My Fitness Pal? Calorie counting in an age of self-surveillance.

Milly Morris

At the table next to me in the coffee shop, two women sit across from one another. The one woman aggressively taps the calorie content of her latte in her smart phone whilst the other sips her drink and glances around the café. The second woman looks up from her phone – attempting to conceal the panic in her eyes – and says “this coffee will take me 400 calories over!” She sighs and pushes the coffee across the table, admitting defeat. Her friend places the discarded coffee on an empty table nearby before replying: “yeah, OK, I guess then you wouldn’t be able to eat dinner.” Both share a knowing smile before resuming their previous conversation about what they did at the weekend.
In the digital age, it is easier for individuals to track calories and formulate their own weight-loss goals with the use of fitness apps such as My Fitness Pal, Lifesum and NutraCheck (Goodfellow, 2014). Users simply log their eating and exercise habits in order to meet a desired daily calorie goal. At the end of the day, the application will inform the user whether they were “under” or “over” their goal and how much they would weigh if they continued similar patterns of behaviour. Likewise, individuals are able to view other member’s daily results; their calories consumed and calories burned. There is even the option to share one’s results on other social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter. For the overweight, such technologies arguably provide users with a level of control over their diets and an insight into the calorific content of the food that they are consuming. As the UK is in the midst of a so-called “obesity crisis”, such technologies can only be considered positive, surely?
Yet, alongside high rates of obesity, there is a steep rise in women suffering from life-threatening eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa. In 2015, research commissioned by the NHS noted the “stark rise” in eating disorders within the UK; whilst only 658 under-19 year olds required treatment for an eating disorder in 2003-2004, this number had risen to 1,791 by 2013-2014 (Mitchie, 2015). Likewise, it is widely recognised that 90% of sufferers of Anorexia Nervosa are female (Silverstein et al, 1986). For scholars such as Orbach and McLaren, anorexia can be considered a “metaphor of our age.” In the same manner that the Victorian era was crippled by widespread cases of “hysteria” amongst its female population – arguably inflicted by socioeconomic norms that restricted the lives and opportunities of women – future generations may consider anorexia as an illness reminiscent of a culture that profits from its women remaining fearful of food and their bodies (Orbach, 2005; McLaren, 2002)
Throughout history and across different cultures, women have monitored and mutilated their bodies in order to reach narrow and unattainable representations of female “beauty” (Wolf, 1999; Penny, 2011). For example, foot-binding and corset-wearing were common practices that women undertook in order to remould their bodies to fit the feminine ideal of the time. Whilst the Western ideal has differed throughout time, it has always involved the pursuit of slimness; the 1920’s favoured “slender legs, hips, and small breasts” whilst the 1940’s and 1950’s idealized Marilyn Monroe’s “hourglass shape” (Garcia, 2012, p.118). Likewise, the rise of the bikini and supermodel “Twiggy” in the 1960’s led women to accept that they “should not have any flesh to control or support”. Whilst fatness has come to be associated with failure; slimness is directly related to happiness, control, attractiveness and success (Orbach, 1992).
Consequently, whilst the smartphone fitness application may be considered a less extreme example of the corset and foot-binding, both are based on the premise that women should restrict and restrain their bodies in order to meet cultural expectations of appearance. Whilst not a physical constraint, such applications profit from the normalised associations between food and it’s “consequences.”
Fitness tracking applications exemplify the self-surveillance that has occurred from the relationship between idealized notions of female beauty and the obsessive documentation of self that has transpired alongside the rise of digital technologies. Wolf agrees that suppressing one’s appetite is viewed as a positive trait in a woman as it exemplifies her ability to “embody archetypal femininity through self-denial and subservience” (Wolf, 1999; Germov & Williams, 1996). Thus, these applications provide women with ritualistic tendencies designed to make them think about every morcel of food they eat with the constant knowledge that fellow member’s will be meeting their calorie goals and surveying their own.
Overall, on the surface, such applications appear a harmless tool for “health conscious” individuals. However, when viewed as part of a culture that demands that women be a certain body size in order to be considered worthy of happiness, they play into the expected female fear of food. The women next to me in the coffee shop held a mutual understanding of this “love/hate” relationship of food and why they should not exceed their daily calorie “goal”; drink that latte and you could get fat, get fat and you will be a failure.
Works Cited

García, A.M., 2012. Contested Images: Women of Color in Popular Culture. Rowman & Littlefield.

Germov, J. and Williams, L., 1996. The epidemic of dieting women: the need for a sociological approach to food and nutrition. Appetite, 27(2), pp.97-108.

Goodfellow, M. (2014, February 20th). London’s best calorie-counting apps. Retrieved from
McCarthy, M. (1990). The thin ideal, depression and eating disorders in women. Behaviour research and therapy, 28(3), 205-214.
McLaren, M. (2002). Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity. New York: State University of New York.
Mitchie, C. (2015, June 25th). Stark rise in eating disorders blamed on overexposure to celebrities’ bodies. Retrieved from
Orbach, S. (2005). Hunger Strike: The Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. New York: Karnac Books.
Penny, L. (2010). Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism. Winchester : Zero Books.
Silverstein, B., Perdue, L., Peterson, B. and Kelly, E., 1986. The role of the mass media in promoting a thin standard of bodily attractiveness for women. Sex roles, 14(9-10), pp.519-532.

Wolf, N., 2013. The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. Random House.

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