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Durham e-Theses
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Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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This thesis explores the everyday embodied experiences of women who use amateur weightlifting as a vehicle for recovery from eating disorders. Within online spaces and on social media, women frequently share their experiences of using weightlifting to overcome issues relating to disordered eating, body image, and mental health. In particular, women with a history of eating disorders credit weightlifting to be integral to their recovery journey. However, there is a dearth of research on women’s experiences with exercise during eating disorder recovery and no research that identifies weightlifting as beneficial to this process. To the contrary, discursive links are drawn between the practices of self-surveillance exercised by both eating disorder sufferers and weightlifters alike. In this regard, engagement with weightlifting during eating disorder recovery may signal the transferal of pathology from one set of behaviours to another. That is, from disordered eating to rigid and self-regulatory exercise routines. This thesis examines how women subjectively navigate and make sense of this pathologisation.

The data for this research comes from longitudinal semi-structured interviews and photo elicitation with 19 women, living in the United Kingdom, who engaged in weightlifting during their eating disorder recovery. In addition, to build up a holistic picture and to explore how this phenomenon also ‘takes place’ online, I conducted a netnography of the overlapping subcultures of female weightlifting and eating disorder recovery on Instagram. Women’s standpoint theory and interpretative phenomenological analysis are combined to form the underpinning theoretical and analytical tools used to engage with these three rich data sets. Moreover, throughout I draw on an eclectic range of disciplinary perspectives, in order to bring together multiple fields of research and develop novel theoretical frameworks.

In the findings, I argue that women’s experiences using weightlifting as a tool for recovery from eating disorders manifests in an embodied sense of multiplicity. In this sense, understandings of the body that are often viewed as ontologically distinct (muscularity/thinness/fatness) hang-together at once in the lived experience of a single individual.

I argue that women, particularly those who have previously struggled with an eating disorder, are too readily positioned as vulnerable to media and representation. To theoretically combat these ideas regarding women’s assumed passivity, I develop the concept of ‘digital pruning’ to account for women’s agency in relation to new media.

I contend that weightlifting offers women in recovery from eating disorders a new framework for approaching eating and exercise. Specifically, weightlifting’s norms and values legitimate occupying a larger body, which gives women in recovery permission to eat and gain-weight in a way that is both culturally sanctioned and health-promoting.

Finally, I explore identity transformation as a specific tenet of recovery from eating disorders. I argue that, on social media, recovery identities are characterised by personal empowerment, resilience, and independence. While offline, quieter and less culturally glorified aspects of recovery (such as relationships of care) are central to women’s accounts of developing a new sense of self as they transition away from an eating disorder identity.

In summary, this thesis is an examination of the ways in which women strategically navigate pathology in relation to their bodies, social media, food/exercise practices, and identity. I argue that women develop a set of ‘DIY’ recovery practices that allow them to consciously channel and draw on their negative experiences with eating disorders, to develop new ways of living that serve their overall wellbeing. Weightlifting is integral to this process, as it provides women transitioning out of this difficult phase in their lives with new ways of relating to their bodies and of being in the world. I situate this phenomenon within a neoliberal socio-political climate in which individuals are required to take personal responsibility for their mental health and wellbeing, despite living within conditions which are not conducive to recovery.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Weightlifting, eating disorders, embodiment, gender, mental health, feminism.
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Sociology, Department of
Thesis Date:2022
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:10 Jan 2022 14:40

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