Fitbit’s First Stance on Gender: The Fitbit Alta and Quantifying Deeply Rooted Body Ideals

Fitbit’s First Stance on Gender: The Fitbit Alta and Quantifying Deeply Rooted Body Ideals

 

With the ever-growing fascination of wearable technology in the 21st century, the consumer culture has full-heartedly welcomed the fitness tracker concept. The device can stay around your wrist all day, and it will give you a calculated observation about your overall health. In March, 2016, Fitbit will release two new models: the Blaze and the Alta. The first has a bulky, watch-like exterior, reminiscent to the Apple Watch, with a heavier emphasis on fitness. The Alta, on the other hand, markets the user who wants aesthetic and style. By buying the gold trinkets for an extra $100, the customer transforms the fitness tracker into another jeweled accessory. “Of all female fitness band users, 68% said they prefer Fitbit;”[1] the company’s marketing has to lure the women as much as men to make its profit. But the Alta’s marketing campaign and the band’s features play into an idea of the casual-exercise female and the slender body ideals of this era; in the nineteenth century, women’s health was directly linked to their education, requiring women to care about their bodies as much as their minds. The Fitbit is not only reminiscent of those trends, but it also demonstrates business and media’s power to control the body image ideals of its female customers.

“The Alta has far more potential than perhaps any other recent product the company has launched to really go after its general female fan base,”[2] says Samantha Kelly on a Mashable article this year. Though the target gender of the product is not explicitly stated, the feminine nature is clear when comparing the Alta to the Blaze. The Alta’s tagline is, “motivation is your best accessory”[3] and highlights the idea of blending fitness and fashion; the Blaze is described as “a revolutionary watch designed with fitness in mind.”[4] Most of the Alta images display women, and the Blaze features men. The Alta is categorized as one of the “everyday” bands, features sending notifications to get up and move every hour, whilst the Blaze is in the “active” section, coming equipped with workout summaries, onscreen videos, and a heart rate monitor. These examples support the notion that women can be only “accessories” to certain fields. Women cannot be die-hard exercisers; their bodies cannot support the intensity that the Blaze would be promoting. They are “casual” fitness aficionados, thus Fitbit’s feminine market stresses the aesthetic of the body.

The origin of slenderness in the West arguably comes from the late Victorian era. “Those who could afford to eat well began systematically to deny themselves food in pursuit on an aesthetic ideal.”[5] Susan Bordo claims that in the nineteenth century, though public figures had larger body weights to show their “bourgeois success, an outward manifestation of their accumulated wealth,” the aristocrats displayed their wealth and power through “command[ing] social space, invisibly.”[6] They limited themselves on their food intake to show self-control and self-preservation. This eventually trickled down to the middle class when husbands started showing off their wives’ slim bodies as statements of their success. Society transitioned toward an ideal that thinness reflected moral and personal adequacy and controlled willpower. The fashion of the time also reflected this body change; women started wearing corsets and bustles, contorting their curved bodies.[7] The fashion emphasized the separate spheres theory by displaying further accentuation of the female form in the domestic sphere in order to enhance a male’s status in the professional sphere. With the turn of the century and women slowly moving outside of the domestic sphere, the fashion shifted toward a boyish-slender look; women were working outside the home and had to blend in with the public men. The 1950s, “the era of the cinch belt, the pushup bra, and Marylyn Monroe, could be viewed, for the body, as an era of ‘resurgent Victorianism,’”[8] since curvature again became the desirable trait when most women moved back into the home after WWII. It was the last time in the 20th century that the curvy body was more popular that the slender one, but that was overtaken in the 1960s. Today’s culture now allows for women to have weight, as long as it is aesthetically pleasing and athletically built.

The Fitbit plays on these ideas of the athletic, slender body. It takes basic data about the user’s motion and runs an algorithm that monitors step count, sleep cycles, and nutrition. The app allows for a set of rules and regulations of activity for its user; it both creates and reinforces a culture where gratification of health becomes a daily goal. The body is “trained, shaped, obeys, and responds,” and it  becomes “a socially adapted and ‘useful body.’” [9] The user must either adapt to these demands made by the app or feel incompetent for not completing their daily goals. Diet and exercise are necessary for reaching weight goals, and the motivation notifications do not let the woman forget to stay active. As a consumer business, Fitbit forces the user to both indulge in the product’s glamor and resist the desire to indulge in poor health practices.[10] The incentive to continue following the Fitbit routine comes in the immediate rewards of completing the daily goals, earning badges, and gaining social acceptance by others in the program.[11] Since the Alta is geared towards women, it both creates the healthy rules for the feminine body and enforces them through immediate gratification. This reward becomes the new desire to perform gender correctly.

Fitbit operates by selling health to its customers, and health science has its roots in gendered spheres, making a technology like the Fitbit more alluring to female customers. In the early 1800s, many thought that women’s bodies were not strong enough to handle thought-provoking study; their smaller stature and reproductive systems limited their ability to think authoritatively.[12] Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792, encouraged the education of women, and one of the most recognized female mathematicians Ada Lovelace benefited from it. Nevertheless, her “forward-thinking” tutor Augustus DeMorgan thought she was mathematically brilliant but discouraged her from learning because it might compromise her health.[13] Lovelace suffered from illness most of her life, but she utilized the popular theory of female fragility to motivate, rather than disrupt, her studies.[14] Her poor-health body allowed her to study math and differ from societal norms.

However, Lovelace was not the only woman to gain in education. In the late 1800s, a rise of both higher learning institutions allowed for furthering women’s education. The rise of home economics departments in the 1890s emerged from nutrition research, which created a supply of new information and an increasing demand for practical household advice.[15] In order to continue the separate spheres structure, “women could acquire education, but [the school must] protect femininity and keep the boundaries between men and women clear.”[16] In other words, society wanted women to intelligently instruct their children but still be intellectually inferior to the men.[17] These new schools interwove practicality, science, and health through a curriculum designed not to “destroy nor be perceived as destroying women’s bodies.”[18] The leading argument about female fragility demanded that the school cared for women’s bodies as part of its mission and structure, and the center of the educated woman’s identity was her healthy body; [19] health and a woman’s intellect were interchangeable. The Fitbit reflects these schools from the 1800s; it also monitors a woman’s health, allowing her to know where she stands in relation to the perceived normal. Her body’s worth allows her access to the public sphere of healthy, slender bodies.

These schools also debased the idea that women were too weak to think intelligently. Women became experts in health science, which allowed them authority to tell others how to live. But instead of accepting women in all scientific fields, this process segregated them into one labeled feminine.[20] The “separation of spheres” still held, even though women moved out of domestic life and into social change. The design of the Fitbit Alta resonates with this segregated mentality. The Blaze is considered masculine, and its features encourage activities of powerful bodies. The Alta is more concerned about keeping the user active than it is with strength or endurance; it supports a healthy life over a fitness one, playing into the feminization of health science.

Furthermore, the co-founders of Fitbit are both men; James Park publicly addressed the new product, saying, “[the] Fitbit Alta will turn heads as our most fashionable device yet.”[21] Men have seemed to want to define the ideal woman from the Victorian era to the present. If men created the Fitbit company, then they influenced the algorithms that define the fitness goals. This is similar to Julian Eltinge’s illusion of femininity in his magic performances. Eltinge created a “feminine” stage presence in order to dress like a woman, though offstage he played a conservative male figure. He harped on his illusions being a result of “prolonged and meticulous study rather than unnatural gifts. He prided himself on his knowledge of fashion, his skill with makeup, and his expertise in all the accoutrements of femininity.” [22] This male performance of femininity plays into the idea of today’s mass media, which consists of mostly men creating body role models for women; “’It takes a man after all, to show women the path to beauty.’”[23] The ideals typically lead to women crash dieting and having eating disorders because of self-consciousness.[24] Eltinge displayed oversimplified stereotypes of femininity, emphasizing the binary idea of what it means to be masculine verses feminine. The Fitbit Alta and Blaze play this same game. Big companies like Fitbit let women acquire the ideal thin body from what they see in the media and motivate them to buy the product to match that ideal.

Body image and fashion accessories have come to define what it means to be feminine. Women have less confidence and poorer body-perspectives than men because of unrealistic beauty ideals made in popular culture. Companies like Fitbit try to make health and fitness the objective, but the apps seem to reward only for improving exercise, not behaviors against unhealthy strategies. The new Fitbit Alta augments the stereotypes of femininity by displaying the female as the “casual” exerciser; she needs to be reminded to be active, her body is weaker than a man’s, and she cares more about the look of the band than the features it provides. Though the ideal body of today differs from ones in the 1800s, the role of body types, theories of feminine fragility, and gendered schooling shaped the creation of the Fitbit Alta today. The next task is figuring out how to differentiate women’s bodies from their cultural identities. How can the Fitbit still make money without resorting to gender norms?

[1] Patrick Seitz, “Fitbit’s not-so-secret weapon: Women,” Investor’s Business Daily, September 15, 2015, http://www.investors.com/news/technology/click/fitbit-holds-dominant-share-with-women-in-fitness-trackers/.

[2] Samantha M. Kelly, “Fitbit Alta is the company’s first female-centric, fashion-forward fitness tracker,” Mashable, Feb. 3, 2016, http://mashable.com/2016/02/03/fitbit-alta/#CqXJAiuXyPqC.

[3] https://www.fitbit.com/alta

[4] Ibid.

[5] Susan Bordo, “Reading the Slender Body,” in Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science, ed. Mary Jacobus, Evelyn F. Keller, and Sally Shuttleworth (London: Routledge, 1990), 83.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bordo, 104.

[8] Bordo, 104.

[9] Bordo, 86.

[10] Bordo, 96.

[11] Kristen Harrison and Joanne Cantor, “The Relationship between Media Consumption and Eating Disorders,” Journal of Communication 47 (1997): 44.

[12] Alison Winter, “A calculus of suffering: Ada Lovelace and the bodily constraints on women’s knowledge in early Victorian England,” in Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge, ed. Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 208.

[13] Winter, 208.

[14] Winter, 220.

[15] Margaret W. Rossiter, “’Women’s Work’ in Science, 1880-1910,” Isis 71, no. 3 (1980): 391.

[16] Margaret A. Lowe, Looking Good: College Women and Body Image, 1875-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 16.

[17] Rossiter, 391.

[18] Lowe, 20.

[19] Lowe, 28.

[20] Rossiter, 393.

[21] Matt Dayo, “Fitbit Alta combines health, tech, and fanciness,” Science Technology Gist, Feb. 7, 2016, http://stgist.com/2016/02/fitbit-alta-combines-health-tech-and-fanciness-6720.

[22] John F. Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the perfect man: the white male body and the challenge of modernity in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 93.

[23] Kasson, 95.

[24] Harrison and Canton, 44.

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