This episode comes with a content warning. We will be talking about eating disorders. Take care of yourselves, listeners
Jennifer Jill Fellows: This episode comes with a content warning. We will be talking about eating disorders. Take care of yourselves listeners.
JJF: So proper diet and regular exercise are hard to do. Like, I know they’re both important for my overall health. But it’s really hard to motivate myself. Here, like in so many other places, technology has stepped in to offer a quick fix to this problem of self-motivation. The fixed comes in the form of fitness apps and wearables. But here, like in so many other places, this quick fix doesn’t take everyone’s needs into account and can lead to some very serious consequences.
JJF: Hey everyone, welcome to another episode Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows. And today I’ve invited Natasha Crawford and Sarah Kulewska to talk about fitness tracking apps.
JJF: Natasha Crawford is an undergraduate student at Douglas College majoring in Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies. Her main research interests are in Feminist Philosophy and Indigenous Studies. Her goal is to share her education with the general public, helping other people to understand the issues that face marginalized groups. She seeks to foster empathy in those with privilege and social power to enact real meaningful change.
JJF: Sarah, Kulewska is an undergraduate student at Douglas College, majoring in psychology with a plan to do an honors degree. From there, Sarah plans to do an MA in social work and after graduation to transition to working as a social worker in the school system, and also to having a private practice as a counselor. She’s also been an active volunteer at the Crisis Center since October 2020. Sarah has research interests in Sociology of Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies and Philosophy, as well as in Psychology. She focuses on how our social structures and institutions influence individual mental health.
JJF: Hi Natasha and Sarah, welcome to the show.
Natasha Crawford: Hello. Thanks for having us.
Sarah Kulewska: Yes, Thanks for having us.
JJF: Thanks for being here. I wanted to take a moment and resist the idea that digital space is distinct from physical space. What we’ll be discussing today, we’ll demonstrate that digital space has consequences in physical space and on physical bodies. But it’s also important to remember that digital space itself only exists because of physical space. The materials our computers, cables and servers are made of, are extracted from physical space and built in physical spaces and occupy physical space once put into operation. And much of this physical space in North America is stolen land. Digital space then continues colonial occupation of Indigenous Peoples. So today, I acknowledge that I am recording Gender, Sex and Tech; Continuing the Conversation on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples of the Qiqéyt nation. And Natasha, where are you joining us from today?
NC: I am joining from my home, which is located on the unceded traditional territory of the Katzie First Nation.
JJF: And Sarah, how about you today?
SC: I’m joining you both from the unceded ancestral and traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people.
JJF: So before we get into discussing fitness apps and your specific research, I wonder if we could back up a little bit and have you both tell us a little bit about your academic journey. So can I start with you, Sarah? How did you become interested in psychology?
SK: So I always just had a pull to it. And when I was graduating high school in 2012, so ten years ago, many people were telling me that you won’t find a job in the field is over inundated with so many people. And I took a bit of a break. I lived in Europe for five-years, moved back here in 2019 and the pandemic hit. And then I was like serving at the time my job was gone, I was like, ‘Okay, I should go back to school now is the perfect time to go back to school.’ I applied to Douglas. I got it in the next day. I was like, ‘okay, that’s a sign.’ Then I kinda started my journey from there and shaping how I wanted my schooling path to look like, what I wanted my future to look like. I was planning initially to do a Master’s in counseling psychology. And then I started thinking more about social work because I am very interested in intersectionality of how different issues affect different groups of people. And I feel very strongly about advocating for minorities and discrimination, inequality. So it made more sense and it was the best of both worlds. So yeah, that’s my plan for two years in the next four years, that’s what I’m aiming towards. One thing I think is really fun about that answer is that the pandemic was both like a crisis for a lot of people, but also have maybe an opportunity oh my gosh, yeah. And to do school online for like a full year, it was awesome. Everyone is complaining and I was doing in my pajamas, didn’t have to commute. Like this is paradise. I feel so lucky.
SK: Yeah. Slippers.
JJF: Slippers, right?!
JJF: No, that’s great. And Natasha, what drew you to Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies as a major.
NC: I honestly have to thank the pandemic a little bit as well for that. I think the pandemic allowed a lot of us to kinda sit with our thoughts. It slowed everything down and kind of for me, showed me what’s important. And also when George Floyd was murdered and research at the BLM movement was going on. It of course, sparked a lot of controversy and woke me up to people around me. Just this, this whole realm of injustice. Yeah. So I took three years off of high school, graduated, and then the pandemic hit and then I signed up to Douglas. I got in and I’m still on my academic journey. But gender studies is the one thing I find I’m most passionate about. So I wanted to at least start somewhere.
JJF: So one thing I think is really cool about both your answers is the way in which the pandemic was a catalyst for change for both of you. And I really like what you said Natasha, about this idea that it slowed everything down, it slowed life down. I think for many people and of course it depends on your situation, life didn’t slow down for all of us. For some people, life got way busier during the pandemic. But for some people, there was this space. And you started to think about what’s really important, or are you on the trajectory you want to be on, or do you want to try and do something different and that kind of thing? But also it sounds like with, for example, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd, probably also Breonna Taylor, you had this experience of recognizing how important social justice was.
JJF: But I think that’s really interesting because I think then both of you have this kind of experience of sitting back and re-evaluating your lives, but also having a response to concrete, real-world things that were happening around you and deciding how it was you wanted to try and make an intervention.
NC: Yeah, I think it was confusing to sit there and not see people share the same perspective or get angry about the things I was getting angry at. And I think school has become such a huge tool for me to put knowledge towards my knowing, my innate knowing of things that are wrong, and being able to articulate that to people and explain my stance because it’s really easy to get angry and frustrated and trip over your words. But when you’re forced to write thousands of essays on to subjects, you kind of get better at it. I found that having that tool was vital in my group, but also in being able to kind of turn people’s perspectives or change their minds on these issues that are so important that we should all be aware of.
JJF: Yeah, I think education, one of the real benefits is that it can help you name things that you already know, right? It helps you give a name to things. Helps you figure out how to articulate knowledge that you may already have, but that you maybe don’t have practiced a thousand times expressing.
JJF: All of us instructors are like “Write a paper on that. What’s your thesis? What’s your topic sentence? Right?” Shout out to the composition instructors.
JJF: And today we’re talking about fitness apps. And I want to start very basically. So can one of you tell me what a fitness app is?
NC: Yeah. So fitness apps are just one of the many applications that can be downloaded onto a person’s mobile device. But what makes them unique is their ability to track a person’s physical activity and diet for the purpose of getting fit.
JJF: Okay. That means there’s a lot of data involved, right?
NC: Yes. These apps store a lot of information about you and your, your personal health. And it’s putting a lot of trust in these big companies. And you don’t necessarily know what they’re doing with that information. So yeah, we’ll definitely come back to that.
JJF: So this might be things like tracking, weight, tracking number of steps taken, calories. Am I missing? What’s tracked?
NC: Your weight, your height, sometimes you can input it also can track your heartbeat, which then they can calculate how many calories you’re burning if they have all your weight and your height and if they know what you’re eating, usually you have to have a wearable device for the heart rate, to my knowledge. So if you have an Apple Watch or something like that.
SK: or a Fitbit.
NC: Yeah, yeah. A lot of people don’t have access to those types of tech. So on the very basic, it tracks your location as well because that’s how it gets your steps, so it knows where you are.
JJF: Okay, so we have wearables, but also just Apps we can put on our phones. And our phones already know where we are, but that’s a whole other episode. So can you tell me the history of these apps like how long have they been around? Maybe, do we know which one was the first one or? Yeah. Just kind of a trajectory of how these were developed and how long we’ve had them in our society.
NC: Well, the App Store was launched in 2008. So that began the whole idea. And it took about two years for the first couple fitness tracking apps to materialize. I don’t know the very first fitness app that was created, but one of the first was an app called Fit Phone, but it’s since been discontinued. It’s been around, they’ve been they’ve been around for about 12 years now. And it started off with just fitness and then slowly started getting obviously competitive because it’s a market. So, they added nutrition, diets, and then they started incorporating a community-base as well. So, it’s a whole social media app at this point. And FitBits were founded in 2007. I believe the first Apple Watch was in 2015. So for the wearables, those are the two most prominent ones.
JJF: Okay. So it sounds like if you bring it, they will come right? We create the App Store. And boom! We’ve got fitness tracking apps already for sale on the store and then competing with each other. And one of the ways that they compete with each other is by developing this kind of social network platform. So it’s not just you tracking your own fitness now, you can belong to a community of people who are all tracking our fitness together. What does that look like?
NC: Yeah, they, you can post pictures and let people know on your progress. And a lot of the times, people will encourage you to keep pushing yourself. So it is sometimes I guess, a good tool. If your head deep in that journey of getting fit and just being obsessed with tracking your every move and every parcel of food that enters your body. But yeah, it can also become competitive. And we know about cyberbullying that’s been around for a while. So, I’m sure there are areas where people may take it a little too far. Shame them. Yeah.
JJF: So, we create this community that’s all connected through this app, whether it’s a wearable or an app on your phone, it sounds like different ones might have different social elements. And maybe this is intended and maybe it works sometimes to facilitate support, right? People being like you’re doing great. Keep going. Get to that 10,000 steps or it’s 10,000 steps, right? I don’t know why we’ve all decided we need to walk 10,000 steps.
NC: Eight waters or a glass. Drinking waters.
SK: Yeah, it’s accountability too, Right? If I don’t get up and do this today than everyone else is gonna know. So there’s kind of that ever knowing element of shame, right? Also built into that too, right?
JJF: So there is this supportive side that all these people in this community could help you stick with your goals. Whereas otherwise, if nobody was watching, might, you might not.
NC: Yeah, right.
JJF: But one thing you’ve also drawn out here is that this supportive community aspect is not always to an individual’s benefit, right? It can be. But you’ve mentioned things like cyber bullying. And in another thing you talked about in your research, if I’m remembering correctly. Is that the competitive side of this can actually just by itself, even without any bullying, that the competitive side can be quite dangerous. So can you talk a little bit about the competitive side of these fitness tracking app communities?
SK: Yeah, so these communities can also exist on a smaller scale. It could be your friendship circle and it could be a group at school. When these apps are out there like prominence and a lot of people were using them. You’re comparing your steps, you’re comparing your calories, burned your miles walked, what have you with other people? So this constant tracking obviously can lead to competitiveness with others. So you have this constant pressure on yourself, but also it kind of makes you compete with yourself too. So there’s two types of competitiveness going on with a group of other people and then with yourself because now you’re setting these limits and these goals of I was doing this up until this point, I didn’t do this yesterday, therefore, I’m not good. So this is particularly bad in relation to people with disordered eating habits or unhealthy relationships with exercise because sure that competitiveness can make you lose that weight that you’re wanting to. But we have to go back to ask like, why are you losing this weight too? So it’s kinda a loaded question, but I think some people see the competitiveness is a good thing or is the accountability. But I think it can spin out into dangerous territories very quickly. And I think there needs to be some responsibility on the app or on the user to modify that anyway they can, but it’s hard because you want to share your success with your friends. And if they’re doing the same thing, they share it with you. But it just breeds this competitive nature and I think it can get quite toxic.
JJF: And the apps, the ones that have these social aspects, they encourage you to share your success. Don’t they?
NC: Oh, absolutely. Like there’s a little prompt to share where you’re at, how you’re doing. Yeah, if you haven’t, I own Apple Watch and it will tell me you need to stand up for 10 min or you haven’t exercised today like if it had a personality and probably like, “What’s going on, are you okay?” But yeah. It reminds you when you’re not successful, if you have a dark past with exercise and I mean, some people could say just don’t wear it or just don’t participate. And I would say, okay, yeah, fair. Or we can create technology that is mindful of neurodiverse people.
JJF: So when you were thinking about these issues of the social competitive aspect of the apps, the possibility that this might be dangerous for a whole host of people and we’re gonna get into all of those risks. So we’ve mentioned neurodiversity. We’ve mentioned people perhaps with eating disorders, with perhaps past unhealthy relationships with exercise. And we will touch on all of that. But in just thinking about the surveillance which we’ve talked about and this kind of collaborative or competitive atmosphere. You in your research reached for a theory, several theories, but let’s get one theory on the table. So in analyzing your findings, you reached for Michel Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon. So can you tell us a little bit about what the panopticon is and then we’ll apply it afterwards.
SK: Absolutely. So before I delve into Foucault’s take on the panopticon, it’s important to note that the idea itself actually stemmed from Jeremy Bentham, who was a social theorists in the mid 1800s. Basically, his take on the panopticon was to build this prison system. So, I’m going to try and paint a picture of how it looks. So, imagine a guard tower in the center and then a circle all around the tower. And those were all of the prison cells. So the guards had a 360-degree view of all of the prison cells. But the prisoners and the cells were not able to see into the tower. So you are never sure of how many people are in there if you’re being watched, you don’t know that. So it creates this kind of like sociological effects of constant authority. So the prisoners are then on their best behavior because you don’t want to risk doing something. You’re not supposed to. If you don’t know you’re being watched. And that way they could also maximize the amount of prisoners, minimize the amount of guards, Right? Yeah. So you’ve got the tower in the center, prison cells all the way around the outside. And from the tower you can see into all the prison cells. But from each prison cell you can’t see into the tower exactly.
JJF: You could have like no guard in the tower. The prisoners wouldn’t know, right?
JJF: So the prisoners always have to act as though they’re always being watched because they never know when they are.
JJF: Yeah. So it’s like 24-7 nonstop surveillance as far as the prisoner knows.
SK: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. There could be nobody in there, but do you want to take that risk? No. Because you never know, right?
JJF: Things get perhaps more, I don’t know what they get. How does Foucault change this? I’ll just ask you that.
SK: So this is kind of like, omnipresent sense of authority and the subsequent self-policing that as a result of that is what inspired Michel Foucault and the 1970s. And so he theorized that the panopticon is kind of like a symbol of social control that normal people encounter daily and society. So basically, we end up policing ourselves as a result of the constant gaze of authority that we internalize. From institutions like policing or government. We know what is allowed and what isn’t, and we’re constantly policing ourselves as a result. So like an example I can give, say you’re in a store and it’s empty, other than one store clerk helping someone else, you’re most likely not going to steal something because you don’t know if there’s a camera somewhere you don’t see. You don’t know if there’s somebody watching you that you don’t know. So you are policing your behavior. And I think social media these days too, is a result of that. You don’t see those videos of people freaking out and being filmed. That teaches you to be on your behavior when you’re out in public because you don’t know who’s filming you or who could start filming you.
JJF: We all live in the prison cells now.
SK: Exactly we’re all the prisoners. And the eye in the sky. We don’t know whose eye it is or where it is, but there’s always this kind of sense that you could be being watched or other people are watching you. So do what is socially acceptable and don’t act immorally.
JJF: I think it’s also interesting though, because we’re also all the guards if we’re all carrying this around our smartphones, yeah, we’re all simultaneously the prisoners, but also the guards who are policing each other, right?
SK: Yeah, absolutely. In that actually happen quite often during the pandemic where people would go up to other people and yell at them for not wearing masks or yell at them for wearing masks. So yeah. So that was kind of like a big thing that reaffirms that. Yeah.
JJF: So why did you reach for Foucault discussion of the panopticon when you were thinking about these fitness tracking apps.
Sk: So in my mind, this constant tracking and this constant sharing means you fall victim to this constant gaze and pressure. It’s like you build this mini panopticon within yourself or within your little community of people doing the same sort of health tracking. But instead of policing your behavior to avoid consequences, I feel as though you’re policing your health habits because you’re in constant competition with others and yourself. This, like, optimally fit version of yourself or reach these goals that everyone is trying to reach. So, it does kind of contrast the panopticon in that way because you police yourself together, reward rather than to avoid a consequence. But I just thought it fit quite nicely because it is this constant tracking like you if you’re wearing it is 24/7, right? If you’re sharing it all the time, It’s the same thing. So you can’t really ever escape it until you kill the technology or take it off of you. Which is a whole another thing. Technology, I would say it’s also like to avoid scrutiny or the feeling of failing, which is almost like you are your biggest bully in that regard. You’re avoiding feeling bad about yourself. Or the shame from that community too, as we were discussing earlier. Same sort of deal.
JJF: Right. So this self surveillance, this internalizing of authority, such that you end up policing yourself or perhaps bullying yourself depending on your relationship with yourself.
JJF: So, we can do it for the reward, right? There’s a certain type of body I want, or there’s a certain type of fitness level that I am trying to aim for. But we can also do it to avoid, to avoid punishment, to avoid judgment both from ourselves and from others, right? I didn’t get my 10,000 steps today, which I totally didn’t today.
SK: Thanks for being honest.
JJF: Not happening.
NC: I have not and I will not.
JJF: That’s right.
SK: But yeah, I guess that’s true. Yeah. It is similar in that way to the panopticon to you or actually avoiding a consequence to, I didn’t actually really think of it that way. I see it more personally for myself as wanting to get that hit of dopamine when I, when I get my reward when I hit those 10,000 steps or whatever those goals. But yeah, I guess as well, that is very, you are avoiding that punishment or that.
JJF: I think this may also depend on individual perceptions like there definitely is a reward that can come through conformity to a norm totally, right? Either feeling like you belong in a community or feeling like you hit the goals that you placed for yourself. That feels good. There’s the dopamine hit sense of belonging feels really good too. But there is also this worry of a failure or of not belonging. And depending on, as we’ve been saying, your own position relative to other people at your own relationship with your body, it’s not clear which motivation is going to be stronger for you or what’s going to happen if you fail to meet your goal. If you fail to meet your goal for some people, it might be like try again tomorrow. And for other people, this might be a lot more feeling like judgment, feeling like a punishment.
SK: Yeah, very true. And I think I just proved that because my point of view as a reward and Natasha brought up a punishment. So exactly. Yeah, It really depends on experience.
JJF: Okay, So I think we’ve already been looking at this by talking about different people’s relationship to their bodies, different kinds of outlook that people can have. Natasha and Sarah, you’ve both identified your own different outlooks and what might influence those different outlooks that you had. So we’ve established that it’s a good thing that you have, you worked on this together. Different perspectives and goals and drivers that people might have going into this. But what’s really clear is regardless of your perspective, circles are drivers. There’s a really strong element of self-surveillance in these technologies. And as has already been teased, talking about the data that was collected, it’s not only self-surveillance, but also surveillance by the companies. Do we know when the companies are doing with the data that is collected from these apps?
NC: We do not know exactly.
JJF: Oh my God.
NC: Yes. For yeah, right. Shocked. I mean, we can make an educated guess as to where the information might be going. Fir example, Fitbit has confessed to selling our information to third parties like advertisers and insurance companies.
JJF: Oh, wow.
NC: Yes. Because that knowledge obviously can help those companies adjust like for example, their care plans to cater for the current market or upper premiums? Yeah. Yeah. These apps also have access to your location as it tracks your steps, which allows parties to collect information about local health status, surrounding area, which can mean they can see an overweight population, for instance, and then raise the price of health insurance because let’s be honest, the health community is fat phobic.
NC: You are deemed overweight, you’re flagged as being at risk for health complications and insurance companies don’t like risks, not to mention the fact that the apps are profiting off of unpaid labor, benefiting from surveillance capitalism. And as Sarah said at the convention, the period tracking apps, for example, just getting off of the fitness, but just tracking apps in general, given the current fight to overturn Roe v Wade, data, is informing people if they have a miscarriage which can be weaponized against women. This information is personal information, has the potential to have very harmful consequences. And that I found was a prime example of that.
JJF: Yeah. And there are, if I remember, some fitness apps specifically targeted to people who menstruate that to roll, fitness and fertility and menstruation kind of all-in and track all of it. There are oddly others that don’t seem to be aware that some of the people using their fitness apps menstruate, which is interesting.
SK: Yeah, especially because where you’re at in your cycle actually does impact how much energy you have or the exercise you’re able to do so, they should be. But also we really want them to be. Stop tracking everything. Please.
JJF: Right, for my own physical health that would be useful in terms of surveillance capitalism and datafication, Don’t track that.
SK: Keep your hands off my data. And as you said earlier, I think you always need to question why are things free? Why is this application free? Because they’re taking our data, they’re harvesting our data and they’re sharing it with third party companies. And if you understand the implications of that and the implications of surveillance capitalism particular, like you should be wary of that. But people don’t realize that, and they don’t, they just, you’re not going to read through the disclaimer at the beginning with a 3,000 words and you’re just not gonna do that. We don’t do that. So I think you need to critically think about the products you use and technology in particular, why is this free? It’s not free, but they never, never free.
JJF: So, a lot of the ones that you can put on your phone, for example, are quote unquote free. I’m using my air quotes here. There are others that you have to pay for, like Fitbits for example, and in that case, it’s almost like a double whammy, right? Yeah, you’re paying the company for the app and you are giving the company your data?
NC: And you’re making them money.
SK: Yeah. Yeah, super fun. And you’re wearing it so you’re advertising it.
JJF: Oh, I hadn’t even thought of that advertisement.
NC: Free advertisement.
JJF: And then also, it strikes me that the community involvement, whether it’s done well or poorly, That’s also labor, right? So if we’re motivating each other to meet our weight and exercise and fitness goals. That’s free labor in some ways that’s almost fulfilling, at least part of the role that I would expect, like a fitness person who I might hire a personal coach to fulfill that role. I would also expect them to actually be highly trained to be able to suggest, like, proper exercises for me and stuff like that. But part of their role is definitely to keep me motivated, right? So now that’s free labor being provided by the community. But the app gets to advertise this community aspect as part of why you might want to adopt the app. Wow.
JJF: Okay, so we know part of the goal of this surveillance is to make money on the part of the companies. But in terms of the surveillance and the self surveillance for myself, what kind of body or bodies are being promoted like? What’s the goal in terms of my own physical body, and my own physical fitness, what kind of bodies are advertised? What kind of bodies are promised? What did you find?
NC: I have two answers for this.
NC: I think one goal is to normalize the data vacation of the self is to make sure that we are learning how to police ourselves. I mean, it’s another way to normalize this self-surveillance, this stratification of the self under the guise that it’s beneficial to your health in order to capitalize off of our bodies as we’ve discussed? My second answer is, it’s promoting, like I said before, a neurotypical thin bodies. Those are the ones that these app cater to and those are the ones that these apps are trying to create. They’re not accessible to everyone. They haven’t even taken into account the different bodies that exists in this world.
JJF: So the advertising, If I’m understanding you correctly, largely normalizes bodies that are thin. Bodies that are non-disabled. Yeah. So you can select height and weight for these apps. Age. Can you select age when you input?
NC: It does have age yet. It has my height, my sex, my date of birth, my location.
JJF: So these apps are, the advertising for these apps shows us bodies that are thin, bodies that are non-disabled. And what are our choices when it comes to the gender of the bodies as represented in the media advertising for these apps, but also in terms of what you can input to the abs.
NC: Yeah, so in terms of gender, these apps do not accommodate for trans and non-binary people. It’s just they don’t allow. . . I did find one. There’s an app called Lose It. It’s the only app that I found in my research while when doing my research that allowed for a non-binary or prefer not to say option. But when you get into the discussion, is fitness have anything to do with gender? Why does, why, why is gender being brought into this discussion?
SK: Because biological determinism baby!
NC: Like it’s essentialism too.But yeah, so it’s not like they ignore gender. They, they, they inflamed the binary by saying, men should do this and women should do this.
JJF: And so it looks like in terms of the type of body promoted, we’ve got thin bodies, we’ve got non-disabled bodies, and we have the gender binary very much upheld.
JJF: Okay. So we have these apps collecting our data, giving us very normative, very traditional understandings of what kinds of exercise or appropriate of what kinds of bodies are appropriate. We have this panopticon issue where we are internalizing perhaps the norms from these apps and self-surveilling ourselves, collecting their own data. So in thinking about all of this, you also reached for another Foucault-type concept, a Foucauldian-inspired concept. And this is the concept of bio-pedagogy. So can you tell me a little bit about this and why you reached for this?
SK: So there’s a couple of different concepts I need to explain before we dive into bio pedagogies. So first one is biopolitics. And according to Foucault, biopolitics is when biology, politics intersect to ensure sustained and multiply life and then biopower on the other hand, I’m going to quote Foucault, “is understood as a number of phenomena, namely a set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species become the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of Power,” BI, power he essentially means here that it’s the, the power to produce and sustain populations. So, he says that the social institutions like government sustain populations via behavior control technologies to intersect the two. So once again, I’m going to take it back to America because this is so prevalent what’s happening right now, but the battle of reproductive rights right now is like an example of biopolitics. Whereas the stripping of the rights, because the state is claiming that women whose birth control or have abortions or bad women that harm society, that is an example of biopower. Then pedagogies refer to the methods used to teach others, both in theory and in practice. So biopedagogies is when we’re morphing biopower and pedagogies together. The fitness apps are biopedagogies because by constantly surveying our own bodies and collecting data, we’re then generating knowledge while simultaneously forming the social body on how bodies should look and how they should be. So, they’re taking the social constructs that have taught us what the ideal body type looks like. So skinny. And then take it one step further by modifying and enforcing the behaviors behind this, like walking 10,000 steps a day.
JJF: I think that biopedagogies are useful here to understand how the fitness apps operate. Because it’s easy to kind of brush them off as these superficial tools that are just, you know, to lose weight when it’s actually a bit more insidious than that. Like their impact I think is bigger than that, if that makes sense. Yeah, that was really, really helpful. Okay. It’s more than just a helpful tool to help me reach my fitness goals. These apps are teaching me how to exert biopower on my own body. They are teaching me what the norms are that my body needs to conform to. And then they’re teaching me what I need to do in order to conform. Things like walk ten thousand steps, drink eight glasses of water
SK: Which is wild too, because who’s to say that 10,000 steps is vital for every person?
JJF: So, we know the apps are teaching us what kind of bodies we’re supposed to try and make our bodies conform to what kind of body archetype or body archetypes were supposed to make our bodies can form two and as we’ve said, is upholding thin bodies, It’s upholding non-disabled bodies. It’s very much up holding the gender binary. It’s telling us what kind of exercises are appropriate given the input and the data we’ve given it about our bodies, our ages are gender, that kind of thing. But as you’ve teased a few times, the exercises and the recommendations and the regiments that these apps prescribed for us don’t necessarily serve everybody. Let’s talk about intersectionality and the ways in which the apps do or do not take intersectionality into account. So to what extent, if any, do any of these apps allow for non-normative bodies?
NC: I think these apps have a base model body that they create these plans for these diets, exercises, and I mainly focused on people with disabilities. They do not accommodate for disabled bodies.
JJF: Can you give an example of how one of these apps might fail to accommodate for disability?
NC: I think the large one is the focus on steps because not everyone walks, right? They teach that if you’re disabled, exercise isn’t for you. That’s basically like obviously they don’t outwardly say it, but it’s implied. And I went on specifically My Fitness Pal, their website, they have a comment section because I am an able-bodied person, so I can only theorize so much before I need to actually hear the opinions of people living with a disability. And I found a lot of conversations on there. People with a disability just asking, “Hey, how can I build muscle? How can I stay as active as I possibly can?” And people would just comment like, “You really can’t. You’re, you’re, you can only really focus on losing weight if you want to stay healthy because being skinny means healthy, right?” Apparently. Yeah, which is problematic. Absolutely. Because focusing solely on your diet can lead to like critical consequences. And it’s also just completely unfair. There are absolutely workouts for people living with disability and they can stay fit. It’s just we need to accommodate for that and maybe incorporate someone who has experience in this field to add that portion to these apps. Instead of outright saying this is not for you, this is a community that you cannot be a part of. And then that promotes ableist notions of health and fitness for the entire social body, right?
NC: Then it’s like we almost fear being a person living with a disability if anything were to happen to us.
NC: Because we are taught that we would lose access to so many things. But that’s not necessarily the case. We just need to create a community that’s accessible to everyone.
JJF: Yeah. I think if I remember your research correctly, one thing I thought was really striking and surprising to me was that you had researched specifically looking at the reports of somebody who is a wheelchair user. And the person said that basically these apps work as kind of calories on the one hand, calories in and calories out, right? I mean, that’s maybe a little over-simplistic, but kind of at the basic level, that’s how they work. And so, the idea is, you’re supposed to restrict the calories coming in and enhance the calories you expend. And if there are no exercises for you, because the app hasn’t taken into account the types of exercises that somebody who is a wheelchair user could do, or the types of exercises that would be appropriate for their body, what does the app suggest you do?
NC: Cut down even more on your calories.
JJF: The calories going in?
JJF: So just severely restrict your diet?
NC: Restrict your diet. Yeah. Yeah.
JJF: Wow. I mean, that strikes me as something that could potentially be quite dangerous.
NC: Yeah. Well, and that’s a lot of a lot of the times people end up developing eating disorders just from that alone. And I made an argument, our research in our project that I believe to be true that these apps not only facilitate eating disorders, but they can also be the cause and they create eating disorders. And I found a lot of opinions and studies that back that that opinion of mine up.
JJF: That kind of transitions to what I wanted to talk about next. So we’ve talked about a lot of ways in which the apps can be dangerous in terms of the datification, the date of getting into nefarious hands our private information ending up in places that upon reflection we may not want it to be. We’ve also talked a little bit about dangers in terms of cyberbullying in these communities. But can we talk more specifically about the dangers that these apps might pose for people for example who have a history of eating disorders.
NC: Yeah, a lot of that opinion sparked was sparked from personal experience. I downloaded MyFitnessPal when I was young and it kind of kickstarted a disordered relationship with food and exercise for me personally, and I’m 23 now, but it’s still around. It’s still around. It probably will be around for the rest of my life. So it’s disheartening and it’s scary because I don’t want this to continue on for younger generations. I think something genuinely needs to be done about it because otherwise we’re just going to be creating more disorders by letting this pass by and not taking it more seriously. And I think these companies negate responsibility a lot. They are health providers technically, when they don’t allow you to modify your profile to accommodate things that you genuinely need. Then it’s telling you to work off this base model of the perfect body, but not everyone has the perfect body. So then you’re working against yourself.
JJF: So for example, not being able to modify the allowance of calories in per day. Not being able to modify that maybe 10,000 steps a day is not appropriate or something like that. Not being able to modify to meet your own specific contextual needs means that you are constantly being pushed in the direction of this kind of normative body, which could result in a very unhealthy relationship with your own body.
SK: Well, then you’re also being praised or encouraged. Look how good you’re doing. You’re hitting your goals while you’re silently dying, while you’re under-eating and you’re overworking yourself and you’re doing this every single day. And that’s what’s so insidious about it. It’s shrouded in this false community when it results in a lot of silence, suffering, and it’s promoting these really unrealistic and unhealthy habits. And you could be like you could be just killing yourself slowly and it’s saying you’re doing so well, you’re hitting your limits and it’s like that’s what’s so scary about it. They have a responsibility while making this app to make sure that doesn’t happen with people who are susceptible to disordered eating or who have a history of it. I mean, it’s kind of on you, too. If you have a history, like probably, you know, don’t, don’t download the app, right? But for people that maybe don’t have that history, like how can this be avoided because it’s dangerous and if a girl that’s 12-years-old is downloading it, that’s really scary.
NC: Yeah. And kids definitely have access to cell phones at 12 years old. So, it’s not unheard of or impossible.
JJF: So, are there warnings on these apps when you download them?
JJF: No. So even if you did know that you had a history with this, without a warning on the app, you might not realize that it was going to cause a problem until you were into it?
NC: Yeah. And what’s crazy to me is that it has all the information. It has your age, your weight, your height. It has all the tools to notice that you are doing something unhealthy, but it doesn’t have a flag or a warning or like a link to a helpline right? No link to a crisis line or Kids Help Phone or anything like that. And to be honest, the way that I used it back when I was in the thick of it, 100%. It should have said something because it was like my religion. I put everything, I calculated everything. Yeah. And it did nothing.
SK: Well, you’d become this prisoner to it, like I remember being like what, 15. And it’s like I’m inputting a piece of an apple in it that’s, that’s terrifying, you know? And it’s just, it’s such a slippery slope, right? And I think I’m really glad we’re able to come and talk about this today because maybe people don’t really know that. They’re not aware of it. Like, I don’t really hear people talking about it that much. Some people might assume that everyone knows because it kind of, it kind of goes hand in hand with, of course, this is going to be a tool that promotes disordered eating, but a lot of people don’t realize that and were sold this idea that like being skinny and healthy is the number one goal. So do everything it takes, not realizing that people can develop eating disorders that slowly kill them. And it’s such a silent disease. And so many people are affected by it and so many people are not aware.
NC: There is such a thing as an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy.
SK: And that itself is an eating disorder called orthorexia. I think a lot of people currently suffering through that convince themselves that it’s not bad because trying to be healthy. Nothing promotes balance. And I think at the end of the day balances the answer to all of these things. Nothing is teaching us about listening to our body and what our body needs, how to nurture our body under that guise of health. Balance. It’s these extremes instead and these extreme behaviors and this constant tracking. And I think we need to, as a society start to move away from that because we need to learn to nurture ourselves.
NC: I want these apps to remind me to eat a doughnut. Where’s that reminder? Have you treated yourself today?
JJF: So I think we’ve covered a lot of the potential harms and real-world harms that you both experienced when using these apps. And thank you very much for sharing your personal experiences with us. I think it’s really important for people to know that. We’ve covered a lot of the dangerous, a lot of the pitfalls and using these apps, I want to ask if in your research you found that there are any potential benefits of using these apps, for example like having aspects of your health care data be in your own hands. We know it’s not only in your own hands, but it is in your own hands. It’s there and you can see your heart rate and things like that.
NC: Sarah and I tossed around the idea that these apps could be helpful towards collecting evidence regarding your own health history in case a medical provider tried to gaslight you. We couldn’t find anything to back that up. I mean, it has validity if you consider the amount of times women have been turned away while literally having a heart attack because our voices aren’t taken seriously.
SK: People of color as well.
NC: Exactly. Yeah, you could also apply that theory to any minority group because they have the highest risk for complications while under the care of a health provider.
SK: I know also from a study I did find older generations quite liked the fact that the data was able to be shared because it actually helped them with their health insurance, had seen their medical history. So even though there’s this misconception for say, but this notion that older generations don’t like the idea of their privacy being infringed upon. In this instance, they actually were quite happy with it and they supported the idea because they had all of this history to backup whatever claims or to get their health insurance sorted. So there’s one instance where we did find something, but yeah, like Natasha said, it’s hard to find studies proving like, this has benefited this minority who is typically not believed in the medical community. But I think we can maybe make a tiny assumption that, that could be a positive.
JJF: So we have a theoretical possibility that this could be quite helpful for marginalized groups in being able to collect their own data, to show that data to a health care practitioner who might otherwise be dismissive of their concerns because of the prejudicial social structures that we live in?
JJF: You also found actual concrete evidence that there are at least some cases when older generations find having this data ready to hand useful in terms of insurance?
JJF: I think there’s also some evidence that some people find the datafication like this quite empowering for helping them to reach certain fitness goals. So we know that it can be really dangerous for some people and it can be really helpful for other people. I think if I’m understanding your conversation correctly, what we want is, first of all, more transparency in terms of what is happening with our data. We want accountability. That because these apps can be quite dangerous, we want there to be warning labels. We want people to know that there is a risk, there’s a real risk of you developing a disordered relationship with food for example, or disordered relationship with exercise for example, and we really need more nuance and how these apps are developed, designed, promoted, marketed to account for more than just two genders, more than just skinny, more than just non-disabled?
NC: Precisely. A slight positive that I did find or not so much a positive, but a more nuanced account to exercise and tracking for a person with a wheelchair. In my research, I did find that Apple Watch has this ability to detect the different terrain that a person in a wheelchair might be on. So, for example, they’d be able to detect if they were on asphalt or grass or gravel. And in that case, they would also then be able to predict how much energy and exertion you are doing, I guess, dependent on that because it’s obviously probably more difficult to get across a field of grass in a wheelchair then it would be on pavement. So in that regard, Apple Watch has, it’s starting to be more conscientious. But that was genuinely the only adaptation I can find.
JJF: I want to thank you both so much for joining me today to share your research on fitness tracking apps. Sarah and Natasha, is there anything else you’d like to leave our listeners with regarding self surveillance, panopticon, bio pedagogy, and/or the datafication of health?
SK: I think to sum up, my stance on everything, and I think if you can set your goals and moderation and use these apps intuitively than maybe they can be. Okay, and if you have a kind of already established healthy relationship with your body and your needs, you could use them sparingly. But then I want everyone to come away with this thinking like, why do you need to be tracking yourself every day? What good actually comes from it? I think it’s almost better to walk for 30 min or an hour every day then hit an amount of steps. It takes the pressure off. I ask everyone to kind of try to maybe listen to what feels good and be consistent with that. And yeah, just kinda investigate why, why it is you think these apps are beneficial to you and what you get from them. And in addition to bringing awareness till the problematic issue. But yeah, just really unpack your intentions.
NC: Yeah, I would say definitely. I would want listeners to leave this podcast and be able to check their privilege where they have it. And mindful of the bodies that don’t have access to a lot of this technology. And also just that you are the best person to determine what is right for your body. So you need to take that as highest priority. Don’t take an application or a social norm standard as the end-all be-all goal. You need to trust your gut and go with what makes you feel happy and whole. We’re only on this planet for such a short amount of time.
JJF: This episode of Gender, Sex and Tech continued the conversation begun at Douglas College when Natasha and Sarah were students there. I really want to thank Natasha and Sarah for sharing their research findings with me today and for sharing their own personal experiences with fitness tracking apps. And thank you listener for joining me for another episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. If you would like to continue the conversation further, please reach out on Twitter @tech_gender. Or you could leave a comment on this podcast. Or maybe you could consider creating your own podcast, video or other media format to continue the conversation in your own voice. Music provided by Epidemic Sound. This podcast is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from the Mark Sanders foundation for Public Philosophy. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider buying me a coffee. You’ll find a link to my Ko-Fi page in the show notes. Until next time everybody. Bye.