Welcome to "fat camp": Body image narratives in sport among elite women athletes


Body image and weight issues in athletes derive from a combination of societal and sport specific pressures that disproportionately affect women compared to men. Existing research in women athletes focuses on their current body and weight concerns and experiences in sport, while less is known about the complex and cumulative impact of various experiences over time and at different levels of competition. Therefore, the current study sought to explore the body image narratives of elite women athletes throughout the numerous stages of their athletic careers and into retirement. This retrospective qualitative narrative study consisted of nine semi-structured interviews with predominantly Caucasian current or former elite women athletes (Mage = 24.5, SDage = 4.04), and data were analyzed using a thematic narrative analysis. Six themes were developed that capture the athletes' journeys through sports: (1) Childhood: A time for sport sampling, (2) Puberty: A sensitive period for body image and weight issues, (3) Coaches: Fosterers of athletes' body and weight concerns, (4) Inescapable: Body image, disordered eating, and athlete maltreatment, (5) Professional sports: A potential beacon of hope, and (6) "It bleeds into everything": The widespread impact of body image. Together, these stories highlight the known pervasiveness and normalization of body image and weight issues in elite women athletes, which are largely fostered by inappropriate commentary and behaviours by coaches. The current study stresses the need for body image interventions aimed at athletes, coaches, and guardians in order to protect athletes from long-term negative health consequences that result from this maltreatment.