For something like two years now Instagram has insistently advertised a device called the Upright Posture Trainer to me.
The Upright Posture Trainer is exactly as terrible as it seems like it might be. It’s like a pendant, only you wear it in reverse so the pendant piece is between your shoulder blades, and instead of being a beautiful adornment that brings you joy to wear, it’s an device that buzzes at you when you slouch and sends real-time data to an app which allows you to monitor your slouch at all times as well as encouraging you to set goals and offer analytics to show you whether you are reaching those goals. The company offer tutorials, ‘does science’, and has the appropriately lofty yet quotidian mission statement: “we strive to create a healthier, happier world. Free of back pain and the countless other issues stemming from poor back health.”
They also have a whole tab on their website labeled “For Employers” which at first glance seems really strange — why would an employer care so much about your posture that they’d want to invest in this product? and makes perfect sense when they point out that “43% of employers rank MSK as top condition to impact costs” by which they mean your back pain costs them money and they don’t like it.
Ooh, but what if they could give you this posture trainer and that fixed your back pain? Or, just as useful really, what if they gave you the posture trainer and then used your bad posture data as a reason to blame you for your back pain so they somehow didn’t have to pay for it after all?
I admit the latter use of the data sounds a bit dystopian, but then, I have a disease that is sometimes treated with IoT drugs, so-called ‘smart pills’, to ‘assure compliance’. No, I am not making that up at all. This is why when I wrote about digital apps for mental health I made sure to point out that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not tracking you.
What I find even more dystopian than your employer tracking you in order to save money (which is just doing what maximizes shareholder profits, after all), however, is the idea that I myself might choose to allow a device to constantly monitor the curve of my spine and scold me when I deviate from its prescription.
I also do not like it when my phone suggests that I should put it on Do Not Disturb (which it used to do when, for example, it could see in my calendar that I had a reservation for dinner, until I found out how to turn that off). I do not want a watch that tells me I’ve been sitting still for too long, anything that counts my steps, any vibrator that comes with an app (my god, the data collection there), or a butt-plug shaped device with a bluetooth connection to a game intended to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. (God forbid I make my peace with the notion that, having pushed two children out of my vagina, I sometimes pee a little when I laugh really hard.)
I don’t even let the electric toothbrush tell me how long I should brush my teeth for.
I wasn’t always against Wearables. I had a Fitbit, once. Like everyone else, I quickly lost it, or put it through the washer, or threw it in a drawer. The Wearable makers, like the Gyms, make money whether you use the thing or not.
The last wearable I bought was supposed to help me remember to breathe, a basic function of the autonomic nervous system that I’m somehow pretty bad at doing; perhaps because I spent much of my childhood lying awake all night convinced that if I arranged the blankets on top of my body to look as if there wasn’t anyone in the bed, and breathed as little as possible, the monster from The Thing wouldn’t eat me when it came in through my bedroom window, it would just pass through my room to some other part of the house that didn’t have me in it.
You wore the breathing device on your bra or on a waistband, and it vibrated at you when you weren’t breathing right. I bought it in late October 2016 and wore it for a a couple of weeks, during which it buzzed me constantly, especially whenever I checked the news.
I threw it in the garbage on November 9th, when I awoke to find that The Thing was in fact in my bedroom and it would be best if I breathed as little as possible, probably, for at least the next four years.
I actually care a lot about both my breath and my posture, but I care about them because to breathe deeply, and to sit, walk, and stand upright is to feel some measure of dignity and safety in the world.
Which is to say that it is not your steady breathing and upright posture that set you free, it is a sense of freedom that allows you to breathe deeply and stand up straight.
I cannot personally achieve that sense of freedom when I’m wearing a device that constantly reminds me of how often I feel so scared that I try not to breathe too loudly or take up too much space.
Sometimes I joke that I refuse to allow Skynet to control me. But of course it is not really Skynet, it is entirely human structures of power that benefit when I believe so fervently that if I just meditate harder, stand up straighter, breathe better, eat the right things, and use the right productivity tools — if I constantly monitor and quantify every aspect of my life, if I strive always to Be Best, then that is what earns me the right to be free.
Even behind a locked door (and I have been behind locked doors, several times), you may be able to sit up straight and breathe freely, you might be able to remember how much larger you are than your cage, and it’s by cultivating that experience, the one in which we assert our right and our ability to attain freedom, in which we may even at moments experience such freedom — it is by cultivating that experience that we might learn to move through the rest of the world with more comfort and dignity (whether other people think we should get to feel that way or not).
Upright, then, is fundamentally a state of mind, not one of posture, and absent the intent to cultivate the state of mind I don’t see the point of wearing a device to harangue you about the posture.
I’ve had a hard time getting this issue out. I had a lot more things to say. I couldn’t find a good Taylor Swift quote for it. I worried that I sounded too la-la-la freedom’s just a state of mind, as if sitting up straight and breathing is all you have to do to be free in the world, as if we don’t need to struggle to be free, to help others be free, to fight against those systems of power and control. I had a lot of things to say about my time behind locked doors, and about all of the people who have made me make myself small and breathe little or not at all. All the years I have held my breath out of fear. I had a rabbit hole of a rant about how all these people saying that mindfulness has been coopted by capitalism are not wrong and yet mindfulness is also what has saved me, and when I mean save I mean my life, I mean I could not have survived without what it has given me.
The problem is, it’s July, and my mind is pulling at too many threads at once. It’s unsettled. I planned to spend most of the month settling my mind in the forest, in Vermont, and then we had a medical emergency and had to come home and here I am again, in the city again, still plenty of July to get through with that terrible feeling of wanting to tear off my face. July in the city for me is like (and here’s as much of a Taylor Swift link as you’ll get from me today, and it’s just that it was from her twitter account that I found my way to it) this Ed Sheeran song “Bad Habits” —
My bad habits lead to late nights, endin' alone
Conversations with a stranger I barely know
Swearin' this will be the last, but it probably won't
I got nothin' left to lose, or use, or do
My bad habits lead to wide eyes starin' at space
And I know I'll lose control of the things that I say
Yeah, I was lookin' for a way out, now I can't escape
The truth is that every July I feel like a monster myself, I feel like The Thing, and that is why I have not been able to finish this issue, which has been nearly fully written for nearly three weeks now. I told myself I needed to finish it today, one way or another, and that finishing this doesn’t mean that I have to finish all my thoughts on this, these are not the last words I will ever get to say on the topic of wearables, or locked doors, or sitting up straight or breathing or freedom or dignity or monsters.
I am free to keep writing about all of these things or to never write about any of them ever again, and I am free not to keep track of that, and I would have been free not to finish in the first place, free just to lie down and breathe for a while, but look now, I have finished it, I am done, I can rest.
Oh, and here’s a picture of me at rest, slouching. Take that, posture trainer.
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