How to do fitness tracking and still be a feminist and a human being

Everyday Feminism is wonderful. They hit the nail on the head about fitness tracking in “Your fitbit is ruining your relationship with your body — here are 3 reasons why”. I never got a fitbit but I’ve done all sorts of fitness tracking. I’ve tried to use pedometers at various stages, and I’ve done MyFitnessPal calorie tracking, and, yes, I’ve used them to lose weight.

Well, after reading that article, plus delving a bit into the internet, plus thinking back to my own experience, I realized how calorie tracking can encouraging disordered eating. It really is what you make of it, and if you have a tendency toward disordered eating, it can make you hyperaware of what you’re eating and how you’re exercising, and not in a good way.

In theory there’s nothing wrong with tracking to get healthy. In practice, it can often be used to justify fat shaming… in numbers. (And it’s not as easy as just eating salad: salad is overrated. Plus more expensive.) But it’s easy to see how tracking calories could be addictive for the sake of losing weight which, as we know, is neither the whole picture of health nor is it for everyone. But I do think I learned a lot from tracking, and I do think there are ways to use it for your benefit.

  1. You don’t have to use it to lose weight. The apps were all built for weight loss facilitation: the numbers go red if you’re over but green if you’re under your daily caloric needs, even if you input weight gain as your goal. That’s a problem. But you don’t have to make that your goal. Instead, use it to track something like, say, how much sugar you’re eating. Substitute fiber and protein and fat for that sugar; see how that feels. These apps have a lot of potential beyond weight LOSS to tell you what the breakdown of your diet is. Because unfortunately, our food system (especially in the city where I live, where I tend to eat out a few times a day) tends to promote unhealthy choices, and that doesn’t necessarily mean more calories but includes it. If you track what you eat and find that your once-a-week muffin turned into 4-times-a-week, then maybe you can try to sub something a little bit more balanced.
  2. Use fitness tracking to log exercise and active transport. This is obviously only one for able-bodied people; your needs may be different depending on your abilities. But one thing I like about pedometers is that they can track your daily activity, outside of regimented exercise. Obviously, you can rely on intuition to know, but say that you make a resolution to exercise 5 days a week but you happened to have a day where you are too tired to go to the gym, and you go to your pedometer and find that you walked 20,000 steps! Then maybe the laziness is justified. Or maybe you’re tired because you only walked 2,000 steps. Or maybe you’re debating whether to take the crowded train and save 15 minutes over walking… maybe you’ll remember that you’d be rewarded with an extra few thousand steps and that will get you to make the choice. Sometimes I’m just not aware of how sedentary or active I’m being; and walking is one of those exercises that’s very hard to overdo, and that almost always makes me feel better. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be thinking of any active transport as “exercise”… maybe we should rebrand it as “active transport”.
  3. Use it for a while… then stop. This is ESPECIALLY true for the food one: you don’t want to be logging calories forever. Enjoy your vacation, enjoy your brunches, enjoy not trying to recall if you ate one slice of bacon or two. Remember to enjoy food. The way I see tracking is it’s a good way of assessing your baseline, identifying issues (“hmm, I seem to be eating all fried foods for dinner lately…”) and becoming more aware of the food choices you make. I’ve been eating a lot of sweet foods lately, concurrent with an increase in stress, so I may choose to log for a week sometime soon. But this doesn’t have to be something I do forever, only as a means for figuring out how I’m doing in navigating the prepared-food-choices available to me.
  4. Take into account your individual needs. If you have a history of disordered eating, maybe tracking will help you realize you are allowed to eat more than you are; or maybe it’ll trigger disordered thinking again. If you have a chronic illness or disability, better food choices will likely not fix everything. Depending on your individual case, you will need to decide what is right for you. Maybe exercise tracking is okay but calorie tracking isn’t, or maybe you just want to track sugar, or maybe you just want to track your heart rate, or maybe you don’t want to track at all.
  5. Think about other fitness trackers. For example:
    1. Tracking heart rate. Everyone has a heart rate, and it’s easy to measure. My high school cross country coach told us to do this first thing in the morning, since an elevated heart rate is usually the first sign of illness. But you may also find that if you’ve stuck with your walking-briskly-to-work routine your resting heart rate goes down accordingly.
    2. Tracking bike rides or running/walking routes, and sharing them with friends. This is a form of tracking that can be social and can help you keep a record of your adventures.
    3. Sleep tracking. If you are frequently sleep-deprived, this may help you figure out which nights you get the worst quality sleep.
  6. Last but not least, fitness tracking should be optional. In that Everyday Feminism article, there is mention of a health app that can’t be deleted from the phone; I have a few friends who have the same tracker. This is horrible news for someone trying to quit disordered eating/tracking: if the app is right there, they may fall into old patterns. This is a trend that must be stopped. We don’t all want our smartphones to be our nannies; it’s important to be able to pick and choose what apps are okay for our lifestyles. By making it a permanent app, your smartphone is saying it knows your health needs better than you. Screw you, smartphone.

What’s the takehome? It should be obvious by now that:

  • We can’t equate fat with health. 
  • We can’t say that our bodies are entirely our choices: they’re shaped by the options available to us, by our ability status, by our health status.
  • One-size-fits-all approaches don’t work.
  • Fat shaming doesn’t work.
  • Only tracking fat or calories is a surefire way to reduce your complex lifestyle to a single number. And that is a surefire way to get bored with life.

On the flipside, fitness trackers aren’t inherently evil; they can work with your feminist lifestyle. But they must be optional, and they must be varied.

One thing I do wish though, is that there were food trackers that also logged the following:

  • Cost of the meal, to analyze what’s the most bang-for-your-buck.
  • How seasonal that meal is.
  • How big a carbon footprint for that time of year for that geographical locale.

Those are things I’d love to know.


Another study about pesky female sexuality!

Drop everything! A discussion on a study done by researcher Elizabeth McCintock has raised some discussion. Discussion has been raised, y’all. It’s time to rant! Because we, bisexual female-person-people, have been studied yet again. We are a fascinating phenomenon and people just can’t get enough of our amazing soap-opera-ready sex life!

I heard about this study from Another Angry Woman, on whose blog there has been some back and forth in the comments (my b!) The study is covered in this article on the Independent, which took the study to ugly places.

As a bisexual (because of history, not current behavior), I feel like I take this stuff very personally. Maybe a bit too personally. These studies hit me exactly in the places I’m most insecure: that my androgyny/masculinity makes me ugly and therefore undesirable to men and that’s the only reason I date queer people and not men. But then again I am not dating women by choice, but rather because of a pattern of attraction that ran counter to my societally-programmed thinking about men. If a guy makes you nervous it must mean you like him, not that you aren’t attracted and are skeeved out by the attention; if you’re turned on sexually that means that you must really want to seek out relationships with men; etc.

Okay enough about me. What is wrong with this study? Here’s my series of reactions:

  • Initially I got mad because I thought that the study really was saying that more attractive/educated women are less likely to identify as bi.
  • Then I realized all it said was that early dating success made women more likely to identify as heterosexual, so I was a little less mad.
  • Then I realized the coverage was skewing things, and that the author really was trying to say that women’s sexuality was fluid relative to men’s sexuality, affected by external/social circumstances, and I wasn’t mad but something skeeved me out about this. Not mad, but skeeved.
  • Then I realized exactly what skeeved me out about the study, and here I am, mad again.

There are several things wrong with this study, even though it’s trying to break down stereotypes and claim that women’s sexuality is fluid. Here are the things that do annoy me:

  1. There is nothing new or revolutionary about claiming that women’s sexuality is fluid. Lisa Diamond’s book “Sexual fluidity: understanding women’s love and desire” (which happens to be online as a publicly available PDF here), is quite extensive in tackling the complexity of female sexuality, as well as to quantify exactly how female sexuality does or does not change over time. Her study was done over 10 years, and did not jump to any inapprope’ conclusions. The book made me feel more comfortable with my own quarter-life sexuality switch, and helped me on my self-discovery journey. 
  2. There is nothing new or revolutionary in talking about how beautiful women have different experiences than… well, the rest of us are not given a name, but “plain” or “ugly” or “normal” or… you know? it doesn’t matter, but people seem to be very uncomfortable talking about non-beautiful women. Conventional? Average? Typical? Those are not gross words. But people only seem to talk about the “more attractive” end of the spectrum, while avoiding explicitly naming the other end of the spectrum. BUT I DIGRESS. Yes, of course women who conform to patriarchal standards of attractiveness tend to attract more male attention than women who don’t. Beauty privilege exists, even within queer identities. This. Is. Not. Revolutionary. 
  3. In addition to it being nothing revolutionary, studying beauty and sexuality can be harmful. There’s so much research out there about all the benefits that women of a certain type have, and the discussion never moves beyond that. We get it. Beautiful women can get some things. Remember Jon Hamm’s character on 30 Rock, as Liz Lemon’s ex who was so handsome everyone overlooked how stupid he was? Handsome enough to become a doctor, but stupid enough to lose his arm waving out of a helicopter? It was pretty funny in comedy, but in social science: there’s nothing new to add to this discussion. I may be naive, but I believe humanity to be far more complex. Let’s as a society just move on. P.S. A better discussion of women and beauty that isn’t pseudoscience but is nevertheless written by two PhDs: Beauty Redefined.
  4. The study oversimplifies, which is my biggest gripe with quite a lot of social science research, or at least, the stuff that gets popular coverage. Not all bisexuality is the same. Not all heterosexuality is the same. Not all fluidity is the same. Not all narratives are the same. What about women who marry men and then divorce and seek out women? What about social pressure to marry men? What about the fact that if you’re a patriarchally-conforming woman you have way more male options than female options, statistically speaking, and so you might never even get the opportunity to discover other desires? There is such a spectrum of human experience, that to say that bisexuals tend to be those who never dated men they liked is an enormous oversimplification.
  5. And finally, why do we need to study bisexuality like it’s this fascinating phenomenon? Why must we continually prove it exists? Oh right, because women can’t be trusted to know what they want. So many articles it seems are tackling the whole bisexual phenomenon, bisexuality is misrepresented and misquoted, and women finally post their real frustrations about being bi on Whisper, and then those same news sources report on what women write on Whisper. Because it takes a lot to be heard in this world, especially if you’re a female person claiming that you’re not just attracted to male people and are thus bucking the whole patriarchy. And then of course Cara DeLevigne is told she’s going through a phase and the whole internet breaks again. We’re going in circles, guys, so why can’t we just accept this stuff, stop proving and re-proving that bisexuals exist, and move on?

Overall, I’m sure this researcher is well-intentioned and stuff, but I found this article neither enlightening nor revolutionary nor trope-defying; it simply opens the population of bisexual women to more scrutiny. Then again, this is just my opinion; maybe with better media coverage she could show something exciting that I fail to see from the few articles i’ve found that have covered it.

So like yeah I take this shit too personally. You bet I do; it’s personal. If you tell a female-of-center person that she’s bi because she couldn’t get a desirable man, she will roll her eyes obviously because guess what… you don’t know her life. But some part of her might believe it. Some part of her might hear all the bisexual tropes come out, wonder if there is truth to them, wonder why she didn’t just date that guy while her hair was long and she would get all pretty to go to lab, maybe she wasn’t attractive, maybe she was foolish and society would never take her seriously. You know, hypothetically, she might feel hurt by repeated studies trying to understand her, rather than just taking her at her word. 

Wow, that just got really real, didn’t it…

But yeah. You bet I take it personally.