Surviving the “Skin Tracking” Tsunami

A pause is needed on the trail where technology and body image intersect.  



Figure: A recent trip in upstate New York, lead the author to contemplate different kinds of trackers.

Scene 1: Theatre of the Absurd

While celebrating our wedding anniversary at a historic upstate New York mountain house, my wife and I signed up for a nature hike. We donned snow shoes and headed out into knee deep snow following our guide Mike, an articulate and knowledgeable woodsman, and began to track the cotton tailed deer.

Mike pointed out deer, rabbit, and fox tracks of various sizes and shapes. He explained, often as he delightedly fell to his knees or gleefully drifted sideways into the snow, that the age of the track and the direction, and gait of the animal could be quickly determined by the shape and depth of the track. The trackers of years past were tracking for survival. They were tracking potential food sources to sustain them for the day, the night, or the winter. He reminded us that the successful and skilled trackers survived or flourished while the less successful struggled or perished.

Mike postulated that human beings are hard wired to track for survival. Modernity has afforded many of us the luxury of tracking that is removed from the woods and the jungle. It has morphed into the form of household budgeting, fitness trackers, GPAs, stock portfolios, sports scores, sales quotas, and other performance metrics. This modern tracking brings food to our tables, personal pride, prowess demonstrated by visible possessions, improved stamina and body measurements, and long-term protection from the cold winters to be endured in our retirement and senescence. The benefits of these tracking methods must be weighed against the burden of “too much information.”

Ah, but now, the most insidious and dangerous tracking may be unfolding. Beware, because it is subtly encrypted in the code of healthful and motivating tools for wellness and beauty. The proliferation of tracking devices allows and encourages daily and real-time assessment and comparison of all facets of appearance and function. Unlike the obvious threat and danger that bared teeth and claws of a predator contemplating our fate as their dinner du jour, tracking devices and matrices can subtly threaten our sense of attractiveness, competence, worth, competitiveness, and value. Are we the “tracker” or are we ourselves becoming the “trackee”? The trackers compare us locally, nationally, and internationally to same age and gender-based comparisons. How do we fare? How competitive are we? Can we competently track and hunt to secure our coveted prey? 

After ingesting the tracking data, we are often left feeling vulnerable and inadequate. Add to this the ubiquitous human experience that most of us already are our worst critics. We secretly know and painfully suffer the internal “realities” of our self-perceived inadequacies, insufficiencies, and ineptitudes. Thus, generated tracking data added to human tendencies elicit a voracious hunger to buttress our appearance, fitness, and skills. Only then can we track and conquer our prey. The prey of any given moment may be a physical competition or beauty contest, a potential job opportunity, a coveted promotion, or the anxiety ridden and competitive encounters on the battleground procuring a mate. 

Scene 2: Enter Stage Left: The Ultimate Tracker 

Zoe Draelos, MD, recently wrote about a new tool for personal scrutiny, a “personal beauty advisor.”1 The mirror-appearing device that hangs on the wall of the bathroom with a camera mounted front and center at the top. In front of the mirror, is a carpet cleverly concealing a scale. Users wake up in the morning, stand in front of the beauty advisor and get their first morning weight, and they can evaluate their undereye bags, skin color, facial redness, and acne lesions. They can determine if their acne lesions are decreasing; how their undereye bags compare internationally with other women your same age. 

Dr Draelos wrote: “I worked calibrating one of these devices comparing my assessments to the device and the device performed admirably well. Certainly, this device could encourage compliance as rosacea patients on oral and topical antibiotics see a decrease in the mirror generated inflammatory lesion count and overall facial erythema. The mirror offers a personal and population-based database comparison providing all types of objective information for consideration in the privacy of your own bathroom. Now the ‘mirror, mirror, on the wall’ is a miniature computer with wireless Internet connectivity! Snow White needs to take a look at this one!”1

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