Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Are We Fit Yet? English Adolescent Girls' Experiences of Health and Fitness Apps

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Are We Fit Yet? English Adolescent Girls' Experiences of Health and Fitness Apps

Article excerpt


In this paper, we examine the views of a group of Sports Leaders, within an English state grammar school for girls, around engaging with health and fitness related apps and wearable technologies. We investigate the socio-cultural implications of utilising these devices upon their embodied health and their broader understanding of what it means to be 'healthy'. Our research illustrates how a group of adolescent girls valued the social possibilities of engaging in physical activity, whilst criticised digital technologies for removing the interactive elements of traditional sport and for promoting narrow health ideals.

In recent years, digital technologies related to health and fitness promotion have been emphasised as a technical solution to adolescents' sedentary lifestyles (Sport England, 2015). Due to the ubiquity of interactive technologies within adolescents' lives, 'apps' (specialised programs downloadable to mobile devices) have particularly resonated with young individuals (Ofcom, 2011). Over the past decade, the numerous readily available health and fitness technologies have arguably served a Western agenda to combat the so-called 'obesity epidemic' (Rich & Miah, 2014), which has been the subject of academic dispute over its exaggeration and uncertainty (see Rich, 2011a). Indeed, digital devices contradict with government policy rhetoric that strives for a broader approach to reducing health disparities, as opposed to 'focusing on individuals' specific health-related behaviours' (Lupton, 2015, p. 176).

In schools, digital health technologies have begun to be employed to promote physical activity amongst young people (Millington, 2009). Apps and wearable technologies function as pedagogical devices, facilitating an interactive space through which young people can learn how to value a desirable body in the pursuit of functional health (Rich & Miah, 2014). As adolescents are encouraged to monitor and regulate their bodies, digital health technologies are arguably intrusive methods within the existing performative spaces of schools to serve wider societal health intervention. According to Evans, Rich, and Holroyd (2004), these body performance and perfection codes unjustly place 'moral obligation and blame on individuals for their health/problems' (p. 139). This neoliberal, 'ideology of healthism' pervades the lives of adolescents beyond schooling, as digital health technologies expand the parameters of surveillance upon the young body.

This paper begins with a review of academic literature that examines digital health technologies through notions of embodiment and subjectivity. At the forefront of this paper is this concept of embodiment and specific attention is given to how these notions inform our understanding of the embodied identities of both the participants and the focus group facilitator. We then explore Foucault's conceptualisation of bio-power in relation to understandings of the digitised, 'healthy' body. Subsequently, we examine digital health within popular pedagogical spaces, as they extend the boundaries through which adolescents can engage in self-monitoring to conform to culturally and socially acceptable body 'ideals'.

Situating embodied subjectivities

With the growing commodification and privatisation of digital health technologies, health and fitness apps have the potential for 'even more intense forms of surveillance, normalisation and potential "Othering" of students whose data do not conform to set expectations' (Lupton, 2015, p. 128). It is important to consider the implications of these restrictive health discourses upon adolescents' embodied practices, subjectivities and discursive understandings of health. As McEvilly, Atencio, Verheul, and Jess (2013) emphasise, health discourses significantly influence 'children's sense of self, which is directly linked with being physical and embodied' (p. 733).

Specifically, this research engages with the ways in which a group of female Sports Leaders subjectively negotiated the multiple discourses of 'health' within digital health technologies. …

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