Are fitness apps letting women down?

The fashion, beauty and health industry are normalising the unreachable perfect feminine body ideal.

By Pirkko Markula (Mind Over Matter)

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Published: Sat 8 Jun 2019, 9:44 PM

Last updated: Sat 8 Jun 2019, 11:47 PM

When I meet a friend for coffee, she first takes out her phone, as she explains, to check that her fitness app has calculated her steps from her car to our café. Another friend joins us just in time to report how much she loves her Strava: She has been the Queen for her usual bike route since this morning. I feel a bit left out as I have no idea of my step counts and do not even know what Strava is. My friends, seeing my phone, immediately urge me to check the health app that comes with it and if it is automatically turned on. Indeed, I find the app that asks me, the first thing, if I want to share my health data. While I am not quite prepared to do that, we are able to detect the steps I have taken during the day and I can now join the conversation to compare our individual fitness results. While I can connect with my friends' discussion, I am still wondering why, exactly, have so many women been hooked to follow their fitness apps?
Personal health-tracking technologies are gaining popularity. The expanding technology now links even uninformed citizens unintentionally into their net. Having been caught, I am also wondering what are the exact benefits of knowing my step counts. Can there also be unintended consequences when detecting and sharing one's personal fitness data? The popularity of fitness tracking, or "sensor mania" as researcher Swan has described it, has also awakened researchers to comment on the use and meaning of these devices in the health and fitness conscious era.
Wearable technologies, including mobile phones and such wearable devices as the Fitbit, enable individuals to monitor their behaviour by quantifying it into numerical form. With technological advancement, these devices, in addition to steps, can now track and analyse, for example, "physical movement, food and drink intake, energy expended, sleep levels, blood glucose levels, cholesterol levels, calories burned, mood and emotion, inactivity". Obtaining these numbers, then, should help us make informed decisions about health behaviour choices. Because we are able to measure our outcomes through mobile devices.
We have long been encouraged to set goals to stay physically active, but the data tracking devices seem to have several advantages when compared to simply trying to follow one's exercise prescription or a healthy diet. They encourage long-term engagement by establishing clear numerical goals that are easy to follow and also compare to others. We quickly assume a habit to check our fitness apps as we check our phones.
James N. Gilmore has described these technologies as 'everywear' technologies that follow us whereever we go during the day. These ever-present technologies also enable constant attention to one's fitness goals. But how do people get hooked into such relentless surveillance of their exercise habits?
Several researchers point to the enjoyment users draw from accumulating information in their devices. Collecting clear numerical information that is easy to understand and comparing them to previous results is motivating.
However, many researchers also point out several potential problems with using tracking devices. The first problem derives from sharing personal data over the internet.
Aristea Fotopoulou and Kate O'Riordan, for example, in their research paper pessimistically note that while comparisons and competition between users can be motivating, "the primary aim, as with other similar health-related businesses and cloud-based tracking devices, is the collection of personal data from the user". For example, Fitbit, similar to my phone health app, prompts users immediately to consent to share their data with the Microsoft Health Vault, a central node for sharing health information on Windows 8. While this is not compulsory, sharing data through apps always provides some access to user's personal details. This way, the researchers caution, every exerciser becomes a part of an extended, digital information system distributed worldwide. In this system, individuals tend to lose control of the use of their personal data.
The second problem is related to specifically gendered meanings of health that are reinforced through the use of tracking devices. Women, more than men, use fitness tracking to fulfil the expectations of obtaining an ideal body shape. In her research, Sanders focuses particularly on how women's health is sold through fitness tracking.
Sanders counts herself among the many women who calculate their caloric and nutritional content, try to compensate for regrettable food choices with exercise to then measure miles ran or walked, average pace, and minutes exercised. With these measurements, self-tracking devices have also been taken up in the fashion and beauty industry as essential tools to improve one's body shape. Using this type of advertising that normalises the unreachable perfect feminine body ideal, Sanders argues, the fashion and beauty industries continue to create women who are dissatisfied with their bodies and in need of new, more effective programs to perfect their bodies.
Because the tracking technology facilitates a more detailed and nuanced analysis of caloric consumption, diet, and exercise levels, it can work more effectively as a tool for women's continual body work.
As the digital data is stored in our personal smartphones or computers, we might not realise that collecting confidential and personal information can be steered by larger social norms. The constant surveillance of one's appearance now empowered by new technology can encase women within greater control by patriarchal power relations. Furthermore, as digital self-tracking devices and apps are typically designed by men, they tend to represent what men define as important aspects of women's health and wellbeing.
-Psychology Today
Pirkko Markula is a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada

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