I was skinnier the last time I asked a computer to evaluate my body. I weighed 20 pounds less, had a steady office job, woke up half an hour early every morning to workout on the floor beside my bed, and went out to run after work a few times a week. My meals were metronomic: coffee on the bus in the morning, oatmeal at my office desk, a tuna salad wrap and small bag of potato chips for lunch from a sterile business park deli, and a dinner of canned beans over couscous or rice. I was unhappy, but my days had become so automated happiness was irrelevant. My emotions came on a wheel of repeating obligations and it was easy to wait them out. There was always some form of nearby busyness to distract from my emotions if not completely lift them. But I was skinny then, and knew whatever weaknesses I had would be invisible to the computer scale.
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Trying to relate one’s health and fitness to machines is not new, from calorie-counting spreadsheets on Apple II to run-tracking wristbands. In recent years it was a videogame that helped revive interest in working toward a physical ideal with Nintendo’s Wii Fit, a collection of simple but unusually responsive mini-games built around a plastic scale. Since its release in 2007, the game sold more than 37 million copies and triggered a renewed interest in health and fitness software and gadgets, from imitators like Ubisoft’s Your Shape and EA Sports Active, which were quickly swept aside by an even broader array of mobile apps like RunKeeper, Nike+ FuelBand, Livestrong’s Calorie Tracker, and Fitness Buddy, an iOS app that gives its user special exercise routines to target different muscle groups and fitness goals.
This flourishing of dongles, rubber appendages, and weight-correlating software have overtaken Nintendo’s now insubstantial-seeming game. With rumors suggesting Apple will make a fitness-tracking app part of the forthcoming iOS 8, the ideal of having a fit and well-cared-for body seems to have been incredibly effective in convincing us to connect to a petty array of surveillant devices. The omnipresence of these little machines guarantees a constant tension between imperfect desires and scientific ideals, flooding the environment with reminders of self-discipline while presuming an empirical baseline for how a healthy life should be composed.
No one is healthier than the rich, with incidence of obesity, diabetes, asthma, and other lifestyle-related illnesses increasing dramatically the lower one’s income. Almost 70% of people who earn more than $50,000 a year use physical activity to control or reduce their weight, while fewer than 50% of those who earn less than $15,000 a year do. I put on 20 pounds in the last year or so, during which I had to use cash advances from my credit card to pay rent four times, I had to threaten to sue one publication for a $400 check that was nine months late, and I had to cover for several months of lost income as one of my regular freelance employers was bought by another company and stopped all freelance payments for four months as it transitioned accounts payable systems. I was working 60 and 70 hour weeks and through almost every weekend, and at the end of the year made a little over $12,000.
I began taking on every side job I could, pushing myself to work even more, stretching 12 hour work days into 15 and 16 hour ones. selling off whatever I had to sell week by week. There was no time to grocery shop, let alone cook. I lived on $1 pizza slices in between assignments, and cheap sugary confections scarfed down alongside my morning coffee. The synthetic pleasures of a salty tongue and a full belly no longer gnawing at itself became a kind of self-administered medication for the small traumas each day brought forth, from seeing debt collectors in Texas add me to their Google Plus circles to past due notifications arriving for everything connected to my name every time I opened the mailbox.
It’s hard to be healthy in an environment that’s abandoning you, producing distant threats from strangers empowered with the arcana of laws and subclauses that you had no idea existed. There’s not much incentive to think long-term about one’s body, when the short-term demands so much emotional and physical endurance. And my body slowly changed, the pants I’d hated wearing because of how baggy they were became suddenly tight around the waist, and the button holes in my shirts began to pull apart into elliptical arcs. My face grew latitudinally, I began sticking my chin out a few extra centimeters in pictures so the new drooping double chin wouldn’t be visible, I became acquainted with new belt holes, and wore my jeans ragged on the inseams where my thighs were now rubbing together.
When I turned on Wii Fit U this winter, five years after I’d last played its predecessors, I watched its small BMI meter rise as it imported my old data, landing directly over the line separating “Normal” from “Overweight.” I have often thought the original Wii Fit might have been the best videogame made in the last decade, a surreal and unusually intimate new way of relating to a machine. Its mini-games are beautifully childish, from leaning left or right to hit soccer balls with your avatar’s head, or tilting a board to move a marble into a hole on the far end. But the process of performing these tasks was correspondingly complex and demanding, revealing intimate new layers of consciousness in my body, from the way I’d flex a tiny muscle in my second toe to keep my foot anchored as I leaned, to the way I noticed my stomach tightening as I tried to keep my back straight during yoga poses, with a small blue dot constantly juddering inside a yellow circle, reflecting the infinitesimally small shifts and strains in the thousands of muscles I was using to just shift my balance.
Most games overcompensate for the simplicity of static button presses with an explosive excess of detail and animation on screen, and Wii Fit inverted this ethic, by offering a minimal amount of visual stimulus while playing with a universe of subtle variations and interrelations in one’s body, producing absurdly anti-climactic feats like seeing a marble drop in a hole. It’s such an easy thing to want: to be healthy, to reach a goal, to move a marble, but it requires so much specificity and control over one’s environment that it feels like a small miracle when it does occur, a collaborative hallucination produced between a body straining against a rhyming computer program.
Wii Fit U is blessedly similar to its now outmoded predecessor. The majority of the mini-games having been imported into the newer shell, and only a few feature upgrades have been added, including support for a pedometer, and the ability to program one’s own sequence of exercises. Like its predecessor, Wii Fit U is obstinately unproductive as an fitness application, burning 100 calories in a moderate 25 minute session, a figure I could triple in the same amount of time jogging. Wii Fit U arrived with the familiar fanfare of empirical support for its virtues, including one study that found pregnant women lost an average of 11 pounds using Wii Fit U for three months after giving birth. Yet, these studies always mask the conditions under which the healthy body change is made probable. Lifestyles with an extra 45 minutes to spare on exercise (not counting preparation and cleanup) are uncommon, as is the economic support that makes consistent mindfulness of one’s diet realistic. It takes energy, both to exercise and to care about exercising. Games can cheat this to some degree, with their ability to trick players into caring with fictional frames, and by exaggerating how significant incremental steps toward healthiness actually are.
Like most health apps, Wii Fit U is useless as a tool for improving one’s social and economic environment, but it has at least a placeholder to acknowledge them with regular prompts to actually stop playing the game. These prompts have become a hallmark of Nintendo’s games in recent years, and though they’re easily overlooked, it’s difficult to overestimate how alien to game culture it is to have a game tell you you’ve played enough. Where Sony and Microsoft are openly competing to design machines you never have to shut off, Nintendo has created regular, intrusive reminders to shut the machine off, acknowledging an outer life that can’t, or shouldn’t, be brought too far into the realm of play.
Play becomes most meaningful when most rigorously limited, kept separate from all the strains of politics, economy, and community that can’t be resolved in a medium of falsified goals and incoherent symbology. Fitness is its own kind of incoherent symbol, an empirical measurement susceptible to so many different influences, almost none of which can be seen in the few visible attributes of body mass index, muscle tone, and the calm radiance of vivacity that comes from having temporarily mastered one’s body. As more and more companies invest in fitness technologies intended to be with us at all times, we are slipping deeper into a divide where those who have means enough to care about something as fanciful as timing their splits and those lost in struggle of splitting their waking hours between an overwhelming number of bosses and creditors.
There is perversity in the desire to micromanage health through small fact-gathering machines, placing the impetus of self-care on individuals in an environment that is increasingly hostile to the idea of a self. The habits of health and fitness are simple, the last point of boring activity for those with nothing else to worry about beyond body image. Those are easy problems, with tedious solutions, and they leaves all the more difficult ones in place, reminding us the few affordable coping pleasures only further alienate us from those who’ve transcended the stresses of survivalism. As I tried to slide back into the data shell of my old self in Wii Fit five years after the fact, I realized I couldn’t, too much around me had changed.