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]

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