Changes in Body Image Perceptions Upon Leaving Elite Sport: The Retired Female Athlete Paradox

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Abstract

Little is known about the evolution of female athlete body image into retirement. In this study, 218 retired athletes from aesthetic sports answered a series of closed- and open-ended questions regarding bodily changes since retirement. Years since retirement were unrelated to current weight status (e.g., underweight and normal weight), what they were doing about their current weight (e.g., lose weight), and satisfaction with current weight (all ps > .69). Overall, 74.3% thought they were normal weight, yet 55% were dissatisfied with their weight, and 59.6% were trying to lose weight. A rigorous thematic analysis of the qualitative data yielded 4 core themes that characterized participants’ experiences: (a) a move toward the feminine ideal; (b) feeling fat, flabby, and ashamed; (c) a continued commitment to a former self; and (d) conflicting ideals: the retired female athlete paradox. Perceived muscle loss was considered indicative of either increased fat (dissatisfaction) or increased femininity (satisfaction). For some retired athletes, the satisfaction brought on by newfound femininity was complicated by a coinciding and conflicting commitment to a muscular athletic physique. Practical applications include strategies for sport psychologists to better support athletes in coping with the body changes that occur on retirement from elite sport.

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