BBC elite British sportswomen study 2024: Impact of disordered eating and body image on athletes

athlete holding a mirror

Warning: this article contains discussion of body image and eating disorders

“I never looked ill, I just looked like an athlete.”

This elite sportswoman says she “became a bit obsessive with counting calories and weighing things” until she realised she had become “dangerously light”.

More than a third of 143 respondents to a BBC questionnaire sent to elite British sportswomen said they have experienced disordered eating.

Some who filled it out anonymously said they had restricted food because of social media abuse about the way they look and others because they need to meet weight categories for their sports.

Others said it was because they felt they did not meet expectations of what an athlete was ‘supposed to’ look like.

According to eating disorder charity Beat, disordered eating is about abnormal behaviours or attitudes that may not yet “meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder but are still having a significant impact on someone’s life”.

What is an athlete ‘supposed to’ look like?

Kitesurfer Maddy Anderson told BBC Sport she has always “struggled” with believing that she “looked like an athlete”.

It was a common theme among the responses to the questionnaire, which found more than a third of respondents felt negative or very negative about their body image.

While Anderson says she never experienced any disordered eating, that was not the case for others.

“My sport has never pressured me to look a certain way but I always felt that as an athlete I ‘should’ look a certain way, which has impacted how I see my body and my relationship with food,” wrote one, adding as a result she had “struggled with binge eating and bulimia”.

Another athlete went through a phase of “overthinking” everything that she ate because she thought she did not look like others in her sport.

“The norm in [my sport] is to be tall and pretty lean. I never felt like I fit that narrative,” the athlete said. “It didn’t affect me at all until I started receiving quite a lot of hate on social media.

“That’s when I started to get a bit obsessed over how I looked. I was almost eating just what I thought would fuel me for [my sport]. A lot of the time I was eating before, so I tried to feel good [while competing], then not eating for big periods after.

“It felt rubbish. I didn’t feel good, I wasn’t moving well, I felt lethargic, I was snappy. Luckily it was a phase I transitioned out of pretty quickly.”

Another says she only discovered she was “underweight” when she came off the contraceptive pill and realised her periods had stopped.

“I think it’s just that energy consumption you’re using as an athlete, it then goes into recovery rather than having a menstrual cycle,” she said.

‘They read out our weights in front of everyone’

One athlete described “the really horrible experience” of public weighing sessions in her sport.

“They used to read out our weights in front of everyone – we were mixed males and females,” she said. “I was a 16-year-old – at that age females tend to develop a bit earlier so they do get a bit heavier than males.”

As a result, she said, she became “obsessive over the number on the scale”.

Umairah Malik, a clinical advice co-ordinator at Beat, told BBC Sport these type of weighing sessions – even if not in front of other people – could be “triggering” for someone with an eating disorder or who is developing one and “cause an even bigger fixation on food and weight”.

She said it was important that such weighing be done by a trained professional “in a safe and supportive environment” away from other athletes, with the option to not hear their weight if they are finding that difficult.

While it has no figures for disordered eating, which unlike eating disorders is not clinically diagnosed, Beat believes approximately 1.25m people in the UK have an eating disorder and around 75% of those affected are female.

It says research has shown that compared to non-athletes, both female and male athletes are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder and this was “especially true for athletes participating in sports where low body weight or leanness confers a competitive advantage”.

‘Fat pig’, ‘man beast’ – the trolling

While Beat says social media does not cause eating disorders, it says it can make them worse and contribute to them developing in someone who is already vulnerable.

One athlete said she “took it pretty badly” when she faced online insults like being called “a fat pig”.

Another recalls being called a “man beast” at school.

“[It was] because I was muscly and I hated that,” she wrote. “I was anxious and worried about eating too much food and about eating chocolate and sweet treats, and would feel guilty even if I ate a square of chocolate.

“It has taken me a long time though to be happy with my body image and to enjoy eating food.”

According to the BBC study, more than a third of respondents (56 of 143) said they had been trolled on social media. Trolling is when one user tries to provoke or offend another.

While not directly comparable to the 2024 study, a BBC survey in 2020 found 30% of elite British sportswomen said they had been trolled on social media.

‘Bingeing and starving’ – making weight categories in sport

In some sports, for example boxing, you simply have to be a certain weight to compete in a category. If an athlete is over in the run-up to a weigh-in they will try lose pounds quickly or they may need to put on weight to reach their category too.

“When making weight I’d have massive periods of binging excessively followed by practically starving for a few weeks,” one athlete wrote in the questionnaire.

Another said: “I think lots of athletes’ mental health can be impacted as a result of making weight for a long period of time”, but another saw their disordered eating as “just a part of the job”.

Beat urged sporting organisations “to dedicate the time and resources to learning about eating disorders, understand the science and that they are recognising the signs and the symptoms” and pass that information on to athletes.

When asked about body image, kitefoil racer Lily Young described a cycle she goes through when having to get to 80kg, bulking up and then losing weight to “feel good”.

But she said that being in a room full of athletes from different sports had served as a powerful reminder that there is no such thing as how an athlete is ‘supposed to look’.

“When I went to Sports Personality, it was so nice to be surrounded by all athletes,” she said. “You don’t feel out of place at all. There were people who were really tiny from gymnastics, there were netball girls that were so tall and so beautiful with these long legs.

“It was really refreshing to be in a room full of sports people who all look different.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this story you can visit BBC Action Line.

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