions to food tracking here on our blog. Tracking and the Panopticon was Tracy’s post on this subject which I followed up with Another Perspective on Tracking. It […]


  6. […] tracking which Tracy and I have both blogged about here may turn out to be small potatoes as far the Panopticon goes, given the new food health and nutrition apps and gadgets that are on the way. You can log […]


  7. […] personal training and began to concern myself with “sports nutrition.“  For me, tracking and planning and measuring and counting, even in the name of sports nutrition, created a diet mentality. This might not be the same for […]


  8. […] me for so many reasons.  I am convinced that diets don’t work for long term weight loss and I despise food tracking and monitoring.  So the idea of learning to identify and respond to my body’s natural hunger signals […]


  9. […] weight loss diet. For the most part, I am for my own personal reasons opposed to tracking because I find it oppressive. If you find it helpful, by all means, […]


  10. […] and weighing and measuring. In one of his experiments, he even weighs his poop.  Since I have an aversion to careful tracking, a feeling not shared by all, this approach (poop aside) simply wouldn’t work for […]


  11. […] of those traits with the blog’s co-writers) and I’m  thinking today about their posts against tracking and in favor of tracking what one […]


  12. […] be able to rhyme off all sorts of fun facts about countless foods. I wrote them down every day and kept meticulous count. I avoided fruit juice and all caloric drinks so as not to waste the stingily parceled out grams of […]


  13. […] okay to monitor other people’s bodies.  When the blog first began, I talked about “the panopticon” in relation to tracking.  The panopticon is a prison design (from 18th C philosopher Jeremy Bentham). It’s key […]


  14. […] at least for the next little while, I’m going to need to track. I’ve been quite public in announcing that I am no fan of tracking — it is oppressive and represents to me all that is wrong with dieting (the monitoring, […]


  15. […] My favorite philosophy blog, Feminist Philosophers called this “the panopticon bra.”  The panopticon is that prison design that leads the inmates to self-police because they never know when they are being watched.  Feminists frequently claim that social norms around femininity have a panopticon-like hold on women’s lives. I myself have likened food tracking to the panopticon. […]


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