Fitbit

The Fitbit is a piece of wearable technology that retails for $150. It is typically worn as a wristband and functions as a calorie tracker and odometer. These data points that it collects—those of movement and caloric burn, contribute to an American fitness culture centered on weight loss and thinness. With recent technological strides, bodyhacking, or infusing the body with technology to wield heightened control over it, has become popular. The Fitbit represent bodyhacking that aims to shape the body into a societally idealized form: one of whiteness, thinness, wealth, and ability.

Biases Worn and Walked: The Fitbit

In 2017 alone, Fitbit shipped approximately 15.4 million units worldwide.[1] Their products have a modern premise: track your body in quantifiable data through the use of an innocuous wristband. The products allow a greater level of accuracy in counting the number of steps taken, calories burned, and heart rate than ever before. In the past, people have not possessed the ability to number the functions of their body in these ways. Now they have access to statistical knowledge about their bodies on a daily basis, allowing them to monitor, manage, and respond to their bodies in new ways.

Most users are probably not considering their use of the Fitbit at such an existential level. It is ubiquitous enough that it has ceased to be thought of as a form of advanced technology. Children (from middle and upper class families, predominantly) have been raised viewing their Baby Boomer parents wearing Fitbits. In her essay “Bodyhackers are all around you, they’re called women,” tech writer Rose Eveleth quotes Alan Kay in saying, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”[2] She uses this quote in the context of trying to understand why her Intrauterine Device (IUD) wasn’t considered a form of bodyhacking—that is, inserting or wearing a device that helps the user control the way their body functions. Part of her proposed reasons is that the IUD has become too commonplace to be viewed as remarkable. The same can be said for Fitbits. They have been worn by too many and are now being worn by young individuals who for the most part have never known a world without them. This type of bodily numbering has ceased to be novel even as the Fitbit rises as a form of everyday bodyhacking. Those who wear it, according to scholar Donna Haraway’s conceptions of cybernetic organisms as “a hybrid of machine and organism,” are cyborgs.[3]

The commonplace nature of the Fitbit means that we as consumers and users are less likely to think critically about the role it can take on in our own lives. Paired with conceptions of technology in which it is treated as an objective tool above human biases, the Fitbit can be viewed as an innocuous tool. However, I argue that the Fitbit is a tool that carries the racial, class-based, and gendered biases of the society from which it was created.

When the internet was newly introduced, it was proposed as a genderless, raceless space. As a technological space removed from physical human contact, it was thought to be a bias-free, universal and equalizing force. But we know that biases aren’t just manifested through physical space. They are carried through thought patterns—thought patterns that are embedded into the technology designed by the humans who harbor these biases. In her book Digitizing Race, Lisa Nakamura argues against the idea of technology as a bias-free entity.

Nakamura claims about the biases embedded within and continued by technology speak to the capabilities of the Fitbit as a reinforcement of embodied dominant identities. In her chapter on representation online through avatars, she gives the example of how “numerous feminist critiques of female gaming avatars in Tomb Raider and Everquest have shown, the narrow range of body types available for gameplay certainly deprives female players of the right to control their data images in ways that feel comfortable to them.”[4] The narrow selectivity of female avatars—avatars with unrealistically slim waists and large breasts—in these games centers play on male players. In choosing, either consciously or subconsciously, to limit the diversity of representation for female players in the game, the designers make clear who they intend to play. The design of the game carries information that signals two things to potential players: 1) The game is primarily intended for men and 2) If you are a woman playing, the designers think you should ideally look like the slim and unattainably beautiful female avatars included in the game.

Nakamura’s discerning commentary on avatars and gendered gameplay illustrate the point: technology in general operates as a vehicle for the people it was designed by. The Fitbit is no different. It carries its own biases that script who should use it and how those who use it should conceive of themselves. The first way it does this is through cost. The Fitbit Alta HR, one of the company’s most popular models, costs an initial $150. Additional costs, such as accessories, raise the cost from there. The hefty price tag indicates that this product is primarily intended for those with significant disposable income—solidly middle class to upper class individuals. Its design as a tool for health-conscious people then carries ideas about who should have access to health: that wealthy people are healthy and that healthy people are wealthy. Movement, thinness, class, and success become entangled in one another. People wearing Fitbits are displaying a certain amount of wealth to those around them while showing that they care about moving a certain amount during the day. These narratives, enforced through design, marketing, and consumption, contribute to societal understandings of fitness and class: that those who are fat are that way because they are intrinsically unmotivated. Similar myths surround poverty and together portray the slim and wealthy as inherently motivated. The price of the Fitbit signals that fitness is primarily a concern of the wealthy and that vice versa, wealth may be a byproduct of fitness and slimness. Therefore, the first biases ingrained in the Fitbit are those of a classist nature, including the ways that fatphobia and classism are intertwined.

These fatphobic biases are continued through the selection of data which the Fitbit tracks. If we are to think of wearing a Fitbit as a form of bodyhacking—which again, is infusing the body with technology to wield heightened control over it—then the thing Fitbit is setting out to control is important. The primary data that the Fitbit collects is calories burned and steps taken. What is the value of a calorie and a step in terms of understanding the well-being of your body? It is a measure of a biological process of converting food to heat, with heat being energy that helps all your other biological functions occur. Most do not think about calories in terms of their goodness, as a way of your body being allowed to function, to move, to live. As a way of the body being well. The simplistic view of health and wellness as a matter of frequent movement resulting in relative thinness is one of someone with overlapping privilege identities: white, able-bodied, and non-low-income. Scholar Maria Velazquez writes of resistive narratives of health and wellness to those of the Fitbit in saying “Black blogs on wellness are part of this ongoing struggle. These histories…offer an opportunity to consider trauma as a ‘structure of feeling’ endemic to living in a racist and classist police state.”[5] This insight offers nuance to the Fitbit’s conception of the body as a machine unburdened by emotion, by trauma. There are impediments to the movements it scripts, not just in physical restrictions of ability, but also in the form of psychological perceptions of our own bodies. Velazquez is arguing that for some black women, health and wellness is more than movement—it is coming to terms with the external forces that internalize self-hatred and fear.

The Fitbit’s tracking of calorie burn contributes to this self-hatred. To become better, healthier versions of themselves, users must make themselves smaller. Thinness as a Eurocentric beauty standard is the goal. Calories are something to rid the body of in this type of bodily counting. As for steps, the movement of walking becomes a concrete, externalized means of the caloric burn. You cannot see the numbers of the calories in your body decreasing without the Fitbit; however, you can sense how much you’ve walked in a day. By combining statistics for both of these measures, the Fitbit effectively scripts the user to move more. It becomes a game—setting goals of calories burned or steps traveled in a day (frequently 10,000). The prize of the game (thinness) becomes subconscious and internalized as the immediate reward of achieving the set number of steps and receiving a small buzz as reward from the bracelet becomes the primary interaction with the Fitbit.

Even for those whom the Fitbit was designed to idealize, the white and the thin, the Fitbit can create an unsettling distance between body and self. To burn calories for the sake of burning is to treat the body without mercy.

For those excluded, the Fitbit represents access to feelings of bodily loveliness and beauty (albeit at the cost of objectification) that society often discourages them from feeling. For those included, they are pressured to maintain their bodies to these ideals while projecting their own fears about fatness, skin color, and poverty onto vulnerable groups around them. In this charting of fitness onto the bodies of the thin, the white, the wealthy, visual displays of fitness culture become a way of performing these dominant identities. Wearing the Fitbit can focus as a medal of societal privilege, flashing implicit meaning to those who also wear them and those who don’t.

Returning to Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, she positions cyborg bodies, which I believe she would consider those of the Fitbit users to be, as a point of tension between social reality and fiction. There is the physical reality of the user’s body—their organs, their heart pumping blood throughout the circulation system to these organs, food being consumed, broken down, and used for energy. But there are also the social fictions of how they conceive of their bodies. They may conceive of a body that functions well but has visible rolls of fat around the abdomen as unhealthy. Internal biological processes become of a lesser priority to the aesthetics of fitness: visible muscle tonnage, a lack of fat so that you can see these muscles, thinness. The conception of physical wellness is fictionalized into thinness and mapped onto the dominant identities of those who have access to thinness.

 

Works Cited

Eveleth, Rose. “Bodyhackers Are All around You, They’re Called Women.” Splinter, Splinternews.com, 26 Apr. 2016, splinternews.com/bodyhackers-are-all-around-you-they-re-called-women-1793856408.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature(New York; Routledge, 1991), p. 5.

Nakamura, Lisa. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Velazquez, Maria.“Reblog If You Feel Me.” Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: an Intersectional Feminist Analysis, by Beth Berila et al., Lexington Books, 2016.

“Wearable Sales by Vendor (Apple, Samsung Etc.) 2014-2017 | Statistic.” Statista, www.statista.com/statistics/515634/wearables-shipments-worldwide-by-vendor/.

[1] Statista

[2] Eveleth Rose, Bodyhackers are all around you, they’re called women (Splinter, 2016).

[3] Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto (New York; Routledge, 1991), 5.

[4] Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 37.

[5] Maria Velazquez, Reblog if You Feel Me (Lexington Books Lanham, 2016), 180.