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Self-quantification apps are changing how we relate to body image

TextClementine Prendergast

As self-quantification goes mainstream, we question how it might shape the future of beauty

With over 260,000 health and wellbeing apps in the Apple store focusing on everything from mental health to menstruation, not to mention the default Health tracking app Apple automatically provides you with, it is hard to resist the allure of these devices. While at present only 20 percent of Brits use health tracking devices, the number of connected wearables worldwide is predicted to reach 830 million by 2020, a remarkable 60 percent increase in just four years. As we share more and more personal information with these devices, technologies get exponentially smarter, continuously seeking to optimise the human condition and resultantly changing the way we relate to our minds and bodies. As self-quantification goes mainstream, how might it shape the future of beauty?

Based on ‘control theory’ a new revolution in psychological science, these health and wellbeing apps combine self-monitoring and goal-setting to help users implement behaviour change. With self-tracking at its core, these apps aim to help people achieve their desired goals with popular examples including calorie-counting app MyFitnessPal with over 150 million users and mindfulness app HeadSpace with around 31 million users.

Critics of health apps find the self-surveillance at the heart of this technology somewhat dystopian. Many are beginning to question the extent to which these apps really promote healthy behaviours, with some pointing to the obsessive behaviours and damaging relationships to the body they can encourage. Futurologists, on the other hand, believe self-quantification can help us to make better decisions, reflect on who we are and enable us to live more fulfilled lives.

Beginning over a decade ago in Silicon Valley, founded by Gary Wolf and former WIRED editor Kevin Kelly, the original intention of the ‘quantified self movement’ was to create self-knowledge through numbers. Measuring ourselves by numbers can impact the way we relate to our bodies and potentially give us a more objective understanding of what it means to be beautiful.

“If you can express a human mathematically through data and algorithms, you express a human in its most essential and beautiful form.” Paul Marsden

“Self-quantification may encourage us to see ourselves and others as numbers and algorithms,” says consumer psychologist Paul Marsden who explains that algorithms strip humanity down to bytes and bites of information which could make beauty ideals more attainable. Marsden believes, through technology and science, algorithmic beauty could make beauty ideals more attainable because data demystifies what it means to be beautiful, therefore contributing to a more objective understanding of aesthetics. “If pure beauty lies in algorithms not appearances” explains Marsden, “then mathematical beauty is the purest form of beauty. If you can express a human mathematically through data and algorithms, you express a human in its most essential and beautiful form.” In this case, beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder, it is in “the bites and bytes of algorithms”.

While it is simply too early to comment on whether algorithmic beauty is desirable or not, Marsden suggests it will not make us any happier, but does believe there is a “stoic wisdom” in stripping humanity down to pure information. This notion is certainly supported by philosophers and cognitive scientists, such as Daniel Dennett, who believe humans are made up of data, and if we can map the data and algorithms defining who we are, we can be transferred to a computer, and then humanity could become immortal.

Others are not quite as optimistic and believe the pursuit of the quantified self could be harmful to our body image and sense of self, placing undue pressure on striving for unrealistic beauty ideals and contributing to increased anxiety. “I think it is largely unnecessary and makes people neurotic,” says William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry. Davies believes digital technologies have allowed us to become more aware of how we appear to others which he finds to be destructive. “Self-quantification is not a cause for peace or contentment” he explains. Numbers are “tools for comparison” and we know this is bad for happiness. “Any number can be higher, there will always be someone who is happier, thinner or more successful,” Davies says. While some of the users I spoke to had positive results using these devices, boasting about weight loss or improved sleeping patterns, nearly all of them have now stopped using the apps because they were felt to be too much hassle and they “had better things to do”.

Technology encourages obsessive goal monitoring in the pursuit of perfection which divorces us from the natural rhythms of our bodies

Consistently tracking behaviours is a fundamental component of these apps, encouraging the self-monitoring of mind and bodily processes; steps walked, calories eaten, hours slept and emotions felt. As Adam Alter notes in his book Irresistible, technology encourages obsessive goal monitoring in the pursuit of perfection and this is troubling because it divorces us from the natural rhythms of our bodies. PhD candidate at the Centre For Appearance Research Nadia Craddock explains self-surveillance and self-monitoring can result in “women experiencing body shame and body image anxiety, as well as a ‘disconnected effect’ with how one’s body feels.” If people are “religiously” tracking their diet and exercise, they are less inclined to be attuned to their body’s needs such as intuitive eating or joyful movement. Sophie, who used the calorie tracking app MyFitnessPal, explains she found the app’s feedback spurred her on to eat less and lose weight quicker, regardless of whether this was healthy or not. “If I ‘cheated’ the app and went under my daily calories or fats I’d receive a notification warning me I wasn’t eating enough. That felt great - I loved the idea that I was going to be getting skinnier.”

While at present there is only correlational data – some research suggests the use of health tracking technology is associated with eating disorders – many agree the pursuit of the quantified self is bad for our mental health. Craddock says these self-monitoring techniques position the idea of obtaining beauty ideals as a matter of “personal choice” within a wider ecosystem of diet culture giving people the idea that they have “tools at their disposal to “work on their bodies””. Davies suggests the use of these apps encourages a sense of individual responsibility which can be bad for mental health, making people feel an increased sense of guilt and shame about the state of their minds and bodies. Some of the users I spoke to agree. Lauren, who used a Fitbit for a short period of time, explains she started using it to lose weight but always set goals too high, and when she did not meet them was left feeling guilty, “I always ‘ate’ more food than I wanted to and would hate myself afterwards. It encourages an unhealthy obsession.”

In the future you won’t find someone beautiful, but rather find their algorithm beautiful.

Whether unhealthy or not, people have always ‘worked on their bodies’ because beauty is a human universal present in all cultures and throughout history. From a desire for small feet in pre-19th century China to sloping shoulders in 18th century England or the more recent obsession with the ‘thigh gap,’ cultures are always actively pursuing an aesthetic ideal. Medical anthropologist Rebecca Popnoe believes the quest for beauty is ingrained in human nature and the quantified self is simply a “new ‘modality’ for relating to our bodies”. While technology apps feel like a fundamental change, they are in fact an age-old technique, “all societies throughout history people have ‘tracked’ their health, bodies and their appearance in different ways,” says Popnoe.

Popenoe completed fieldwork in a Northwestern Niger community where fatness in women was deemed beautiful. She draws parallels between the tracking elements of the quantified self with the methods used by the men and women of Niger who would track the progress of the fattening of women’s bodies. “It was common to take note of women’s collarbones and whether they were visible or not. You did not want them to be visible. When I came back from a trip home and had gained weight everyone noticed, approvingly, that my collarbones were not as visible any more.”

Perhaps then the pursuit of the quantified self is simply the modern data-driven modality for tracking bodily progress, to make sure we are noticed and admired by our own data-driven tribes. While this pursuit may be harmful to our body image and mental health it's not a new phenomenon. “Humans are good at finding all manner of odd ways of achieving these things!” says Popenoe, “botoxing one’s forehead, praying to an unseen god, working out at a gym, wearing false eyelashes”. If, as Marsden comments, “pure beauty lies in algorithms, not appearances” the quantified self may present us with a profound shift in the way we relate to beauty. In the future, beauty may be beyond the physical, instead expressed mathematically through data and algorithms. You won’t find someone beautiful, but rather find their algorithm beautiful. Even if the quantified self enables us to develop the purest, more objective expression of beauty, it is unlikely we will ever stop striving for it. Fundamentally, whether in algorithmic form or not beauty is symbolic of our deep, existential human yearnings for love, desire and to live a meaningful life.

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