Self-tracking and ‘techorexia’

One of the (many) things which fascinates me about self-quantification tools is their seeming capacity to both increase individual autonomy and extend control over the individual. However my instinctive personal reactions to this tend to be a matter of seeing the former as good and the latter as bad, such that self-tracking seems pretty great until you start to think through its possible implications if and when taken up in the contemporary workplace. This recent Guardian article left me newly aware of how utterly faulty this instinctive reaction of mine is. It discusses the potential role of self-quantification tools in enabling and entrenching eating disorders:

recent study by the Future Laboratory and found that about 60% of 18- to 34-year-olds in the UK have used a self-quantifying app or service to monitor their fitness levels, mental health and sleep patterns. These figures are mirrored across the pond. According to a Pew report, 60% of US adults say they track their weight, diet or exercise routine. And these numbers are rising. Indeed, it’s highly probable that you or someone you know will be have received or given some sort of wearable fitness product this Christmas season.

Evangelists of self-tracking technology proclaim that through data lies enlightenment. Measuring ourselves, they say, will help us understand ourselves. We will all end up several percentage points healthier and happier. However, I’m not sure this is right. While it is true that self-tracking can help push people into making positive lifestyles changes, it could also be argued that the growing popularity of this sort of technology is normalising neurotic behaviour.

When I was a teenager I went through a brief phase of compulsive self-quantification. It was called anorexia. I counted every calorie, weighed myself obsessively and exercised fanatically. For about a year my life was a running tally of energy-in and energy-out and I would diligently feed all these numbers into a sort of anorexia algorithm; regularly adjusting different variables in order to maximise weight-loss efficiencies. The end result was that I weighed six stone and my hair fell out in clumps. I looked grim, but I did get a good grounding in data analytics.

This was all a long time ago and I’m now fully recovered. This is in no small part due to the fact that I actively avoid weighing myself and try not to count calories. It took me a long time to stop seeing food as a spreadsheet of numbers and start thinking about it as nutrition. It would have taken me even longer if the sort of self-tracking technology that is ubiquitous today was available when I was ill. Dr Kimberly Dennis, a psychiatrist who specialises in eating disorder treatment, estimates thatabout 75% of her young-adult patients use their phones in a way that enables their eating disorders. Apps that facilitate calorie-counting and food-logging are an anorexic’s best friend and worst enemy. With society increasingly embracing a sort of “techorexia” that rewrites compulsive behaviour as healthy, it is becoming easier for people with serious eating disorders to pretend there’s nothing wrong.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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2 replies »

  1. I agree that these self-tracking apps can enable those with obsessive-compulsive tendencies to keep engaging in that behavior. As someone currently recovering from OCD and an eating disorder that was rooted in an obsession about my health, the rising use of these self-tracking apps is concerning to me, and I hope it’s a passing trend. Maybe my perspective is a little skewed, but in my life i’ve found that obsession with health is probably the most unhealthy thing there is.

  2. As someone in remission from an eating disorder, I find these devices unhealthy for those who have ED or compulsive tendencies just as much as for those who do not. They are absolutely oversimplified. People have forgotten to listen to what their body is asking for, whether it be sleep, activity, or type of food because they get hung up on some number. Depending on our state of health, we have varying needs.

    The calorie counting game is obnoxious and needs to stop. It has been shown that our ‘standard’ 2000 calorie diet is hardly sufficient for the ‘average’ person anywhere from 10-45 years old, yet 2000 calories is pretty much law in many doctor’s offices. Next comes the ‘10,000 steps a day’ rule. Human beings are far too complex to reduce them to a number, and that includes the number on the scale.

    Thanks for writing this. My family lives by the numbers on the treadmill, fitbit, scale, waistband, and food label. And because of that behavior I endangered my health and my life for 12 years. Strangely enough, after treatment, ALL my ‘numbers’ on my lab work are finally perfectly in range. And I don’t count a damn thing.

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