Swimming Through Ambivalence: The Paradox of Vigilant Coping in Female College Athletes


  • Elizabeth Shen University of Chicago




eating disorders, athletics, vigilance, coping, ambivalence


Three decades of research into disordered eating in sports have revealed contradictory results, with athletes considered both at risk but also protected from eating problems. To contribute insight into the complexities of existing literature, this study examines how female college swimmers in the US experience food and their bodies in athletic, non-athletic, and digital media contexts. Drawing on 16 in- depth interviews, this study finds that these athletes experience contradictory ideals, especially in the domains of health and online self- presentation. When faced with such tensions, they often seek resolution through heightened discipline and attention towards controlling the body, a phenomenon that I call vigilant coping. While vigilant coping can provide some satisfaction and respite, it often exacerbates confusion and reproduces anxieties. As a result, a predominant strategy for resolving ambivalence becomes a source of additional distress around food and body. The women in this study show how athletic contexts contribute to the paradox of vigilant coping but also reveal creative ways of coping that go beyond vigilance. These findings are particularly important given the low success of disordered eating treatments and urgency towards improving preventative efforts.