Lively devices, lively data and lively leisure studies

This is a foreword I wrote for a Leisure Studies special issue on digital leisure cultures (the link to the journal version is here).

In the countries of the Global North, each person, to a greater or lesser degree, has become configured as a data subject. When we use search engines, smartphones and other digital devices, apps and social media platforms, and when we move around in spaces carrying devices the record our geolocation or where there are embedded sensors or cameras recording our movements, we are datafied: rendered into assemblages of digital data. These personal digital data assemblages are only ever partial portraits of us and are constantly changing: but they are beginning to have significant impacts on the ways in which people understand themselves and others and on their life opportunities and chances. Leisure cultures and practices are imbricated within digital and data practices and assemblages. Indeed, digital technologies are beginning to transform many areas of life into leisure pursuits in unprecedented ways, expanding the purview of leisure studies.

These processes of datafication can begin even before birth and continue after death. Proud expectant parents commonly announce pregnancies on social media, uploading ultrasound images of their foetuses and sometimes even creating accounts in the name of the unborn so that they can ostensibly communicate from within the womb. Images from the birth of the child may also become publicly disseminated: as in the genre of the childbirth video on YouTube. This is followed by the opportunity for parents to record and broadcast many images of their babies’ and children’s lives. At the other end of life, many images of the dying and dead bodies can now be found on the internet. People with terminal illnesses write blogs, use Facebook status updates or tweet about their experiences and post images of themselves as their bodies deteriorate. Memorial websites or dedicated pages on social media sites are used after people’s death to commemorate them. Beyond these types of datafication, the data generated from other interactions online and by digital sensors in devices and physical environments constantly work to generate streams of digital data about people. In some cases, people may choose to generate these data; in most other cases, they are collected and used by others, often without people’s knowledge or consent. These data have become highly valuable as elements of the global knowledge economy, whether aggregated and used as big data sets or used to reveal insights into individuals’ habits, behaviours and preferences.

One of my current research interests is exploring the ways in which digital technologies work to generate personal information about people and how individuals themselves and a range of other actors and agencies use these data. I have developed the concept of ‘lively data’, which is an attempt to incorporate the various elements of how we are living with and by our data. Lively data are generated by lively devices: those smartphones, tablet computers, wearable devices and embedded sensors that we live with and alongside, our companions throughout our waking days. Lively data about humans are vital in four main respects: 1) they are about human life itself; 2) they have their own social lives as they circulate and combine and recombine in the digital data economy; 3) they are beginning to affect people’s lives, limiting or promoting life chances and opportunities (for example, whether people are offered employment or credit); and 4) they contribute to livelihoods (as part of their economic and managerial value).

These elements of datafication and lively data have major implications for leisure cultures. Research into people’s use of digital technologies for recreation, including the articles collected here and others previously published in this journal, draws attention to the pleasures, excitements and playful dimensions of digital encounters. These are important aspects to consider, particularly when much research into digital society focuses on the limitations or dangers of digital technology use such as the possibilities of various types of ‘addiction’ to their use or the potential for oppressive surveillance or exploitation of users that these technologies present. What is often lost in such discussions is an acknowledgement of the value that digital technologies can offer ordinary users (and not just the internet empires that profit from them). Perspectives that can balance awareness of both the benefits and possible drawbacks of digital technologies provide a richer analysis of their affordances and social impact. When people are using digital technologies for leisure purposes, they are largely doing so voluntarily: because they have identified a personal use for the technologies that will provide enjoyment, relaxation or some other form of escape from the workaday world. What is particularly intriguing, at least from my perspective in my interest in lively data, is how the data streams from digitised leisure pursuits are becoming increasingly entangled with other areas of life and concepts of selfhood. Gamification and ludification strategies, in which elements of play are introduced into domains such as the workplace, healthcare, intimate relationships and educational institutions, are central to this expansion.

Thus, for example, we now see concepts of the ‘healthy, productive worker’, in which employers seek to encourage their workers to engage in fitness pursuits to develop highly-achieving and healthy employees who can avoid taking time out because of illness and operate at maximum efficiency in the workplace. Fitness tracker companies offer employers discounted wearable devices for their employees so that corporate ‘wellness’ programs can be put in place in which fitness data sharing and competition are encouraged among employees. Dating apps like Tinder encourage users to think of the search for partners as a game and the attractive presentation of the self as a key element in ‘winning’ the interest of many potential dates. The #fitspo and #fitspiration hashtags used in Instagram and other social media platforms draw attention to female and male bodies that are slim, physically fit and well-groomed, performing dominant notions of sexual attractiveness. Pregnancy has become ludified with a range of digital technologies. Using their smartphones and dedicated apps, pregnant women can take ‘belfies’, or belly selfies, and generate time-lapse videos for their own and others’ entertainment (including uploading the videos on social media sites). 3D-printing companies offer parents the opportunity to generate replicas of their foetuses from 3D ultrasounds, for use as display objects on mantelpieces or work desks. Little girls are offered apps which encourage then to perform makeovers on pregnant women or help them deliver their babies via caesarean section. In the education sector, digitised gamification blurs leisure, learning and physical fitness. Schools are beginning to distribute heart rate monitors, coaching apps and other self-tracking devices to children during sporting activities and physical education classes, promoting a culture of self-surveillance via digital data at the same time as teachers’ monitoring of their students’ bodies is intensified. Online education platforms for children like Mathletics encourage users to complete tasks to win medals and work their way up the leaderboard, competing against other users around the world.

In these domains and many others, the intersections of work, play, health, fitness, education, parenthood, intimacy, productivity, achievement and concepts of embodiment, selfhood and social relations are blurred, complicated and far-reaching. These practices raise many questions for researchers interested in digitised leisure cultures across the age span. What are the affordances of the devices, software and platforms that people use for leisure? How do these technologies promote and limit leisure activities? How are people’s data used by other actors and agencies and in what ways do these third parties profit from them? What do people know about how their personal details are generated, stored and used by other actors and agencies? How do they engage with their own data or those about others in their lives? What benefits, pleasures and opportunities do such activities offer, and what are their drawbacks, risks and harms? How are the carers and teachers of children and young people encouraging or enjoining them to use these technologies and to what extent are they are aware of the possible harms as well as benefits? How are data privacy and security issues recognised and managed, on the part both of those who take up these pursuits voluntarily and those who encourage or impose them on others? When does digitised leisure begin to feel more like work and vice versa: and what are the implications of this?

These questions return to the issue of lively data, and how these data are generated and managed, the impact they have on people’s lives and concepts of selfhood and embodiment. As I noted earlier, digital technologies contribute to new ways of reconceptualising areas of life as games or as leisure pursuits that previously were not thought of or treated in those terms. In the context of this move towards rendering practices and phenomena as recreational and the rapidly-changing sociomaterial environment, all social researchers interested in digital society need to be lively in response to lively devices and lively data. As the editors of this special issue contend, researching digital leisure cultures demands a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective. Several exciting new interdisciplinary areas have emerged in response to the increasingly digitised world: among them internet studies, platform studies, software studies, critical algorithm studies and critical data studies. The ways in which leisure studies can engage with these, as well the work carried out in sub-disciplines such as digital sociology, digital humanities and digital anthropology, have yet to be fully realised. In return, the key focus areas of leisure studies, both conceptually and empirically – aspects of pleasure, performance, politics and power relations, embodiment, selfhood, social relations and the intersections between leisure and work – offer much to these other areas of enquiry.

The articles published in this special issue go some way to addressing these issues, particularly in relation to young people. The contributors demonstrate how people may accept and take up the dominant assumptions and concepts about idealised selves and bodies expressed in digital technologies but also how users may resist these assumptions or seek to re-invent them. As such, this special issue represents a major step forward in promoting a focus on the digital in leisure studies, working towards generating a lively leisure studies that can make sense of the constantly changing worlds of lively devices and lively data.

Twitter and health

Surprisingly little research by sociologists or media studies researchers has investigated how Twitter is used to discuss health and medical issues. Yet there are many interesting issues and topics to explore.

The Healthcare Hashtag Project operated by Symplur, a healthcare social media analytics company, provides a publicly available online resource that demonstrates the diversity of health and medical topics that are discussed on Twitter. When I checked the website in early May 2016, the Project had identified close to 13,000 healthcare topics, over 10,000 hashtags related to healthcare and almost 4,000 contributors to these discussions on Twitter. The diseases that were receiving attention on Twitter on that day included breast cancer, migraine, brain tumours, lymphoma, heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, attention deficit disorder and leukaemia (these were the top ten trending diseases in order).

The site also shows the ‘influencers’ in the Twitter discussions it documents as well as the latest tweets related to the hashtags it collects. This information demonstrates the sheer diversity of actors who engage in discussions about medical conditions and healthcare on Twitter. The top ten (by mentions) ‘influencers’ for the hashtag #BCSM (denoting ‘breast cancer social media’) were a clinical professor in surgery, four individual breast cancer survivors, a medical school and a research institute, two patient coalitions (one for men with breast cancer and one for young women with breast cancer) and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The story is quite different if the hashtag #digitalhealth is examined. Another market research company has analysed over 200,000 tweets and almost 30,000 engaged users to identify the top influencers and brands in Twitter discussions using #digitalhealth. The company looked at tweets using this hashtag over a period of four months spanning January to April 2016 and produced a list of the top 100 influencers (based on PageRank analytics that takes into account the number and quality of textual references).

The first four influencers listed (who gained much higher influence scores than any of the 96 others on the list), included Hungarian doctor, genomic scientist, digital health consultant and self-described ‘medical futurist’ Bertalan Mesko, followed by American John Nosta, another digital health consultant who runs his own think tank and is a member of the Google Health Advisory Board. A British health technologist, Alex Butler is next and fourth is American Paul Sonnier, another digital health consultant. These influencers are followed by more representatives of private digital health consulting or technology companies, some tech journalists and a representative from massive American pharmaceutical chain Walgreens. Academics are not well represented in the top 20: only three appear, beginning from number 13 on the list. Practising doctors and individual patients, or organisations for doctors or patients, are scarce.

The most common topics discussed by the top influencers were data (by a long way, accounting for a quarter of the tweets), the Internet of Things and wearable tech. The topics of apps, cancer, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and telemedicine were the next-most discussed (however, they all received less than 10 per cent of discussion across the tweets).

It is evident from this report that digital health discussions on Twitter (at least those that use #digitalhealth to signify their content) are dominated by commercial and entrepreneurial interests rather than by the experiences of doctors or patients. With the exception of Susannah Fox from the US Department of Health and Human Services, spokespeople from government agencies appear to have little influence in these discussions. This is borne out by the list of top-most influential brands, which are again dominated by commercial enterprises (although the NHS England is included towards the bottom of the top 25).

These data raise some interesting questions for a digital health sociologist. How do voices other than commercial enterprises get heard on Twitter? What makes some conditions or diseases more talked about on Twitter than others? For example, why is breast cancer so prominent — is it because there are far more patient advocates and organisations for patients devoting attention to discussing this , or is it because it is a common form of cancer, or are other factors involved? Why do some practising doctors and medical specialists decide to get involved in Twitter discussions on a particular condition or a digital health technology? How do all the different actors engage with each other –- who pays attention to whom? What kinds of networks are formed between actors from the different groups who are advocates or healthcare providers or developers?

Theorising mHealth and the quantified self

I have published several posts on this blog now about mHealth and the quantified self (see them here). I have also written two scholarly publications that have been published in academic journals discussing this topic in greater depth. In the first article I looked at how theories of surveillance society and the cyborg body could be applied to understanding the use of digital health technologies as they are used for health promotion, and also discussed privacy, intimacy and ethical issues (see here for details of the first article, the full version of which is open access).

The latest article is entitled ‘Quantifying the body: monitoring, performing and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies’, published in Critical Public Health (see here for details). It builds upon the previous article by bringing in discussion of the quantified self movement. Here is the abstract:

Mobile and wearable digital devices and related Web 2.0 apps and social media tools offer new ways of monitoring, measuring and representing the human body. They are capable of producing detailed biometric data that may be collected by individuals and then shared with others. Health promoters, like many medical and public health professionals, have been eager to seize the opportunities they perceive for using what have been dubbed ‘mHealth’ (‘mobile health’) technologies to promote the public’s health. These technologies are also increasingly used by lay people outside the professional sphere of health promotion as part of voluntary self-tracking strategies (referred to by some as ‘the quantified self’). In response to the overwhelmingly positive approach evident in the health promotion and self-tracking literature, this article adopts a critical sociological perspective to identify some of the social and cultural meanings of self-tracking practices via digital devices. Following an overview of the technologies currently available for such purposes I move on to discuss how they may contribute to concepts of health, embodiment and identity. The discussion focuses particularly on how these technologies promote techno-utopian, enhancement and healthist discourses and the privileging of the visual and the metric in representing the body via these devices.

My current research is moving from a focus on health promotion to the construction of patienthood in digital health discourses. I’m looking at how patients are being encouraged to engage in self-monitoring and self-care activities to reduce healthcare costs, and the commodification of patients’ accounts of their experiences of illness and healthcare on social media platforms designed to elicit patient opinion.

Infant embodiment: how we think about and treat babies

The future King Louis XIV as an infant with hi...

The future King Louis XIV as an infant with his wet nurse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My article entitled ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’ has been published in the latest issue of the journal Childhood. In the article I argue that the ways in which we think about and conceptualise infants’ bodies have been little explored, despite what is now a huge literature on the sociology and anthropology of the human body. Much of this literature addresses adults’ bodies; some of it looks at the embodiment of adolescents; a smaller proportion has discussed young children’s bodies. But very few academic articles or books have devoted specific attention to the youngest humans of all: those aged under two.

One exception is the American writer Jean Liedloff’s book The Continuum Concept, first published in 1975. In the book she describes her observations of child rearing practices of the Yequana, an indigenous tribe living in a jungle region of South America, with whom she lived for two and a half years. Liedloff found that these native Americans engaged in constant physical contact with their infants – they slept with their babies, breastfed them on demand for several years, and carried them everywhere in their arms or a sling, never putting them down on the ground until the infant began to crawl.

Another book-length analysis of infant-care practices is The Myth of Motherhood (1981). French historian Elizabeth Badinter details her research in this book into a period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France when aristocratic and middle-class women commonly farmed out their newborn infants to wet nurses. These wet nurses were paid to breastfeed and care for the baby, in most cases for several years. While infants of the aristocracy were usually cared for by the wet nurse at home, those of the more populous middle-class were simply sent to live with the wet nurse’s home. In both cases, the wet nurse became the ersatz mother and the actual mothers had little or no contact with their infants. Although many of these infants died due to extreme neglect on the part of their wet nurses, who usually had many infants to feed and care for, the practice continued to be extremely fashionable among members of French society who could afford it.

These two books, vastly different in terms of the human societies and the practices of infant care they describe, are similarly instructive: in detailing these diametrically opposed approaches to infants and infant care, they highlight the contingent and varying ways in which societies and cultures think about and treat their very youngest members. The one, focusing on a contemporary non-developed society that had had little contact with western ideas and practices, and the other, on a privileged social stratum in a western society some centuries ago, demonstrate that notions of appropriate infant care and ways to treat the infant body are constructed via social, cultural, historical and political processes. Infant bodies are gestated and born, but in conditions that are always subject to change in terms of how these bodies are conceptualised and treated by others, which has implications for how infants themselves experience their bodies.

In my article I discuss these aspects of infant embodiment. Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty (1962) on the phenomenology of embodiment, I make the point that infants’ bodies are always interembodied, or experienced in relation to others’ bodies. Indeed the care bestowed upon infants by their mothers extends the intersubjective and interembodied relationship that developed in the womb. I adopt the terminology used in a fascinating article by anthropologist Tahhan (2008) of ‘skinship’. This concept of ‘skinskip’ relates to the embodied closeness we feel to others’ bodies via acts of intimacy, physical proximity and caring that may involve blurring the boundaries between bodies and selfhoods. I think that it has great relevance to how caregivers relate to infants and goes some way to explaining the positive dimensions of concepts of infants’ bodies. Although she does not use the term, skinship is one aspect championed by Liedloff in The Continuum Concept in her describing of the benefits of constant physical contact with infants.

Via interembodiment, or skinship, carers’ and infants’ bodies interact, intermingle and are interdependent. This interdependence can be challenging and confronting in the context of contemporary western societies, where bodies are generally understood as ideally autonomous and separate from each other. While caring for an infant can be very pleasurable and sensual, it can also be extremely demanding and frustrating. It is socially unacceptable to admit this openly, but such a perspective finds expression in baby-care books such as those by Gina Ford, a British ex-nanny whose books on producing a ‘contented baby’ are bestsellers in the Anglophone world. Ford advises parents as to the importance of rigid scheduling of feeding, sleeping and even cuddling to ensure a ‘contented baby’ who does not wake its parents at night or encroach overly on their autonomy.

From this perspective the infant is positioned as an ‘uncivilised’, close to animalistic, being who requires much training to render its behaviour acceptable for entering human society. Establishing the autonomy and individuated embodiment of the infant is a priority, and the recommended bodily practices accord with this goal. The discourse of ‘training’ the infant, as if it were an animal, to conform to adults’ expectations and their ideals of autonomy and independence is common in these accounts.

As I contended in a previous post, there is often a blurring of categories between young children and animals. While companion animals such as dogs and cats have progressively become represented as child-substitutes and treated as if they are children, infants and young children in turn are often represented culturally as animalistic, not fit to occupy the ‘civilised’ spaces outside the domestic sphere such as the café, restaurant or aeroplane.

The relationship that we have with infants, therefore, can be paradoxical and ambivalent. At the same time as infants are viewed as increasingly precious, adorable and vulnerable, requiring and inspiring large amounts of caring and attention, they are also considered to be overly demanding, detracting from our own independence and right to autonomy.

References

Badinter, E. (1981) The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct. London: Souvenir Press.

Liedloff, J. (1975/1989) The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost. London: Penguin.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception (translated by C. Smith). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tahhan D (2008) Depth and space in sleep: intimacy, touch and the body in Japanese co-sleeping rituals. Body & Society, 14(4), 37—56.

A sociological critique of the Health at Every Size movement

The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement has become a popular alternative to the dominant scientific discourse on obesity, particularly among fat activists and the fat acceptance movement as well as some nutritionists eager to avoid an over-emphasis on body weight in their work with clients. First developed by American psychotherapist and nutritionist Linda Bacon (2010), the main argument of HAES is that good health and physical fitness can be achieved regardless of body size. As such, the approach agrees with the assertions made by many other obesity sceptics that fatness does not necessarily cause ill-health and premature mortality and that losing weight may not improve health status (see here for my previous post on the contentions of obesity sceptics).

A central plank of the HAES approach is that weight loss by means of continual dieting attempts and punishing exercise regimens should not be the main goal of those seeking to live a healthier life. Instead of attempting to follow the rigid guidelines of medical advice on losing weight and focusing exclusively on this objective, individuals should instead follow their bodies’ intuitive lead in choosing their diet and exercise activities. They should learn the instinctive hunger and fullness cues of their bodies and eat accordingly, whether or not following these cues lead to weight loss. For example, in an information sheet about HAES (2008) Bacon notes that ‘We all have internal systems designed to keep us healthy – and at a healthy weight. Support your body in naturally finding its appropriate weight by honouring its signals of hunger, fullness and appetite’.  In a YouTube video she claims that as long as ‘you stop fighting yourself, achieving and maintaining the weight that is right for you is effortless – your body does the job for you’.

A further integral part of the HAES philosophy, and one that bespeaks Bacon’s other training as a psychotherapist, is that people should accept their bodies’ size and weight, and learn to love themselves. The ‘Health at Every Size promise’ is that ‘You can feel better about yourself. You can feel loved, accepted, and vital – and you can improve your health – regardless of whether you lose weight’ (Bacon, 2010: 2, emphasis in the original).

For someone reading the HAES manifesto as put forward by Bacon and others, it all seems so simple: love yourself and others will love you; trust your body’s instincts and good health will follow. The HAES philosophy appears to be eminently laudable, avoiding the kinds of fat stigmatisation and victim-blaming that are so pervasive in medical, public health and popular discussions of body weight (Lupton, 2012). Yet I would argue that there are elements of the HAES discourse that should be held up to critical examination. It is time to challenge its assumptions and to identify the inconsistencies and the brand of rigid thinking that underpin HAES, just as critics have done in relation to scientific anti-obesity discourse.

In her writings on HAES, Bacon constantly refers to the body’s natural ‘set-point’ which ensures that too much weight is not gained if one makes sure to follow one’s body’s cues. References to ‘turning over control to your body’ assumes that the body is a natural entity that has its own wisdom independent of where it is sited or what experiences it has gone through.

While I agree with and support the major principles of accepting a range of body sizes and shapes and that everyone, regardless of their size and shape should seek a lifestyle that is both pleasurable and healthy, as a sociologist, I tend to approach the words ‘natural’, ‘instinctive’ or ‘internal cues’ with suspicion. From a sociological perspective, the ways in which we understand, view, represent and live our bodies are always sited within cultural and social contexts. The body is viewed as a complex interplay of biology, society and culture, in which it is extremely difficult to extricate one element from the other.

I also find the continual position of ‘your body’ as a separate entity from ‘you’ in HAES discourse problematic. This discourse reproduces the classic Cartesian duality of the mind/self as separate from the body/flesh and turns it on its head. Instead of the rational mind positioned as superior to the fleshly body, here the body is represented as ‘wise’ and all-knowing, to which the mind/self should relinquish control. Yet as theorists such as Merleau-Ponty have argued, we cannot separate ‘self’ from ‘body’: we always and inevitably experience the world as embodied selves.

Take the concept of ‘internal cues’ for example. The HAES literature suggests that such cues are natural, instinctive, biologically determined and therefore appropriate to follow. But if nothing else, the sociology of the body and indeed, the sociology of food and eating (Lupton, 1996) have shown us motivations can never be fully or purely ‘internal’. They are experienced via social and cultural lens, including our own life experiences and our siting within the particular cultural context into which we were born and grew up. Bacon acknowledges this to some extent when she compares French with American attitudes to food and eating practices in a brief section in the book, but does not extend this idea to the rest of her argument. She also acknowledges the emotional dimensions of eating and food cravings. Here again, however, Bacon positions these embodied sensations as individual rather than as social products, and as separate from, rather than an integral part of, the self: elements, indeed, of the ‘inauthentic body’ which one should not obey. So which sensations of our bodies should we listen to? Which are the most ‘wise’ and ‘authentic’ and on what basis should we make these judgements?

Another important aspect of HAES that requires more critical examination is the concept that we should accept our bodies whatever our size and the assumption that this will lead to better self-esteem, a goal in itself. But such attempts to improve self-esteem from within fail to recognise the continuing fat prejudice and loathing that continues to exist within our society. Bacon argues that HAES will ‘give you the tools … to live in a body you love’ (2010: 5). But this is similar to asserting that prejudice, discrimination and stigma based on such features as a person’s ethnicity or race, or their age, can be dealt with by ‘loving yourself’. Such an approach attempts to change individuals’ behaviours rather than wider societal attitudes, and the problem therefore remains personal (Murray, 2008). Whatever one’s own attitude about one’s body, the external societal meanings will remain unchanged, and prejudice, discrimination and stigmatisation will continue to exist. Fat people themselves, however, hard they try, may struggle to accept their body size in such a punitive social environment. Their inability to ‘love themselves’ may well become yet another source of shame and guilt.

References

Linda Bacon (2010) Health at Every Size: the Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Dallas: Benbella Books.

Deborah Lupton (1996) Food, the Body and the Self. London: Sage.

Deborah Lupton (2012) Fat. London: Routledge.

Samantha Murray (2008) The ‘Fat’ Female Body. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

The case of the pregnant CEO and the disappearing body

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer (Photo credit: ifindkarma)

When it was announced last month that Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, a Fortune 500 company, was six months’ pregnant at the time of her appointment, many commentators in online and traditional news media forums were approving. It was noted that Yahoo’s decision to appoint her was a sign that women had come a long way and were no longer as disadvantaged by their reproductive choices. When Mayer further announced that she would only be taking few weeks off on maternity leave following the birth of her baby son, and that she would work from home even during this brief period of leave, again the reaction of many commentators was positive. It was argued that a good example was being set and that women even at the very top of their professions could both reproduce and continue in their successful careers.

The issue of the successful woman ‘having it all’  resurfaced for debate. Some commentators were concerned that Mayer’s decision to work through an extremely brief maternity leave would raise the expectations of employers in relation to their own female employees. Several ‘mummy bloggers’ pointed out that Mayer may not realise how having a baby may affect her priorities. Interestingly enough, little mention was made of the huge attention given only weeks before to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, in which she identified the difficulties she and others had experienced in juggling motherhood with an extremely high-profile and demanding job.

To make it clear, I do not doubt that Mayer will be able to perform at the level expected of her during her pregnancy and following the birth of her son. I agree that it is salutary that she was promoted to the top job by recruiters who knew of her pregnancy. I imagine that Mayer will not display the projectile vomiting and uncontrolled emotional volatility evidenced in the pregnant women in the recent film What to Expect When You’re Expecting, an exaggerated portrayal of pregnant embodiment played for laughs (see here for my previous post on this). What I do want to do in contributing to this debate is bring the body back in (rather more subtly than this film did) and suggest that these bodily experiences may make Mayer’s first year in the job more challenging than if she had not gone through them.

All the noises of approval emerging in the traditional and social media, and the comments of Mayer herself, failed to acknowledge that pregnancy, childbirth, the post-partum period and the care of infants are supremely embodied experiences. The classic Cartesian mind/body split is evidenced in these discussions, assuming that one’s disembodied mind or will can and should take precedence over and control one’s fleshly body.

On one level the acceptance that a pregnant woman soon to give birth will be able to manage a top-level job is a feminist dream. It counters the common ideas in circulation for centuries that women are inferior to men because they are less able to exert rational control over their bodies and are therefore less capable of jobs involving high-level cognitive functioning. Such assumptions position the pregnant, menstruating or menopausal woman in particular as emotionally volatile, a slave to her hormones.

On the other hand, however, the discourse celebrating Mayer’s choice to work through her brief maternity leave loses sight of the fleshly body altogether. This attempt to make the body disappear bears with it its own limitations. Even those women who experience few health problems and feel very well during pregnancy cannot avoid the sheer physical reality of moving through space with their expanding and much heavier bodies, as the feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young (1990) has noted.

So too, childbirth, however it is experienced, demands much of women’s bodies, and it takes some time for women to recover in the postpartum period. This is especially the case if they have had the major abdominal surgery of caesarean section, extensive damage to the perineum or other physical trauma from a vaginal birth. Mayer will be dealing with these embodied experiences at the same time as she is learning to interact with and care for her new infant. Her baby son will himself be taking some time to adjust to life outside of the womb and making his own embodied needs powerfully apparent.

Although no doubt Mayer will have plenty of help from paid and unpaid carers, unless she employs a night-nanny or her partner rises to deal with bottle-feeds, nappy changes and infant soothing during the night, she will experience major sleep deprivation. Even if she does not breastfeed, she will have to deal with leakages and physical sensations as her breasts adjust to hormonal changes following the birth.

Mayer is in a rare top position as CEO of a major company. Yet this exalted position means that she, even more than other women, will be expected to conform to what philosopher Drew Leder (1990) has termed the ideal of the ‘absent body’: the body of which we and others are unaware because it is so fully under our rational control. The culture of the professional world in particular seeks to ignore the demands of the fleshly body. Cultural geographer Robyn Longhurst’s (2001) research with New Zealand and Scottish people in managerial work positions, both men and women, found that the interviewees strongly emphasised the importance of presenting a corporate body image at work. This involved being well-groomed, wearing a standard ‘corporate uniform’ of business suit and having a body that was physically fit and not overweight. Even cosmetic surgery is now becoming part of the techniques of the presentation of the professional self for some people in their quest to present the most perfect image possible.

All these practices of the self combined to present a corporate identity that was considered tightly controlled of its body boundaries, impervious to outside penetration and therefore powerful and rational. In such a context, the body, in effect disappears: its demands, its privations, its leakages, are all covered over in the interests of presenting a self that is rational, of the mind, competent and controlled. It is for this reason, as Longhurst (2001, 2005) points out, that women in such workplaces often find it difficult when they are pregnant and experiencing nausea, fatigue, the frequent need to urinate or crippling back-ache, all common bodily experiences in pregnancy, as they feel that they must not let their bodies betray them.

In pointing out these issues, I want to avoid any suggestion that women are any more at the mercy of their bodies than are men and that they therefore cannot perform successfully in top-level jobs. John Coates (2012) showed in his recent book on male traders at the New York Stock Exchange that much of their behaviour is influenced by fluctuations in hormones such as testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol. This leads in some cases to excessive exuberance bordering on mania or conversely pessimism that can then affect their decision-making and have major repercussions for the economy. As Longhurst’s research showed, both men and women in the professional workplace are expected to conform to a certain body demeanour and presentation. Those individuals who are overweight, perspire heavily, have a drinking problem, have a disability or chronic illness, are emotionally volatile and so on are viewed as not conforming to the desired norm, regardless of their gender.

I certainly do not wish to support contentions that pregnant women and new mothers should withdraw from the public sphere, as was common in previous eras. But a continuing corporate culture in which the demands and needs of the living, fleshly body are ignored or discounted potentially disadvantages all workers

References

Coates, J. (2012) The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom or Bust. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Leder, D. (1990) The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Longhurst, R. (2001) Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries. London: Routledge.

Longhurst, R. (2005) Maternities: Gender, Bodies and Space. London: Routledge.

Young, I.M. (1990) Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

July 2012 on ‘This Sociological Life’

Part of this month was devoted to writing my three-part series on digital sociology. The first two of these posts: ‘Digital sociology 1: what is it?’ and ‘Digital sociology 2: professional digital practice‘ were republished on the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences blog. I have been working on collecting these posts, along with some other writings on using social media in academia, into a document that I will publish electronically next month, entitled Digital Sociology: An Introduction (watch this space for news on when the document will become available).

I also published two Storify presentations this month. One looked at the homage to British medicine and the NHS in the Olympics Opening Ceremony (including reactions on social media) (it can be viewed here). The other Storify presentation summarised the proceedings of a forum on the Social Determinants of Health that I helped to organise at the University of Sydney (see it here).

My piece on disgust in anti-obesity campaigns appeared in The Conversation. I am continuing to write about how disgust is used in public health campaigns for a journal article. I have been collecting examples of public health campaign materials on a Pinterest board as part of this research: the collection can be seen here.

This month I also finally completed the second revised edition of my book Risk (first published by Routledge in 1999) and sent it off to the publishers. One of my blog posts this month drew on one of the aspects I cover in the book: risk, concepts of space and place and the Other.

My article ‘M-health and health promotion: the digital cyborg and surveillance society’ was published in Social Theory & Health this month (see here for details).

Pro-ana websites: celebrating and promoting the anorexic body

The Waiting Room / Anorexia Tableau

The Waiting Room / Anorexia Tableau (Photo credit: Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library)

Several sociologists and anthropologists have started commenting on a particular worrying use of the internet – to celebrate and promote anorexia. Websites have appeared directed at people wanting to emulate the bodily practices and appearance of anorexics. They have been referred to as ‘pro-ana‘ (short for anorexic) websites. The term’ Ana’ is sometimes used in the websites as if were the name of a girl or woman, a friend perhaps of the individual who is seeking advice and help in her attempts to render herself thin and adopt ‘Ana’ as her supporter and mentor.

These websites, many of which have hundreds of followers, frequently include images of extremely thin women with conventionally beautiful faces, like models but even thinner. Some are celebrities at their very lowest body weights and looking particularly skeletal. These photos are captioned with approving comments, encouraging viewers to aspire to achieve such emaciation.

There are references on such sites to the ‘eating disorder community’ and the support that such sites offer their members. They are clearly directed at promoting the practices of anorexia nervosa and making members feel as if they are part of a broader community who share the same ideals of body wasting. The sites also refer to ‘thinspiration’, or inspiring others in the aim of ‘getting thin and staying thin’, as one pro-ana site put it. Varieties of diet pill, laxatives, diuretics and ways of stimulating metabolic rates are discussed, as are various workout and dietary regimes, fasting and purging methods and ways to ‘hide anorexia’.

According to one such website the pro-ana ‘creed’ includes such commandments as:  ‘If you aren’t thin you aren’t attractive’, ‘Being thin is more important than being healthy’ and ‘Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success’.

The latest issue of the journal Body & Society includes an examination of this phenomenon by Natalie Boero and CJ Pascoe.  As Boero and Pascoe note, such online communities provide a place for people engaging in stigmatised and proscribed body practices such as self-starvation and body wasting to come together and proclaim themselves as rebelling against mainstream negative concepts of anorexics. Participants in these sites position themselves as powerful and challenging of medical dogma, and as experts in the practices of anorexia.

Boero and Pasco focus in particular on the ways in which participants in these sites work to maintain an authentic community of people who are committed to the pro-ana lifestyle. They note that participants are wary of ‘wannarexics’, or people who are attracted to the ‘anorexic lifestyle’ or sense of community offered by these groups, but are viewed as not ‘authentically’ behaving as anorexics. Those who consider themselves ‘real’ pro-anas attempt to maintain group solidarity and keep out the wannarexics, often by being quite aggressive in their posts and positioning themselves as more knowledgeable about anorexia.

This is interesting research, showing how such communities operate to achieve distinctions between ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ participants. In the case of pro ana sites, given their focus on the body and its proportions, to prove their authenticity, participants are asked to post photos of their bodies, their body weight, body measurements and BMI (body mass index) and food reports of their daily diets. These indicators are used to assess whether they are ‘true’ pro anas.

However what is not discussed in the Boero and Pascoe article is the ways in which some of the most popular pro ana sites are clearly commercial in their orientation. They include advertisements for diet pills and Chinese medicine products aimed at losing weight or sell ‘thinspiration’ manuals with tips on wasting. Some people have obviously spotted a market among the followers of the ‘pro-ana’ philosophy. On their websites they position themselves as pro anas, but then attempt to sell their wares to people accessing their website. It is surely here that the authenticity of pro ana community members needs to be called into question.

Further reading

Natalie Boero and CJ Pascoe (2012) Pro-anorexia communities and online interaction: bringing the pro-ana body online. Body & Society, 18(2), 27–57.

Nick Fox, Katie Ward and Alan O’Rourke (2005) Pro-anorexia, weight-loss drugs and the internet: an ‘anti-recovery’ explanatory model of anorexia. Sociology of Health & Illness, 27(7), 944–71.

Megan Warin (2009) Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.