The Panopticon Revisited: Kitchen Mirrors for Self-Surveillance

 I hate tracking because it feels like the panopticon to me. I wrote about that a long while ago when we first started this blog. See my post here. The panopticon is a prison design that social-political philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with in the 19th Century. The thing of it is, prisoners never know when they’re being watched. So they start to engage in self-surveillance and self-monitoring. They become so good at it that guards are hardly necessary.

Feminist philosophers have used this same idea to talk about the way normative feminity works. Always conscious of the possibility  that we are being watched and monitored, we women begin to do it ourselves. It’s basically the idea of keeping ourselves in line with rules imposed from the outside by internalizing those rules. Tracking feels like that to me.

But a new study that came out recently takes the panopticon metaphor to a whole new level, indeed, no longer even a metaphor. Maybe you’ve already heard. If you read the blog regularly you definitely have already heard because–and this is the beauty of having a team of feminists working together to respond to the latest research that does a disservice to women–Catherine blogged about it on Sunday. See her “Mirror, Mirror” post. 

If you want to eat less “bad” food (even though food is beyond good and evil), hang a mirror in the kitchen. Yes. You read that right. You can read more about the story in this story from The Washington Post and this one from The National Post. 

Apparently, watching ourselves eat food that we perceive to be bad, evil, or wrong to eat makes us feel crappy. We look for a reason and blame it on the chocolate cake.

This is just not something I can get behind. First of all, if you’re going to eat the cake, don’t you want to enjoy it? Do we really need to find further ways to feel shitty about ourselves?

Second, as if incessant tracking isn’t bad enough, now we are supposed to watch ourselves in the mirror too? It just feels so messed up.

Third, there’s the panopticon. It’s a bad thing, all that self-monitoring and self-surveillance to make sure we all into line with standards of behaviour that external norms impose on us. The panopticon is a prison design for Pete’s sake.  Its purpose in to promote compliance.

No, no, no. So please, let’s try to enjoy our food. Yes, let’s make choices. I’m all for thinking about how I may use food for all sorts of reasons that have little to do with keeping myself physically fed and nourished. Having some awareness is a good thing. But when we kick that to the level of self-surveillance and literally keeping an eye on ourselves so we behave, that’s a disturbing prospect worth resisting more than a piece of chocolate cake.

4 thoughts on “The Panopticon Revisited: Kitchen Mirrors for Self-Surveillance

  1. The mirror/eating study – and even more so, the way it was pitched – is idiotic, but it makes me a little sad to see tracking thrown out with the bathwater. Plus, mirrors are everywhere (including restaurants) already, so we should unpack the really problematic issue here: the willingness to have an immediately negative or self-judging reaction on catching sight of oneself.

    In most areas of life – notably athletic achievement, but also academic achievement and accomplishments in artisanship and work – we understand that a goal is almost only achieved with some kind of organized approach to it, and that includes monitoring or measurement. That’s just how you know you’re actually doing it, and helps you identify ways you can do it better. A similar claim to that the mirror study is made for a better studies of eating behavior: people who did a simple recall exercise before serving themselves a snack tended to eat a smaller snack, and people distracted or with consumption cues obscured (eg, prompt removal of buffet plates) tended to eat more (discussed in ). It should not surprise us that actually having information at hand enables more deliberate decision making, but we are so tied up in knots (as a culture) about “appropriate” weight and beauty standards that we almost can’t handle the exact actions that would help us break free.

    When I was in middle school, I read in a women’s magazine a little blurb that went something like this: “Next time you pass a mirror, glance in and notice which you do first: do you grimace? Or do you smile?” I don’t remember what it was about, but I’m probably just a terrible customer (in their eyes), because what I took away from it was this: Life is better if your default reaction *to yourself* is one of positive recognition. That doesn’t mean always being delighted to see yourself (or “loving” your body versus hating it or even being carefully neutral, which strikes me as a potentially equally problematic extreme). It just means figuring out how to live in such a way that information and cues about ourselves and our performance inform our mood and decisions in a useful or pleasant way rather than making us feel like prisoners.

    1. It’s true that we use monitoring to track our progress and focus on areas to improve performance. However, eating in front of a mirror isn’t about tracking activity (e.g. how much we are eating). The studies suggest that eating foods that we think that others think are “bad” foods triggers feelings of shame and negative self-esteem. The same has been shown to be true in a study on highly skilled ballet dancers. In this study, dancers using mirrors for training experienced lower body image than those not using mirrors for training (as observed by expert ballet teachers trained in the study). The paper is here:

      You are right that it’s important that we figure out how to use information cues about ourselves for positive, not negative motivation. I think that means not subjecting ourselves to shaming situation. Shame never motivates positive behavior change– it shuts us down and alienates us from ourselves and others.

  2. Funny you should be writing about this when it was on the local news last night in their health section. It was being touted as a valid study. My mom, who had never heard of the study, called it the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard of. I couldn’t agree with her more ( and I agree with the two blog articles as well). I never did understand why food has to be such a prison. It’s one of the greater joys in life. Eat what you want to eat, when you want to and how ever much you want to (unless you have a legitimate medical reason or allergies that prevent you from doing so). As for the mirror, let it hang on the wall as a decoration. Honestly, you don’t need it. You’re beautiful just the way you are ☺

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