iFat. Or self-flagellation 101

Content note: Contains description of body shaming weight loss mobile apps and an ironic mention of weight-loss surgery

One of the presentations at this week’s Weight Stigma Conference was entitled ‘Digitising Fat – Digital technologies, Embodiment and the Governance of Fat?’ by Dr Emma Rich. She talked about the rise in mHealth – the use of mobile technology as health tools. Apparently, there are over 97,000 mHealth apps available, with diet apps being the most downloaded.

Apps that purport to help individuals lose weight,  range from the at least trying-to-be-sensible-and-respectful, to the truly horrific. They have names like The Fat Terminator app (as the wonderful Deb Burgard said on hearing this, in her best Arnie impression, “The fat will be baaaack.” Then there’s Carrot Fit, which prides itself on being “your judgmental fitness overlord” (emphasis in the original). If you’re a ‘good girl’, and let’s face it, these things are predominantly marketed at women, it says something nice to you. If you have gained weight, you get something like the image on the right – make sure to read the text at the bottom if you want to make yourself feel ill with impotent rage. 

Getting back to the target market for these products, somebody asked a question about whether these apps were particularly gendered. I mentioned the Nenshou app, a Japanese weight-loss app aimed at men. A cute manga-nised young girl encourages the guys and compliments them with every workout, every pound lost, tells them how studly they are. They brought out a women’s version. Cute manga-nised young men insult you and call you names until you’re thin enough for them to date you. Nice.

In the world of mHealth, the move is increasingly towards ‘wearable technology’ – things like the FitBit and the Nike Fuel Band. Apps no longer simply track your movement or food intake, but they are increasingly interactive, sending you prompts if you don’t do ‘enough’, and yes, abusing you for your self-betterment. They are also being made more and more integrated with other platforms. You can share your information with your friends, challenge them to competitions, proudly post your virtuosity on your facebook page, to twitter, or whatever app young people are using now that old folks like me have never heard of. You can wear your righteousness on your sleeve. Literally. 

The also-wonderful Stacy Bias, who also presented a paper at the conference, tweeted this:

It sounded very clever so I re-tweeted it, but being a number-crunching biomedical scientist by trade, who doesn’t understand words like ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘post-feminist’, I had to have it explained to me later.

Basically, what this is about, is self-policing. Foucault talked about how we modern society has taught us to replace external authoritarianism with self-surveillance – becoming our own gaolers, if you will. And not only do we police ourselves but we also act as our own discipliners when we transgress. In fact, this has become so entrenched in our modern societies that we don’t even notice we’re doing it. We happily participate in our own subjugation. (He said a lot of other stuff too, and I’m sure I’m not doing this credit, but I think that’s the gist of it.)

I had my brief introduction to Foucault over pancakes this morning, and then in a wonderful example of synchronicity, more-or-less, I was sitting with my husband having a glass of wine this evening, looking out over a London street, with fabulous 4-storey Georgian-style buildings that I adore, when he said: “You know, even if we lived in London, those houses wouldn’t really be good for you, with all those stairs.” I have bad ankles, bad knees, and bad asthma. I’m not good with stairs. The living in London part isn’t a real option. We sometimes joke about what we’ll do when we win the lottery and are really rich and can do whatever we want. A central London pad is usually in there somewhere. So I turned to him and joked, “But when we win the lottery, I’ll have my knees replaced and my ankles fixed, have liposuction, and get myself a personal trainer.” “Oh,” he said, “I thought you were going to say [...] we’ll have lifts installed.”

Foucault would turn in his grave.



2 Responses

  1. I’ve been using a Fitbit for over a year. I admit, when I first got it, I tried the calorie tracking function and actually lost a bit of weight, but I stopped doing it as I felt the insidious effects of disordered eating creeping up on me. I do actually love the step counter function and am fascinated by the estimation of calories burned, which, I suspect is pretty close to the truth. I take note of the calorie information but I don’t let it freak me out. The step count is information that I pay attention to and quite often, if I haven’t reached a decent number (by my reckoning), I’ll go out for a nice little walk. Full disclosure: right now, my step count is very low (not even worth wearing the Fitbit!), having had a knee replacement just three weeks ago. If you can avoid a knee replacement through exercise (of course, in consultation with a good physiotherapist), that should be your first line of defense. A knee replacement is a BIG deal and requires an enormous amount of commitment to rehab. It’s actually an operation for young, relatively fit people!

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