The Prevalence of Eating Disorders Amongst Female Triathletes: Power, Discipline, and Surveillance.

This second essay was part of a contemporary sports issue portfolio I completed for my MSc and was especially pertinent, as one of the athletes I coach suffers from an eating disorder. The research into this subject has increased my understanding of this illness and improved the coach – athlete relationship, as nothing is ‘off limits’ and what was a difficult topic is now discussed openly.


This essay explores the prevalence of eating disorder (ED) among female triathletes, using concepts of French philosopher and sociologist, Michel Foucault, as a framework to discuss how power, discipline and surveillance can affect mental health and physical well-being of this complicated condition. Little was known about eating disorder (ED) in sport pre-1980, however, from research conducted in the 1980s, there was an awareness of an increase in eating disorders amongst women, resulting from the societal ideal for slimness (Schwartz, Thompson and Johnson, 1982; Nasser, 1985). This research  concentrated on the general population and not specific to female athletes, however, in the 1990’s  a study by Taub and Blinde (1992) on adolescent female athletes concluded that the athletes in the study were deemed no more susceptible to developing an ED than nonathletes, though it should be noted, these athletes were not from an elite environment. Further studies in the 1990’s on elite female athletes indicated that they were prone to an eating disorder especially in sports where leanness (running and swimming) or weight (weight lifting and judo) is a contributing factor to success (Thompson and Sherman, 1993; Sundgot-Borgen, 1993; Sundgot-Borgen, 1994a; Sundgot-Borgen, 1994b). Data from studies post the millennium  continue to show that EDs pose  a problem with elite female athletes in nonlean sports (20%), however, that doubles to 46% in lean sports (Torstveit , Rosenvinge and Sundgot-Borgen, 2008; Thompson and Sherman, 2010). Much of this research is focused towards elite athletes but it would be fair to conclude that in modern day society with ‘fad’ diets (Gibson, et al., 2015) and social media (Perloff, 2014) conveying images of women with perfect bodies, that a similar percentage of amateur female athletes would be susceptible to an ED. Indeed, United Kingdom Sport (UK Sport, no date) and the National Health Service (NHS, no date) nowadays publish advice on EDs, accessible to everyone to view. This essay explores the prevalence of EDs among female triathletes, using Foucauldian concepts of power, discipline and surveillance as a framework to understand the powerful forces at play with this debilitating condition.

Triathlon competitions began in 1978 and consist of three disciplines; swim, bike and run, over varying distances. DiGioacchino DeBate, Wethington and Sargent (2002, p.211) noted that the disciplines require different physiology: ‘[1] swimmers require body fat to assist with buoyancy, [2] runners need to be lean for speed, [3] cyclists desire muscle for power and stamina’. It is not surprising that triathletes find it difficult to achieve the ideal ‘‘body’ and are susceptible to suffering from an ED. The study by Blaydon and Lindner (2002, p.58) found that the ‘percentage of female triathletes with eating disorders (50%) was almost double that of males (27%) and professionals had slightly less incidence of eating disorders than amateurs (31.5% and 35.7% respectively)’. In Joy, Kussman and Nattiv’s study (2016) reviewing eating disorders in athletes, they concluded that athletes were more prone to suffer an ED if a certain body weight is required for optimal performance, however, if leaness influences performance, females are affected more than males (Sundgot-Borgen, 1993; Sundgot-Borgen and Torstveit, 2004; Smink, van Hoeken and Hoek, 2012). With this in mind, it can be seen why triathletes struggle to achieve the ideal body and become susceptible to an ED.

Triathlon, a sport of three disciplines, requires commitment and focus by the individual to excel at each discipline, and the training required is more time consuming than an athlete training for one sport, which can make them susceptible to an ED and exercise dependency (Blaydon and Lindner, 2002). Decreasing calorie intake and increasing exercise changes body shape and can be detrimental to health and athletic performance, however, a commonly used tool to measure the nutritional status in adults was developed that uses height and weight to indicate the health status of a person. The Body Mass Index (BMI) is not perfect as it only takes into account height and weight and not other considerations like, age, physical activity level and sex ((Prentice and Jebb, 2001),   however, the study by DiGioacchino De Bate, Wethington and Sargent (2002, p.217) ‘found that both male (47%) and female (58%) triathletes showed a high degree of body dissatisfaction, all of them indicating dissatisfaction with their calculated Body Mass Index (BMI) in comparison with their desired BMI’. This dissatisfaction of how athletes perceived themselves is supported by other studies who found athletes participating in sports requiring lean build were susceptible to body dissatisfaction and EDs (Beals and Manore, 2000). The required physiology is different for each discipline in triathlon and the athletes compete in tight fitting clothing so it is reasonable to expect triathletes become conscious about their bodies. 

This essay will use a Foucauldian framework for understanding how the eating and exercise habits of female triathletes are shaped by disciplinary power and self-surveillance, and the shared relations of power they have with their coach. Foucault did not specifically write about sport issues, but his research interest had ‘been to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves (1988, p.17-18). He believed that knowledge and power are inter-related and through observation new knowledge is produced. Foucault called these systems of connected ideas that give us knowledge; discourses. These were not real but as Denison and Scott-Thomas commented, ‘they were socially constructed ways in which we know about ourselves, our bodies and our practices’ (2011, p.29). Foucault was interested what shapes our actions and thoughts and this essay examines EDs among female triathletes using Foucauldian concepts to better understand their relationship with power, discipline and surveillance.

Using Foucauldian Concepts to Understand EDs in Triathlon

Foucault regarded power as a number of relationships within which a person connects with others, and he believed power exists and comes from everywhere; it brings people together and develops a person’s behaviour. ‘An action by one person to help guide another’s conduct or direct the possible field of action of others’ (1987, p.11). Markula and Pringle commented; ‘A coach and an athlete exist within a specific power relation, in that the coach typically attempts to guide the athlete’s conduct or performance and the actions of the athlete can also reciprocally influence the actions of the coach (2006, p.35). This power balance between coach and athlete is crucial for a productive relationship and this essay attempts to describe how destructive these relationships can become if the power balance is one-sided.   

The balance of power between a female swimmer and her coach with destructive consequences is examined in a study by Jones, Glintmeyer and McKenzie when the coach suggested ‘it would probably be more beneficial if you were lighter and slimmer and could lose a bit of weight and maybe you should look at dieting a bit more’ (2005, p.384).   Here is an example of the disciplinary power coaches have over their athletes. A young swimmer’s confidence and self-esteem is damaged, which leads to restricting food to gain the coaches approval and achieve sporting excellence. However, this resulted in the development of an ED which the swimmer continues to struggle with to this day.  Furthermore, misjudged comments by coaches have led to two elite female triathletes suffer from EDs (Swallow, 2012); with one, Hollie Avil (BBC Sport, 2012) retiring from the sport at the age of 21yrs. Johns and Johns commented in their study that coaches are ‘privileged by knowledge and athletes eager to conform’ (2000, p.229), so coaches need to recognise the power they have over their athlete and be wary not to dominate the relationship (Jones, 2000; Coppola, Ward and Freysinger, 2014). National Governing Bodies (British Triathlon, no date; UK Coaching, 2018) have restructured their coach education programmes in recent years to improve coach learning, where pedagogical principles focus on questioning, enquiry and autonomy (Light and Harvey, 2019).

Understanding why humans thought and acted in the ways they did interested Foucault (Foucault, 1983), including the development of disciplined social environments (Mills, Denison and Gearity, 2020). Within these environments, the coach, with the privilege of knowledge, can control the balance of power with the athlete, in what Rail and Harvey (1995) termed the domination of bodies. This leads to underperforming athletes as discussed in Denison’s study, where they ‘become well disciplined, economically efficient and obedient (2007, p.375).  Shogun used Foucault’s work on disciplinary power to examine the extent you can push athletes to reach the limit of their performance and commented that ‘discipline athletic bodies’ (1999, p.19) are produced with limited thoughts, feelings and actions. Denison (2007) explored disciplinary power in an attempt to understand why one of his cross-country runners underperformed in a race and concluded that the disciplinary control he had over his runner as a coach had stripped him of his identity as an athlete and his sense of ownership of his performance. These two studies illustrate the negative effect that power and domination on an athlete’s performance if they are not given some autonomy (Light and Harvey, 2019). 

Endurance sports such as running and triathlon seem to attract individuals with a compulsion to over exercise, which if not controlled, can lead to an ED (Blaydon and Lindner, 2002). Their study of 203 (126 males / 77 females) triathletes taken at a local competition in Hong Kong and the World Championships in Switzerland,  found that 50% of the women who participated in their survey, almost double that of the males had an eating disorder and 64.3% of all triathletes had an exercise dependence issue. There are many underlying causes of an eating disorder and food intake can be manipulated by depression, anxiety, self-esteem and control. Food is used as a distraction and exercise a medium to escape difficult emotions. Individuals susceptible to an ED control and dominate their body with the intake of food or the amount of exercise they undergo. Bartky vividly describes the power of restricted eating: ‘Dieting disciplines the body’s hungers: Appetite must be monitored at all times and governed by an iron will’ (1997, p.133) and Hornbacher (1999) who was already suffering from an eating disorder when she started running described the fixation on exercise became part of her disease, both dominating and disciplining the body crippled with pain and fear. Likewise, the study by Jones, Glintmeyer and Mckenzie (2005) of a former elite swimmer who battled with an ED for a major part of her life, monitored calorie intake and daily exercise and self-punished if she strayed; in Foucauldian terms this woman was  a subject of her own surveillance (Foucault, 1977) [see below]. The disciplinary power an athlete has over their food intake and exercise is critical for health and performance outcomes; never more so than in triathlon, being a three disciplined sport. 

The Panopticon was an architectural design of a prison put forward by Jeremy Bentham in 1843, where prison warders were located in a central circular tower with the cells surrounding it. The idea was to make prisoners believe they were being observed at all times and in so doing they policed themselves and constantly monitored their behaviour, just in case. Though the prison was never built, the Panopticon was a metaphor that allowed Foucault to explore the relationship between systems of social control and people in a disciplinary system and the power knowledge concept (Jones and Bradbury, 2018; Mason, 2020). Within an athletic environment these concepts are inter-related; the coach has power and knowledge, including discipline and control over the athlete; however, the athlete has the feeling of continual surveillance by the coach and their competitors which can increase pressure and anxiety and affect self-esteem.  Foucault describes such self- surveillance: ‘Just a gaze’ (Foucault, 1980, p.155) but surveillance of this kind can trigger an ED with athletes suffering difficult emotions (Jones, Glintmeyer and McKenzie, 2005). The combination of surveillance and disciplinary power can be destructive as aforementioned and there is a requirement of the coach to have the knowledge and understanding of EDs to offer help and advice.  

Cronan and Scott’s (2008) study highlighted female triathletes concerns with body image through self-surveillance, however, with disciplinary practice and creating relationships within the training group, the athletes gained confidence and self-belief. Concerns about weight and body image that was apparent at the start of the programme disappeared when they were surrounded by like-minded people, however, once the training ended and the community dissolved, participants began to once again struggle with negative feelings and fears related to their bodies. Within the training group environment, these women felt normalized, however, on entering the ‘real world’ of perfect bodies, self-doubt began to creep back. Likewise, adolescent swimmers in a study by Howells and Grogan (2012) accepted increased muscularity indicated strength and fitness and felt non-threatened wearing a swimming costume amongst their swimming cohorts, however, they too became aware of their own bodies out of swimming context. Interestingly Howells and Hogan commented that adult swimmers within the same study were generally happier about their bodies feeling ‘less pressure than the adolescent swimmers to conform, because they are, through swimming, already meeting the ideal for more mature women’ (2012, p.111). In Foucauldian terms surveillance is far more than the invisible ‘being’ that dictates everyday life, it also represents personal rights and freedoms (Johns and Johns, 2000). These studies illustrate that women within the ‘bubble’ of their sporting environment gain confidence in their sporting bodies and in some cases their weight may increase as their bodies become fitter. However, when they return to their everyday life, where the photoshopped bodies of woman adorn magazine covers and advertisement billboards, anxiety creeps in, which can lead to dieting and the onset of an ED. It has been estimated that only 5 per cent of women (Markula and Pringle, 2006) are born with the right genes for the contemporary slim ideal, however, there is pressure for women to attain this shape despite the likelihood of never obtaining it. 


Michel Foucault’s concepts of discipline, power and surveillance have been widely used by sociologists in sports research studies, so it is not surprising that there have been critics. For example, feminist perspectives accused Foucault of not speaking for women but as Phelan (1990) argued in this study; he values freedom and individuality.  Bartky also commented that Foucault’s (1977) disciplinary practices that produce docile bodies were ‘as if the bodily experiences of men and women did not differ and as if men and women bore the same relationship to the characteristic institutions of modern life’ (1997, p.132). Furthermore, Bartky (1997) depicts that Foucault’s analysis of power portrays sexism, which is endemic throughout Western political theory. In context to this paper, which examines the prevalence of eating disorders in female triathletes, there is an argument to suggest the stereotyping of the female body within society causes female triathletes’ anxiety and to ‘dislike’ their body shape, when they are outside their training environment which can lead them to limit caloric intake and increase exercise (Howells and Grogan, 2012)

Structuralist theories assume that the architecture of social structure restricted the actions of individuals, however, Foucault’s concept of power, ‘emerged out of individual interaction, stemming from the bottom of society rather than from above: a classless power’ (Rail and Harvey, 1995, pp.174-175). He did not assume that the workings of power originated from tensions between different classes and encouraged people not to have preconceived assumptions about power and to study power at a micro level (Pringle, 2007). The coach has a responsibility to his athlete (Jones, 2000) and as Markula and Pringle (2006) observed if there is imbalance of power within this relationship, it can be destructive (Jones, Glintmeyer and Mckenzie, 2005; Denison, 2007).

Limited studies have been published on EDs amongst female triathletes, however, the research conducted in his essay suggest that over the period 1996 – 2007: [1] Female triathletes have more disordered eating than males (Virnig and McLeod, 1996). [2] Female triathletes are more likely to be concerned with body weight than women who do not exercise (DiGioacchino DeBate, Wethington and Sargent, 2002). [3] Female triathletes were at risk of the athlete female triad, a condition associated with disordered eating, menstrual dysfunction and osteoporosis (Hoch, Stavrakos and Schimke, 2007). There are a number of caveats with these studies: Firstly, questionnaires are used extensively, and the quality of data received is reliant on the responses from the participants. EDs is a sensitive subject that participants, even under a pseudonym name, may not feel comfortable with sharing, which leads to inaccurate weight and calorific data being presented (Voelker and Reel, 2018). Secondly the sample number of responding participants is also low (often less than 100), with a narrow age range band, commonly between 20 – 30 years and thirdly, elite female triathletes are studied more often than recreational. This recreational population in many instances lack the knowledge and it could be suggested, require educating on how to fuel the body to meet the demand of increased daily exercise. 


This essay has explored the prevalence of eating disorders amongst female triathletes and used French philosopher, Michel Foucault’s concepts of power, discipline and surveillance as a framework to determine the reasoning why these athletes are susceptible to EDs. Triathlon is a sport of three disparate disciplines (swim – bike – run), that requires a combination of buoyancy, strength, endurance and speed to perform, so it is with no surprise that triathletes struggle to achieve the ideal body. To train for a multi-discipline sport requires focus and commitment and it has been found that female triathletes are prevalent to reduced calorie intake and excessive exercise which can indicate that they are susceptible to an ED (Virnig and McLeod, 1996; Blaydon and Lindner, 2002; Hoch, Stavrakos and Schimke 2007).

Michel Foucault’s concepts of power, discipline and surveillance are all interlinked, and this article has discussed the importance of the power coaches have over their athletes and their identities (Jones, Glintmeyer and McKenzie, 2005 and Denison, 2007). Furthermore, surveillance was explored, where body size and image was deemed to be an issue amongst female triathletes, who felt comfortable, indeed proud of their athletic, muscular body when within their ‘bubble’ of training companions. However, female athletes began to dislike and become conscious of their body when they returned home to the world of the ‘ideal’ modern day female body that is displayed online and in magazines (Cronan and Scott, 2008).  Surveillance is everywhere nowadays with a critical media presence online and in-print, plus training gadgets monitoring progress ‘twenty-four seven’ (Thorpe, 2008; Barker-Ruchti, 2009;  Creedon, 2014). The athlete is never able to relax as there is a continual reminder of perfection which could lead to anxiety and lose of self-esteem.

Further research on the use of modern training technology and the internet would be useful to understand the impact of being ‘watched all the time’, on anxiety levels and body dissatisfaction, which could lead to over exercising and under eating, to obtain that perfect body. The coach could become redundant with the information that can be collected from training watches and the availability of free advice found on the internet, however,  incorrect interpretation of this data  will lead to injury, over exercise or inadequate calorie intake. 


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