content warning: body image
When I was in the third grade, everyone got pedometers from our teacher. They were small and red, like a plum-sized cherry. I wanted to eat mine. Instead, we spent the rest of the day shaking them in our hands in a competition to see who could rack up the most "steps" by the end of the day. By the time we got on the buses, I was wearing mine proudly on my belt loop, happy to be a part of this game we were playing. Happy to have spent the day shaking a little rattling pedometer, counting steps that I was faking. I didn’t really understand why we were doing it, but I thought playing the game was more fun than watching it happen.
In the third grade, I was also diagnosed as obese. The pediatrician said the word “obese” to my mom as if I wasn't able to hear him. For him, it seemed as long as he wasn't looking at me, I wasn't in the room. To my mother, he suggested less sugar and more exercise.
My mom stopped buying the chocolate muffins that we liked and I started running to the top of the street and back. My street was a cul-de-sac, with a sewer punctuating the loop at the end. I lived in the loop, so I would start on the rusty sewer lid. Then I would jog up the street, my child body angling forward. It was my first attempt at losing weight.
Family lore said that the girls of my family had chubby childhoods that melted away during puberty. Regardless of that prophecy, my family seemed ashamed of my body for the time being. Like a fat child is a problem to fix. Like a fat child is someone—something—to wish away by adulthood. In my child's mind, I knew that they were wishing away the fatness. I worried if I did not lose weight, they would soon wish me away too. Before I could become the skinny person everyone wished me into being.
I remember standing in the shower, watching rivulets of water run over my stomach, hoping for it to erode me away. Fatphobic comments, perpetuated with varying degrees of willingness by family, friends, and media, had me wishing myself away.
One of the leading logics of American weight loss culture is that you should burn more calories than you consume in a given day. This mentality is generally preoccupied with Eurocentric body standards and conceptions of beauty, including whiteness, thinness, wealth, and ability. Those profiting off weight loss products have spent years contributing to these Eurocentric standards, targeting consumer demographics most likely to buy into those ideals while isolating the rest. Now they are responding to established weightloss culture with new technological “innovation.” One such tech product is the Fitbit.
In 2017 alone, Fitbit shipped approximately 15.4 million units worldwide, according to Statista. The Fitbit is a piece of wearable technology that retails for about $150 and is typically worn on a wristband, functioning as a calorie tracker and pedometer. These data points that it collects—those of movement and caloric burn—contribute to an American fitness culture centered on weight loss and thinness. Meanwhile, the company is profiting.
With recent technological strides, “bodyhacking,” or infusing the body with technology to wield heightened control over it, has become increasingly enticing as a practice and as a place of study. In her essay “Bodyhackers are all around you, they’re called women,” tech writer Rose Eveleth notes, “The rise of grinders—hackers who open up their bodies and insert things like chips, magnets, sensors and more” has been steady within the past decade. Bodyhacking has been traditionally presented as based on implantable and wearable tech, like the Fitbit. Eveleth was curious to understand why her Intrauterine Device (IUD) wasn’t considered a form of bodyhacking among the bodyhacking community. She argues that the male dominated community does not consider her birth control to be a technology, and wrongly so.
The argument that birth control is bodyhacking opens up a whole new consideration of the ways we use technology to regulate and control our bodily processes. Including birth control in this category is useful because it represents an example of bodyhacking that puts the user in control of their body. It says: I chose this. I’m a cyborg, not a lamb surrounded by robots.
The Fitbit, on the other hand, represents bodyhacking that aims to shape the body into a societally idealized form. The watch becomes an (almost) permanent extension of the body, even while it clinically tracks the user’s body. Users become cyborgs motivated to make themselves smaller. Weight loss can easily become obsessive and destructive, especially when it gives the individual a sense of control.
Additionally, the ability to pursue weight loss ideals often requires class privilege, whether it’s having the disposable income to have leisure time to workout, afford access to a gym and weight loss oriented food, or be able to afford gadgets like the Fitbit itself. The sleek, pricey little piece of metal is akin to Airpods in saying: Hey, I can afford this.
I am not judgmental of people who wear Fitbits. But I am unsettled by a culture that normalizes weight loss as a constant ideal. I am concerned about technology quantifying the movement and location of our bodies. Consumer data in the fitness market is often explicitly about the body of the consumer. I am worried about the information Fitbits are gathering about us, but I am also worried about what they’re teaching us. Fitbits give us information about our bodies that enables us to make our bodies smaller and over-exert ourselves. That is to say, Fitbits can train the cyborg user to self-destruct.
Most users set a daily goal of total steps made, with the arbitrary ideal goal being 10,000 steps. The Fitbit distances users from their bodies by creating external incentives, even as they micromanage their bodies. When users reach their daily step goals, the Fitbit dings. According to a study on dopamine by The Journal of Mental Disorders and Treatment, “There are four major pathways for the dopaminergic system in the brain,” one of which being the pathway for “pleasure and reward seeking behaviors.” Tech companies, like Fitbit, create rewards as simple as pings and vibrations to incentivize frequent use from their users.
I imagine myself in the third grade, running up and down my short street, going nowhere and feeling awful. I wasn’t exercising to feel connected to my body or release stress. I wasn’t running to catch a friend in a game of tag. I was running because I was told that I was sick and would get sicker if I didn’t lose weight. The task of doing so felt impossible and scary. I would have listened to a little watch beeping at me if I had one at the time.
I can understand why people wear Fitbits.The Fitbit gives users a sense of control. For many, their first awareness of their own body comes in an awareness of their urge to change it.
Weight loss culture did not begin with the Fitbit. In 2015, a study by Common Sense Media found that “one in four children has engaged in some type of dieting behavior by age seven and that 80% of ten-year-old American girls have been on a diet.” The Fitbit is not to blame for the conflation of weight loss with health; however, it has perfected the use of tech to incentivize our behavior around weight loss.
I can’t stop thinking about the the red pedometers we got in third grade. Where did everyone’s end up? In the bottom of an underwear drawer? In the garbage? Pedometer: In American English, pedo means child, but it can also mean of the earth. The Greek root pais means small animal. Meter, meaning to measure, meaning to measure the small animal of our body. Our bodies grow into adulthood, if we are lucky, but we do not easily forget the things we learn as small animals. We do not shed our memories as easily as we lose a little red plastic toy.
Fitbit has a new model called the Ace, intended for children ages eight and up. The Ace is a small component that can be worn as a child's watch. It tracks movement and heart rate, and can be synced to mobile apps on which kids can “set fitness goals, compete with friends and family members on leaderboards, and unlock digital badges for certain milestones.” As we know, children are already taught to worry about their weight. Now they are being targeted by Fitbit to track their bodies in new ways, presumably creating a new generation of consumers for the brand.
I am trying to unlearn the attitudes that I have learned around weight growing up. I wish I could say that I’m not treated differently as a thin person than I was as a fat person, but that would be a lie. As a thin, white woman, I benefit from the body ideals that make weight loss culture and Fitbits so marketable. When I hate my body, it is because I feel I’ve failed to meet an ideal rather than being excluded from that ideal altogether.
When white women prioritize thinness as a tenet of their power, they exacerbate pre-existing Eurocentric ideals of beauty. When they chase these ideals, and vocalize their failure to meet them, they normalize the idea that anyone can be “too fat.” In my traumatic encounters with medical professionals and dangerous weight loss behavior during adolescence, I coped by disparaging my body. For a time, nitpicking my body was a way of coping. I do not blame myself for coping in that way; it was the only way I knew. But I know now what I couldn’t see then: I know now that my coping strategies have consequences for those around me. The way I talk about my body affects not only myself, but those who hear me. When I say I hate my body, who will hear that as a condemnation of their own body? When we say any body is bad, whose are we saying are good?
Unlearning weight loss culture will be an imperfect, life long process for me. My body will grow into adulthood, if I’m lucky, but there are things that are hard to forget. I reach back through time and hug who I was, counting nothing, just exhaling and hearing where the breath overlaps. I bite into the plum-sized cherry pedometer, and it tastes sweet.
DANA SCHNEIDER B’20 is an adult who buys her own damn chocolate muffins.