One person’s self-survelliance is another person’s self care: FitBits, for and against


I lost my FitBit briefly this week and it brought to light a funny, longstanding disagreement between Tracy and me. I posted to Facebook about losing it. Friends chimed in sympathetically with hints and tips about finding things.

Cate said, “Tech is apparently for losing.” She’s blogged about her love/hate relationship with fitness technology here.

This blog’s Martha told a story of a friend who lost her FitBit and got it replaced by the company.

But Tracy’s comment when the thing was inevitably located, as lost things often are (thanks Sarah!),  made me laugh out loud. Tracy wrote, “Back to monitoring your every move. I honestly don’t get the fit bit thing. I was relieved for you when you lost it.” I had known that Tracy wasn’t happy with the Global Corporate Challenge team fitness tracking. She compared it to the panopticon.

I wasn’t without the FitBit for long but I missed the reminder to go to bed and get some rest. I could see that I’d miss tracking sleep. I also liked knowing my resting heart rate. When I was training seriously on the bike we used resting heart rate for measuring recovery after recovery weeks.  (I didn’t really need it for tracking steps it turns out.)

A feminist philosopher friend lost hers a few weeks ago. (Hi S!) And when she posted about missing it she said it was one of the few things she did for self care. Like me, actually more than me, she cares for a lot of people in her family.

The contrast between the FitBit as self-care and the FitBit as surveillance tool strikes me as interesting, as capturing two different things that go on in women’s lives.

First, there’s the role many of us play in our families caring for children and for the elderly. It can be hard when that’s your life to pause and pay attention to your own needs. When I blogged about tracking food, see Another perspective on tracking, that’s what I said appealed to me about it.

I wrote, “Mostly it feels liberating. Sometimes it feels like a chore.  But in a hectic busy family with lots of meals, snacks, and groceries on the go my food log often serves as a way to remind me that what I eat matters. For me, it’s much more about making sure I take care of myself.”

Second, there’s the pressure on women to discipline our bodies, to take care of ourselves from the point of view of attaining or maintaining an attractive, thin appearance. From that point of view the FitBit and other forms of tracking look like body surveillance tools.

In her post, Tracking and the Panopticon, Tracy wrote, “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’ve enjoyed teaching a course on fashion and feminism this year and one of the lessons students have learned is that things can have multiple meanings. While most were opposed to cosmetic surgery, for example, on feminist grounds, there’s this perspective too. We had a really fun class on Dolly Parton and the meaning of Dolly’s fashion choices. And so it is, I think, with tracking and the FitBit. It depends on your context and how and where you live. One person’s important act of self care could very well be another person’s self surveillance tool.

That conversation between people who share feminist commitments and a desire to get strong and find joy in movement, but who disagree about lots of the details (like bicycles and tracking!) is one of the things I love about our blog.


Where do you stand? Do you find the FitBit (and its ilk) a soul crushing tool of body surveillance or a liberating opportunity for much needed self-care? And as I tell my students, there are no right answers here. 

12 thoughts on “One person’s self-survelliance is another person’s self care: FitBits, for and against

  1. This is a great reflection on the different ways of viewing tracking. It’s also reassuring that we sometimes disagree on little things (or medium sized things, where the bike is concerned!). I was hoping for an answer to my follow up. When you said you like tracking sleep I said “but you didn’t lost it in your sleep!” Maybe you did. But my point was that you don’t Only wear it for sleep. Anyway, I like the distinction between surveillance and monitoring on the one hand and self care on the other. This is another place where intuitive eating is more appealing to me and tracking more to you (I know there are other reasons too).

  2. No, I wear it all the time because if I only wore it to bed it couldn’t remind me to go there. This one also tracks heart rate and “active periods.” I like seeing how much of the day I’m active. Helps with self image as active person since much of the rest of the world judges from my size that I’m a sloth

    1. Don’t you find it restricting at night? I take off my Apple Watch…somewhere I remember reading that the zen way is to sleep as unencumbered as possible, so watches and bracelets all come off…

      I’m a non tracker. My obsessive compulsive side gets much to enthusiastic whenever I try. Maybe some day…

  3. This is such an interesting contrast of views, and I admit I hold both of them at the same time. As you know, I have been averse to tracking in lots of ways (even taking my bike computer off the bike!). But these days I am indeed thinking about tracking as self-caring more than surveillance. I was, the other day, thinking about getting myself a fitbit for helping me see how my exercise was going, and also for tracking sleep. I hate the idea of sending my (MY, I tell you– it’s MINE!) data to a company to use for their own purposes. But maybe I can do something about that? Is there some way to block transmission of my data to parts unknown? I will look into it. Thanks to both of you for keeping this conversation going.

  4. I think it’s a tool that supports unhealthy OCD, TBH. We really don’t need to track everything. It’s become an obsession. Whatever happened to just eating well and exercising regularly? That’s all anyone needs to do.

  5. I am addicted to mine because I get a rush off of competition, even though the competition is with myself. (I have a few fitbit ‘friends’ who have friended me but I have never actually figured out how to do anything with the friend features.) That said, I don’t think it is especially healthy or self-care. It feeds my obsessiveness and hits that little pleasure center in my brain, but I doubt in a good or healthy way. The sleep function stresses me out as it’s just a constant reminder of my failure to get as much sleep as I should.

  6. I think there is a bit of obsessiveness in my use of the Fitbit, but it is also, as Sam says, a way to care for myself. It helps me notice when I don’t get enough sleep or exercise. Others may not find this difficult, but I do. I don’t pay attention to that normally. I also find it gives me an excuse. I can say to people who make demands (or just have needs) in my life: sorry, I need 3000 more steps, so I’m going for a walk. For some reason they listen to this and not other excuses I offer (perhaps because I just walk out the door…). Others may not need this, but I do. I also have a tendency to take the fastest way from point A to B because there is so much I need to do and if I get back to B fast, that gives me more time. But my Fitbit reminds me that I have steps to do, so I can walk and get something done, viz., get steps. It is all about triage on my to-do list, and if steps and sleep are on the list, then they get done too. Of course, if I did less, or promised less, or had fewer commitments, that would be better. But in the meantime, I use my Fitbit to help me put myself on my to-do list.

  7. I would like my self-care mechanisms to be based on how I look (to myself) and how I “feel”. I want to continue that I trust my own inner judgement –in how I can intuitively eat well=balanced meals, my own level of fitness and what I naturally do to rein in myself. Yes, I weigh myself maybe 1-2 times per month..I guess that’s measuring by numbers too!!

    Last month I was chatting with guy at work who himself looks fit -=-he cycles and jogs. He said over the past year, he didn’t clip in his cyclometer all the time. His vague way of “knowing”, is cycling several favourite local bike routes and one already knows vaguely the approx. distance of each route. I’ve used this method for last 15 years. My partner tracks his mileage faithfully.

    He guiltily wondered if he was doing the right thing. But we both agreed that it keeps us on our bikes, instead of becoming depressed / discouraged over faltering numbers.

    In the personal time, I do not need numbers to beat down my own ego, I do not need to compete hard against my own self. I have done this career-wise for jobs, I already had a career on measuring performance of service delivery in depts. where I’ve managed, I’ve asked staff to track their work so I can justify service value and budgets…do I HAVE to BRING this performance measurement into assessing myself in my own personal life? It actually reminds of a work environment -performance metrics, justifying xxxxx. Ugggh.

    I just need very general, vague benchmarks. It’s something like little motivators: a) I can cycle to xxx destination, without being worn out or b) I can do that hill without walking it. Or let’s do that hill because I knew I was already strong enough to a xxx lengthy flat ride last wk.

    I don’t like strava, fitbit…it’s too linear-thinking for me and not motivating long term for me. I will use it if one day, I forget..and needs an aid.

    It isn’t numbers that keep me going: it’s because I love to do that exercise ..for many years. This is my advice for anyone I speak in person about exercise: do what you love. And this alone will keep you healthier for many years. No one cares to know your numbers.

    If tracking numbers help you, all power to you. Just ask yourself if you jog only 1 km. instead of 5 km. on a lovely summer day, is that still ok?

  8. I’m a believer in the extended mind. My fitbit is part of my mind, so I am self-monitoring. My brain is much less effective. 🙂

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