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. 

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