Body & Health

International Conference: Laboring Bodies and the Quantified Self
Friday, 05 Oct 2018
Chair: Juliane Strätz

Katharina Motyl, University of Tübingen, Germany

Compulsive Self-Tracking: When Quantifying the Body Becomes an Addiction

There can be no doubt that biometric self-tracking has helped numerous constituencies improve their health: the diabetic, the clinically obese, the recovering drug addict, to name but a few. However, for some, striving for self-optimization and better health qua mhealth technologies has, in fact, resulted in ‘self-disimprovement,’ that is, in deteriorated health and diminished quality of life. I refer to those whose practices of self-tracking are no longer a matter of volition, but of compulsion: quantifying their bodies has become an addiction. Consider the case of Jeff Foss, a self-described “Strava addictˮ who recounts that he realized his use of the fitness-tracking app had become compulsive when he felt the urge to track his physical activity while out on a rescue mission to find a friend who had gone missing on a hike (Foss 2014). Or the case of William Flint, who died racing down a descent on his bicycle in the Berkeley Hills in 2010, having propelled himself to reckless speed seeking to reclaim Strava’s ‘King of the Mountain’ reward for the fastest time on a particular route; Flint had been notified on the morning of his death that another user had broken his record (cf. Holcombe 2013).

Self-tracking’s addictive potential seems to be intensified by two phenomena: first, mhealth technologies not only store a user’s own past data so that fitness-trackers, for instance, can compete against their own high score; they also allow users to share their data with others so that someone tracking their calorie intake can see how little user x managed to eat that day. In the context of calorie-tracking apps, physician Debbie Mueller maintains that connecting with other users has little to do with mutual support of the self-help variety, but with competitiveness, which can easily turn unhealthy (qtd. in Newman 2015). Second, users of specific self-tracking technologies tend to immerse themselves in online environments dedicated to related content; for instance, fitness-trackers will often follow ‘fitspiration’ feeds on pinterest and those using apps such as ‘Clean Eating Meal Plan’ will often follow #cleaneating threads on instagram and twitter (cf. Simpson and Mazzeo 2017b).

Whereas compulsive behavior is injurious to mental health per se, the compulsive drive to ride faster, consume fewer calories or eat healthier than one’s past self and other users may additionally, as Flint’s death indexes, have dire consequences or entail concomitant health disorders such as anorexia or exercise addiction. For instance, Courtney Simpson and Suzanne Mazzeo have shown that the use of fitness-tracking and calorie-counting technologies is a predictor for exercise addiction and eating disorders (Simpson and Mazzeo 2017a).

While some may consider compulsive self-tracking an excessive aberration from an otherwise beneficial practice, I contend that compulsive self-tracking takes the rationale underlying the practice of self-tracking in capitalist societies to its logical conclusion: self-tracking represents a “technology of the selfˮ (Foucault 1988), whereby users mobilize quantifying bodily data to render their bodies more productive or to turn their bodies into more beautiful commodities, and thus, to discipline their bodies in accordance with the ideological regimes of productivity and beauty concomitant to the capitalist economic order. The production of goods is a constant repetition in capitalism; given that addiction can be defined as the need to repeat an activity as a result of having engaged in said activity in the past (Zieger 2008: 3), compulsive self-trackers appear as capitalism’s ‘perfect subjects:’ whereas ‘non-pathological’ subjects discipline themselves via governmentality in order to better conform to capitalism’s reigning ideologies (cf. Weiner 2009), compulsive self-trackers have additionally subjected their striving for more productive bodies to the repetitive and constant rhythm of the capitalist mode of production.


Sabine Sielke, University of Bonn, Germany

The Increasingly Obese Body: Comfort in Food and the Future of Fat

It may seem paradoxical, but is it? On the one hand, current technologies and new knowledges in fields of the biosciences and medicine have enabled us to track and optimize our bodies’ physiology and shape, driving many into adopting a rigid regime of ‘self-perfection,’ including physical exercise, specific diets, and possibly enhancing drugs. On the other, all over the world bodies become increasingly overweight, if not obese. What once was most evident in the US has meanwhile turned into a global “epidemic” (Gard and Wright), as the number of overweight people has come to exceed those who are underweight (GBD 2015 Obesity Collaborators). Over a decade ago, both the World Health Organization and Club of Rome had already identified obesity as a key health and economic issue; now fatness is irrevocably the most persistent driving force of potentially fatal illnesses (e.g., high blood pressure and diabetes) which have outnumbered deaths by infections – all over the globe.

How can we account for this polarized development, these coinciding, yet seemingly contradictory obsessions with a (supposedly) healthy body and the intake of (unhealthy) foods, two practices that no longer neatly correspond with class divisions? On average, experts point out, humans smoke and drink too much, move too little, tend to feed badly, and, as a consequence, become progressively heavy-weight (Albrecht). How come, though, I wonder, that the pressure to self-optimize and the desire to take comfort in food concur? Part of the reason is that both our wish to slim down and optimize as well as our up-sizing eating habits are driven by neoliberal consumer culture that relentlessly increases our appetites – be it for self-tracking apps or for foodie life styles. Moreover, what was once a stigmatized exception is slowly but surely turning into the accepted, naturalized norm – at enormous economic and mental expense.

My essay engages what I call “the increasingly obese body” and its increasing ‘normality’ by looking at the multiple discourses involved in its design, ranging from advertisements for food and fashion to debates on its class, race, and gender contours to statistics by the WHO and other institutions that account for the state of the human body. Interrogating the growing field of fat studies, I am particularly interested in moments when fat and downsized bodies run into each other, so to speak, and collide. My contribution is inspired by a long-standing personal interest in these matters, by my own work on bodies, gender, and fashion, and by my experience of facing an increasingly obese student body.

Dorothee Schneider, University of Kiel, Germany

“I track my cicle religiously”: Representations of Fertility Tracking and Childlessness in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs

Other than tracking calorie intake, steps or heart rate, the female body can also be quantified in terms of the menstrual cycle and fertility. App creators have realized this potential (and market value) and offer a variety of apps, such as Glow, Flo Period Calendar or Eve, to track menstruation, often including the possibility to log the severity of bleeding and additional symptoms such as cramps, nausea or mood swings, and when one has had sex. Many of these apps offer the tracking of body temperature, birth control (with a pill reminder) and can predict the user’s ovulation window. Therefore, these apps can be and are used to prevent pregnancy or to help with conception. Other apps are even more directly marketed to help with conception, with some offering the ability to connect to other smart devices, such as apple watch (Clue) or a thermometer (Kindara, 129$ for the thermometer).

What, then, are the implications of this tracking of the female body? On which assumptions about the able-bodied, cis-gender female body are these apps based? How does this influence women who are trying to get pregnant? What expectations of the female body do these apps create? Do they cause women to view their bodies differently? Does the constant tracking improve body awareness or does it create additional stress or feelings of guilt? In my paper I analyze the presentation of a selection of these tracking apps marketed at the female body and connect them to the depiction of forms of fertility tracking and childlessness in two contemporary graphic memoirs, namely Good Eggs by Phoebe Potts (2010) and Broken Eggs (2014), a webcomic by Emily Steinberg. This comparison offers the possibility to question in how far cultural representations of the female body, in this case in multi-modal narratives, are related to current practices of self-quantification and the image of the docile body that these practices create.

Simon Rienäcker, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

Bodies as Instruments of Labor and Leisure: African American Cinema and Mass Culture in the 1930s

My presentation seeks to address the historical formation of bodies as both instruments of labor and leisure in the context of the Great Depression in the U.S. as it emerged from a
discourse on self-help, self-discipline, and self-optimization. This discourse is embedded in a framework of an evolving mass culture which is intrinsically linked to capitalist dynamics and
the commodification of bodies in the workplace and during leisure time. I therefore want to analyze the role of dancing in film musicals. Here, I focus on African American cinema in order to highlight crucial tensions between Black bodies as instruments of labor and instruments of leisure as they have historically evolved in the U.S. This focus enables me to trace a history of the regimentation of bodies that unfolds from slavery and racial ideologies in which Black bodies were considered pure instruments of labor, thereby denying them subjectivity and the status as full human beings. This history of forced labor is informed by the regimentation of bodies in slave ships and on plantations – a history which not only prefigured industrial processes, but also modern subjectivities which emerged in the early 20th century.

As an example, I want to turn to regimented bodies in dance choreographies of Busby Berkeley’s film musicals. His films deliberately efface racial differences, and thus neglect the
historical intertwinement of racial ideologies and technology, which otherwise informs the machine-like aesthetics of his films. In contrast to this, African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux embeds dance and music in the context of a discourse of “racial uplift” in order to emphasize a need for self-observation. Dance scenes in his films are characterized by a selfreflexive focus on audience behavior. This moment of self-reflexivity is crucial to the experience of modernity, as well as a cinematic expression of Black modernity in particular. Work and leisure are dominant themes in the work of both filmmakers. These thematic entry points allow me to explain the dynamics of (self-)disciplining, self-optimization, and self-reflexivity of bodies
as crucial components not just of self-help culture (cf. Micheaux), but also in regard to mass culture in general.