- Open Access
Attitudes towards disordered eating in the rock climbing community: a digital ethnography
Journal of Eating Disorders volume 10, Article number: 96 (2022)
Rock climbing is an antigravitational sport in which a low body weight may intuitively seem beneficial. A small number of studies have found an increased prevalence of disordered eating among adolescent and adult climbers. However, to date there has been no qualitative research into the attitudes towards disordered eating and body image in the rock climbing community.
This explorative study employed a netnographic approach with the aim of understanding how topics related to food, dieting, and disordered eating in the climbing community are addressed in online conversations. Discussion forums on nine major climbing websites as well as three climbing-related forums on the online community Reddit were searched for posts and comments related to the research question. The collected data were then assessed through thematic analysis, generating a number of themes and subthemes.
Five overarching themes, labelled “Is there a problem?”, “Subjective experiences”, “Why and how is weight an issue?”, “The importance of context”, and “What can be done?”, were identified among the forum posts. Most forum users acknowledge that eating disorders are indeed a problem relevant to the climbing community, although a significant minority disagrees. While the assumed benefits of a low weight are clearly a dominant idea among climbers, weight may have become less important over time. Forum users also attest to ways in which climbing may in fact be helpful in fostering a positive body image, such as highlighting performance over aesthetics or emphasizing wholesome community values.
This study demonstrates that the topic of disordered eating and negative body image is far from a blind spot or a “dark secret” within the rock climbing community, as is sometimes claimed. An undue focus on low body weight among climbers must be balanced by proper nutritional advice and healthy role models, not least for young climbers who may feel pressured to lose weight as a quick but short-sighted way to boost performance. Clinicians should be aware of the prevailing ‘weight talk’ in the climbing community and be attentive to negative body image and disordered eating in their patients.
Plain English summary
This study presents an analysis of content related to eating disorders in a number of online discussion forums dedicated to rock climbing. The findings show that the topic of disordered eating and negative body image is far from a blind spot or a “dark secret” within the climbing community, as is sometimes claimed. There is a rich ongoing conversation among climbers on topics related to eating habits, where most forum users acknowledge that eating disorders are indeed a problem relevant to the climbing community. While the assumed benefits of a low weight are clearly a dominant idea among climbers, weight may have become less important over time as climbing has evolved as a sports discipline. Forum users also attest to ways in which climbing may in fact be helpful in fostering a positive body image, such as highlighting performance over aesthetics or emphasizing wholesome community values. Within the climbing community, an undue focus on low body weight must be balanced by proper nutritional advice and healthy role models, not least for young climbers who may feel pressured to lose weight as a quick but short-sighted way to boost performance.
A heightened risk of developing disordered eating is well-documented in athletes of various disciplines [1, 2]. Disordered eating may arise in the form of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN), or as a subsyndromal form with the presence of symptoms that do not reach formal diagnostic thresholds. As outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) , AN is characterized by restricted energy intake resulting in a significantly low body weight; an intense fear of weight gain; and a distorted experience of one’s own body weight or shape, an undue influence of body weight or shape on self-image, or a persistent lack of recognition of the seriousness of the current low body weight. BN is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating (which involves loss of control eating and consumption of unusually large amounts of food over a brief period of time), unhealthy compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain (such as vomiting, laxative misuse, or excessive physical exercise), and an overemphasis on weight or shape in self-evaluation. Recent estimates based on a large United States population sample indicate a lifetime prevalence of 0.80% and 0.28% for AN and BN, respectively . However, subthreshold disordered eating in the absence of a full eating disorder is much more common: for example, a study among adolescents showed that 24% of girls and 16% of boys reported some eating disorder symptoms .
A number of factors associated with participation in sports, such as striving for perfectionism in athletic performance, pressure from coaches, and a high-performance environment, may expose athletes to an even higher risk of developing disordered eating. In a large study on Norwegian elite athletes involving clinical interviews, 20.1% of female athletes and 7.7% of male athletes fulfilled criteria for AN or BN (including forms currently classified as ‘other specified feeding or eating disorders’ in DSM-5) . Among women, eating disorders were most common in athletes who competed in aesthetic sports such as gymnastics or figure skating (42%), whereas among men, those who competed in antigravitational sports such as high jump or long jump were most often afflicted (22%). High prevalences were also observed for both women and men (30% and 18%, respectively) competing in weight-class disciplines such as boxing or wrestling, which often involves weight cycling in order to qualify for a strategically optimal weight class . Although a low body weight, leanness, and a high strength-to-mass ratio confer a competitive advantage in some sports , disordered eating is typically associated with significant medical and psychological consequences that may have a negative impact on athletic performance. Disordered eating can give rise to a broad range of medical complications, such as cardiac dysfunction, gastrointestinal problems, reduced bone mineralization, and serious electrolyte imbalances . What was formerly known as the ‘female athlete triad’—the combination of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis—has been reconceptualized into the broader and more comprehensive concept of ‘Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport’ (abbreviated RED-S) referring to an impaired physiological function in terms of metabolic rate, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, and cardiovascular health which also affects male athletes . An adequate dietary intake is also of utmost importance in recovery and rehabilitation after sport injuries . Moreover, eating disorders are typically accompanied by psychiatric comorbidity such as mood and anxiety disorders  and are associated with substantially elevated mortality rates, partly explained by a markedly increased risk for suicide [11, 12].
Rock climbing has been performed as a sport since the late nineteenth century, evolving from a necessary part of alpinism into a recreational activity in its own right. Various forms of rock climbing exist. In what is nowadays called traditional (or ‘trad’) climbing, climbers place removable gear to protect against falls as they ascend a wall. In contrast, sport climbing—developed during the late 1970s and 1980s—relies on permanent bolts and anchors fixed to the rock for protection. In bouldering, rock formations of a lesser height are climbed without the use of ropes and harnesses. Climbing can be performed outdoors on rock or in indoor climbing gyms on artificial structures. All types of rock climbing require a high level of technique, strength, and endurance; however, taller climbing routes tend to emphasize endurance, whereas bouldering often relies more on power. Much like high jump or long jump, rock climbing may be characterized as an antigravitational sport in which a high strength-to-mass ratio has typically been seen to enhance performance [13, 14]. Several climber memoirs give personal testimony to a widespread culture of disordered eating among elite climbers in the 1980s and 1990s [15, 16]. Furthermore, in the 2021 documentary film LIGHT, several professional rock climbers are interviewed about their experiences with eating disorders in an attempt to break “the silence about the sport’s darkest secret” .
This anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, there has been little scientific research into disordered eating among rock climbers, even though the sports medicine community is certainly aware of the potential risks . In a 2019 small-scale study on the dietary patterns of adolescent recreational and competitive rock climbers (mean age 14.2), 82% of participants did not meet their target energy intake . Notably, 86% did not meet their target carbohydrate intake and 73% did not meet their target fat intake, whereas a large majority met or exceeded their target protein intake—a pattern that is also characteristic for many individuals with restrictive eating disorders . In a 2020 survey study involving an international sample of 498 adult sport climbers, an overall 8.6% prevalence of disordered eating was observed and 4.2% of respondents reported having been treated for an eating disorder . A higher prevalence of disordered eating was seen among female climbers (16.5%) compared to male climbers (6.3%); in the subgroup of elite and high elite female climbers, the prevalence was 42.9%. To date, however, no qualitative research into the ideas, attitudes, and rationales behind disordered eating behaviors in the climbing community has been published. If eating disorders and body image concerns are indeed a “dark secret”, a blind spot, or at the very least a neglected problem in the climbing scene, a reasonable starting point for exploring attitudes and experiences among climbers—amateur as well as pro-level—is paying attention to what is being said on this topic in the many existing anonymous online discussion forums dedicated to rock climbing.
In the present exploratory study, a netnographic thematic analysis approach is employed with the objective of understanding how topics related to food, dieting, and disordered eating in the rock climbing community are addressed in online discussion forums. More specifically, the study aims at providing in-depth insight into the cultural dynamics behind ideas and attitudes concerning climbers’ eating behaviors, athletic performance, body image, and mental health issues over and above the straightforward notion of low weight as an advantage in an antigravitational sport.
Methodological framework and reflexivity
Digital ethnography, also known as online ethnography, involves a wide range of methodological approaches towards researching the social worlds, relationships, and modes of expression in online communities . In terms of data sources, digital ethnography often employs bricolage techniques that make use of discussion forums, comment fields, blogs, images, videos, and other online modes of communication to explore a research question. Similar to all ethnographic research, it typically involves elements of participant observation by which the researcher actively engages with the online community under study, even though this often takes the form of mediated contact with participants rather than direct presence. However, digital ethnography—particularly those specific research practices known as netnography —has increasingly been adopted as a solely observational approach, not least concerning potentially sensitive medical topics where it may often be difficult to negotiate access or recruit informants for a traditional ‘offline’ qualitative study . In the field of eating disorders research, a netnographic approach has been applied in, for example, studies on mukbang viewers  or on pro-anorexia communities . Digital ethnography has also been combined with approaches emanating from the fields of human–computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work, such as in the study of consequences of social media content moderation on the perception of eating disorders . The present study makes use of a non-participatory observational netnographic methodology in the study of the attitudes towards disordered eating in online climbing discussion forums. However, a typical netnographic approach usually involves the assumption that online communities constitute fundamentally different habitats compared to the offline world, governed by their own unique set of social rules; this is not the case in the present study, which adheres to a more conventional digital ethnographic view of online communities as an extension of or a complement to offline realities .
In reflecting on my own position as researcher and author vis-à-vis the study topic and the communities under study, multiple roles should be mentioned. First, I have a long experience of working as a consultant psychiatrist in the field of eating disorders, with a special interest in sociocultural factors affecting the development and maintenance of disordered eating and body image issues. Second, I am also an amateur climber with some insight into the climbing community, which may be helpful in understanding the nuances of the topic under study and, not least, the jargon used in the online communities. Third, I am the parent of a 12-year-old child who climbs. I have therefore been involved in children’s climbing classes for a few years and had the opportunity to witness the sport from this perspective too. The online communities included in this study (see below) are thus not new or foreign to me, although I have previously not frequented all of them on a regular basis.
Data sources, collection, and analysis
Utilizing web traffic analysis tool Alexa Internet, Inc. , the nine most popular English-language websites dedicated to climbing with a publicly available discussion forum were identified. In addition to these specialized websites, three major Reddit discussion forums dedicated to climbing were included for analysis. Reddit (reddit.com) is a user-generated discussion website consisting of free-access topical discussion communities known as ‘subreddits’. As of August 2021, Reddit claims to have over 52 million daily active users and is rated as the 19th most visited website globally by Alexa Internet, Inc., with 37.5% of its visitors originating in the United States making it the most popular English-language online community .
Data were collected in August and September 2021. No retrospective time limit was applied; the oldest available relevant posts in any of the identified forums turned out to be from 2000. The included discussion forums were searched for posts containing any of the terms “anorexi*”, “bulimi*”, “eat*”, “food” “diet*”, “binge”, “vomit*”, “laxative”, “diuretic”, “weight”, and “body”. Naturally, searching an online discussion forum is very different from searching a medical database and although this list of search terms is certainly not exhaustive given the terminology that might be used in an online conversation, it was assumed that it would suffice to identify whole threads on the topic of disordered eating that could then be inspected more closely for relevant individual posts that may not contain any of these specific words. Identified forum posts that concerned the topic of attitudes towards food, body image, and disordered eating in relation to climbing were copied, omitting author user name information, onto separate data files. Posts that merely discussed general nutritional advice for athletes, the best snacks to bring for climbing sessions etc. were not included. In the case of Reddit, the free online tool Thread Downloader for Reddit (reddit-downloader.tkyanko.me) was used to create pdf files of entire forum threads.
As a complement to this data collection procedure, other related sources were assessed in order to enrich the understanding of the study topic. For example, whenever a forum user made reference to a social media post, a blog entry, a video clip, or a magazine article discussing disordered eating or body image concerns in the climbing community, I would access and read the text/watch the video and consider how it related to the other collected data. These sources typically described professional or semi-professional climbers’ own experiences of and thoughts on restrictive eating and body dissatisfaction; since these individuals can be considered public figures, I did not include their data in the formal analysis and presentation even after word spinning (see below). Furthermore, I would also access and observe a large number of forum threads concerned with other topics than those under study, in order to immerse myself in the online communities and gain a fuller understanding of the whole spectrum of issues of relevance to their members.
The collected data were assessed employing what is sometimes called a codebook thematic analysis approach  combining the methodological framework outlined by Braun and Clarke  with certain elements of conventional qualitative content analysis . In a highly iterative process, (i) the data was first read and re-read and initial ideas for coding categories and overarching themes were drafted. Next, (ii) those excerpts of text that were relevant to the research questions were coded and labelled according to a data-driven ‘bottom-up’ principle avoiding preconceived ideas about what would matter and not matter to the climbing community. In an initial round of analysis, this yielded 19 separate coding categories covering approximately 2 900 units of information extracted from the collected data. These categories were then (iii) grouped into main themes and subthemes. There were no predefined criteria (e.g., number of informant statements needed) to aid in determining what would constitute a separate theme or subtheme; instead, after the initial analysis had yielded a number of categories, meaningful clusters were identified and developed inductively by analyzing patterns and interrelations within the themes. After that, (iv) the themes were reviewed, revisited, and reworked using mapping techniques in order to achieve a meaningful structure in describing the data; this involved several rounds of fine-tuning in which (v) labelling and re-labelling the themes and categories were important elements in iteratively arriving at a final comprehensive analysis. Finally, (vi) illustrative quotes were chosen (and spun; see below) and the findings were presented and contextualized (see Results and Discussion sections). For all coding, qualitative analysis software NVivo 11 was used.
From an epistemological perspective, this methodology reflects a realist approach to the relationship between language and meaning in the data rather than a constructionist and/or reflexive stance . The aim at this point is to describe the attitudes and ideas circulating among climbers in online communities rather than to theorize. Thus, elements of quantitative content analysis—such as providing the reader with the number of posts that express a certain idea—become valuable as yet another layer in the description, even though this does not necessarily imply that the more frequent categories are inherently more important. Not least, arguing based on quantity (“I don’t see a lot of other people in here posting about […]!”, etc.) was very common in the online communities under study, which make it interesting to look at the actual number of posts reflecting certain themes. Also, this approach does not automatically involve the assumption that themes and categories somehow pre-exist in or “emerge from” the data; as touched upon above, reflexivity and interpretation are still important aspects of the research process, even in a descriptive context.
Preregistration and ethics
The study was preregistered on the Open Science Framework (osf.io/yjbr5). Due to its strictly observational nature, sole reliance on publicly available online data, and non-utilization of any personal data, ethical vetting was neither required nor available in accordance with Swedish Ethical Review Authority regulations. In order to ensure full anonymity, no online user names were collected, analyzed, or presented. The specific online communities under study have also been kept anonymous. Furthermore, in order not to expose the data sources, all quotes have been disguised using the automatic word spinner service WordAi (wordai.com), as suggested by Reagle and Gaur , and then further transformed manually. After these measures of anonymization, this study fulfills Bruckman’s criteria for “heavy disguise” in online qualitative research . For an in-depth discussion of research ethics in digital ethnography, see the ethical guidelines of the Association of Internet Researchers  as well as the approaches suggested by Bruckman .
Five overarching themes were identified among the forum posts. The first theme, labelled Is there a problem?, includes posts that discuss whether or not body image disturbance and disordered eating is indeed a real problem in the rock climbing community. A second theme, Subjective experiences, deals with forum users’ own experiences of disordered eating and/or body image issues. A third theme, labelled Why and how is weight an issue?, includes posts that discuss specific mechanisms that may either result in negative body image and disordered eating in climbers or that may, in contrast, support the development of positive body image. A fourth theme, labelled The importance of context, includes posts that describe how the risk of disordered eating may vary between rock climbing disciplines and contexts. A fifth and final theme, labelled What can be done?, involves practical suggestions for how the climbing community ought to respond to the challenge posed by disordered eating. Each of these themes, and their subthemes, are described in more detail below.
Is there a problem?
Around 520 forum posts discuss whether or not body image disturbance and disordered eating exist as real problems in the rock climbing community (see Table 1). Most of these posts support the idea that disordered eating is indeed prevalent among climbers and that the issue should be taken seriously (approximately 380 references). However, a significant number of forum users (approximately 90 references) take an opposing view: they either do not acknowledge that disordered eating is very widespread in the climbing community or describe the discussion as exaggerated and misdirected. For example, many posts express the view that a dedication to “healthy living” should not be confused with eating pathology or that any occurrence of disordered eating does not stem from climbing per se: “I wouldn’t say that *the climbing community* has a problem with food and dieting. Eating disorders are a major part of the current society in general, so of course you’ll find them among climbers too.” Moreover, in response to claims that some professional competition climbers have appeared to be emaciated, users describe strict adherence to diet regimens as an inherent part of all elite-level athleticism and thus a phenomenon at the margin of the climbing community. Occasionally, this view is also expressed in an attempt to discourage rigid dieting among non-elite climbers: “You should keep in mind that professional climbers are just that: professional. You’re most likely not. If you’re not an elite level climber yourself, whatever these pros are doing to tweak their game is not for you.”
As a part of this theme, a number of posts (approximately 50 references) that do acknowledge a tendency for disordered eating among climbers describe it as a thing of the past. Here, a number of legendary climbers of the 1980s and early 1990s that are rumored to have significantly restricted their diets are recurrently mentioned, with a mix of nostalgia, admiration, and ridicule: “Pink lycra went out of fashion. Nowadays there’s no pressure to stay thin just to look hot in your speedos.” Forum users argue that contemporary climbing emphasizes a greater variety of skills, including power, that make weight a less important issue. Moreover, the rise of climbing-specific sports science and the fact that climbing has evolved from an “ascetic” subculture into a mainstream sport are mentioned as promoting healthier body ideals: “The contemporary climbing scene is just SO much more well-informed, like any other modern-day athletic discipline. Climbers today know that it isn’t smart to starve themselves.”
Forum users’ own experiences of disordered eating and body image issues in relation to climbing are described in approximately 450 posts (see Table 2). This involves personal experiences of disordered eating (approximately 140 references) as well as in friends or relatives (approximately 70 references). A large majority of these accounts describe restrictive eating patterns, although a few mention binge eating and other symptoms of BN. Another subtheme is subjective body image issues that are not necessarily associated with disordered eating (approximately 170 references), such as feeling the pressure to be thinner, hearing others make body-shaming comments, or having other climbers commenting on and idealizing their leanness in an uncomfortable way. Not least, forum users that experience themselves as heavier than others describe how this may make them feel awkward: “I’m usually the heaviest guy on the wall and honestly, it can make me pretty uncomfortable sometimes.” Interestingly, however, in response to comments such as these, others often mention their respect for climbers that do not have a stereotypically athletic body shape: “Whenever there are larger people climbing at my local wall, my only thought is ‘Yay! Go for it!’. I think most people feel that way. It should all be about enjoying ourselves, right?” Furthermore, the image of the climbing crag or gym as an elitist environment is not shared by everyone: “Sure, when you’re a newbie you may feel as if everybody is observing you, and maybe they are because that’s just what climbers do when we’re resting and getting ready for our next attempt. But I can assure you that we watch in a supportive way. We want to see you top that route.”
Notably, a fairly large number of posts (approximately 70 references) mention how others tend to assume that someone who has a slender body shape must be restricting their eating—this is seen as just another, albeit less recognized, form of body shaming. Forum users describe how these comments are often used to belittle their climbing performance; i.e., implying that the sole reason that they succeed in climbing a certain route is their low body weight. Notably, a number of the posts in this subtheme were made in response to a 2008 decision by the Austrian climbing federation to not allow underweight athletes to participate in national competitions in an attempt to discourage disordered eating, a move that many forum users appeared to view as unfair.
How and why is weight an issue?
Around 1 340 posts discuss specific mechanisms that may either result in negative body image and disordered eating in climbers or that may, in contrast, support the development of positive body image (see Table 3). Notably, the number of posts that underscore the importance of a low weight as a vital aspect of climbing and the number of posts that downplay the impact of body weight are almost equal (approximately 510 and 530 references, respectively). Those that claim that a low weight is clearly advantageous typically refer to the benefits of a high strength-to-mass ratio in gravitational sports, as mentioned in the Introduction section, whereas those that are skeptical about the significance of a low weight emphasize other skills in a climber’s repertoire, such as strength, power, technique, footwork, body positioning, psychological aspects, etc. as more important: “If you think you’ve plateaued, I assure you it’s very unlikely to be because of your weight. […] Me, I still have lots of work to do on my technique, my endurance and my core strength – reducing my weight is not a priority.” These two different stances towards weight can appear to be monolithic and well-established in the climbing community, so that forum users that argue for one of the views may do so in explicit opposition to the rival camp: “As far as I’m concerned….. you shouldn’t pay any attention to these ‘Never mind your weight’ people if you really want to improve and raise your game.” However, it is also not uncommon that both views are expressed within the same post; e.g., a forum user may initially describe how aspects other than weight are certainly the most important in a long-term perspective but then conclude their comment by stating that, all other things equal, striving towards a lower body weight may be an optional short-term tactic in order to boost performance. Moreover, forum users discussing the importance of a high strength-to-mass ratio are often ambivalent about whether it is really wise to try to actively reduce their weight, since this often entails a simultaneous loss of muscle mass.
A large number of posts (approximately 190 references) discuss the fact that weight loss may be associated with physiological as well as psychological consequences that ultimately result in an unintended negative impact on climbing performance, such as fatigue, low mood, or increased injury proneness. Furthermore, forum users describe how climbing can actually help foster a positive body image, through a focus on ability and performance rather than aesthetics (approximately 60 references).
The importance of context
Around 310 posts deal with the notion that the risk of disordered eating may vary between rock climbing disciplines and contexts (see Table 4). First, the idea of a distinct cultural divide between trad climbers and sport climbers can be noted (approximately 50 references; see Introduction section for a description of these disciplines). Mostly, certain forum users that promote trad climbing values tend to describe themselves as no-nonsense, gritty, and “dirtbag” masculine—ideals that they also associate with being able to eat large meals, bringing beer to the crag, etc. Similarly, forum users dedicated to so-called crack climbing and off-width climbing often aspire to an online image of toughness. In contrast, they see sport climbers as self-absorbed, thin-skinned, and bourgeois: “Off-width is for the tough and gritty. Sport climbing is for anorectic sissies and middle schoolers.” When these forum users describe sport climbers, the language is typically sardonic and occasionally misogynistic and homophobic. However, since this presumed animosity has turned into somewhat of an established trope in the forums, it is often difficult to determine if individual posts are sincerely meant or if they are deliberately exaggerated and gimmicky.
Another subtheme reflects the notion that bouldering typically involves more powerful moves, which emphasizes the strength part of the strength-to-weight equation (approximately 40 references).
A fairly large number of posts (approximately 80 references) involve descriptions of some type of weight cycling, e.g., deliberately losing weight before a competition or climbing trip in order to optimize performance. There is also an active discussion about the potentially negative impact of competitive climbing on young athletes, who may be pressured by coaches and parents into going on strict non-age-appropriate diets in order to reduce their weight (approximately 40 references). The importance of top-level adult athletes acting as role models in this regard is also underscored—mostly, however, a perceived lack of such role models is noted: “If my daughters were idolizing *insert famous female pro climber* or if I were coaching teen climbers, I would be pretty worried about the current state of the sport.”
A final subtheme involves posts that discuss the importance of remaining true to what is described as more or less inherent values of climbing, which are seen to run counter to destructive contemporary body ideals (approximately 100 references). Forum users that support this perspective tend to dismiss the idea of climbing as an achievement-oriented sport altogether and instead emphasize aspects such as having fun, sharing experiences with friends, being close to nature, etc. as core values of the (predominantly outdoor) climbing community.
What can be done?
There are relatively few suggestions in the data for how the climbing community ought to respond to the challenge posed by disordered eating (approximately 17 references; see Table 5). These include discussions about if and how staff at climbing gyms should act when they suspect that someone has an eating disorder, how elite climbers can serve as role models, how climbing competitions could be transformed so as to not unduly reward athletes with a low weight, and how each and every one of us has a responsibility to act in ways that promote healthy body ideals and eating habits in fellow climbers.
This netnographic thematic analysis of online rock climbing discussion forums shows that there is a rich ongoing conversation among climbers on topics related to disordered eating and body image. Most of the forum users engaged in these discussions acknowledge that eating disorders are indeed a problem relevant to the climbing community. However, a significant minority expresses the contrary view that this focus on disordered eating and negative body image is misplaced, a fad, or exaggerated. While a formal analysis of trends over time was not performed, it can be noted that forum posts from the early 2000s more often tended to express a positive and idealizing view of striving towards thinness, whereas newer posts more often take a critical stance and highlight other aspects of performance than a high strength-to-mass ratio. This is also reflected in a fair amount of posts that describe eating disorders as a problem mainly characteristic of the 1980s and 1990s climbing scene. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that the topic of disordered eating is far from a blind spot or a “dark secret” within the rock climbing community—in contrast, there is an evident awareness (although certainly not shared by all forum users) of the risks associated with an undue focus on weight in climbing.
Forum users are clearly divided regarding the impact of weight loss on climbing performance. Many view a low body weight as an undeniable benefit in an antigravitational sport, whereas an equally large share of posts emphasize other skills, such as technique, power, and psychological aspects, as far more important. An ambivalence can often be noted in posts on this topic; for instance, a comment may initially describe the effects of weight loss as marginal and highlight other climber qualities, only to conclude by “admitting” that, everything else being equal, this marginal gain may be just what is needed in order to succeed. Generally, however, weight loss is described as a short-term tactic rather than a viable long-term strategy. It is evident that even those forum users that deny the importance of a low weight do so in constant dialogue with the idea of the centrality of weight in climbing as a dominant motive of trope. Those that highlight other aspects as more impactful typically have to argue their position, while those that emphasize weight simply point to “the laws of physics”.
Some forum users, while acknowledging the existence of eating disorders among climbers, display a derogatory attitude towards those that strive for thinness in order to boost performance. Here, a conflict of sorts between trad climbers and sport climbers can be noted, where at least some trad proponents tend to dismiss sport climbers as weight-obsessed, effeminate, and childish. Somewhat ironically, this machismo-influenced “adult” critique is often voiced in a highly juvenile tone involving misogynistic and homophobic language, an overblown praise of beer, meat, and fast food, etc.—although, admittedly, it is often difficult to determine if these comments are sincere or if they merely play or ‘troll’ within an established trope. Notably, it has been argued that rock climbing retains a particularly masculine image and culture that may be excluding to those that do not share those attributes and ideals .
As bouldering has evolved from mainly being a way of training for longer routes into a climbing discipline in its own right, boulder problems often tend to center around moves that require a lot of power, such as compression moves. Forum users note that this may diminish the perceived importance on low weight in the strength-to-mass equation—indeed, it is often suggested that it would be more beneficent for a boulderer to build muscle than to try to lose weight. This shift in focus may also have spilled over into sport climbing, since modern climbing routes more often incorporate elements typically associated with bouldering. Notably, the growing focus on highly dynamic parkour-style boulder problems in contemporary competitive bouldering were not reflected in the online discussions of eating behaviors, athletic performance, and body image, which may simply reflect the fact that akin to more traditional bouldering, this style still emphasizes powerful moves.
Many forum users describe how rock climbing can actually be helpful in alleviating the pressure to conform to societal standards of beauty and promoting body acceptance. For some, this is achieved through a distinct focus on performance rather than aesthetics; i.e., what the body can do rather than how it looks. Others, however, altogether dismiss the idea of climbing as necessarily being achievement-oriented and instead point to elements such as enjoying oneself, sharing experiences with friends, being close to nature, etc. as helpful in reducing negative body image. Not least, these aspects are highlighted in relation to the idea of rock climbing as a wholesome and spiritually uplifting outdoor activity rather than a typical competitive sport. At times, however, this sense of community is depicted as being threatened by an emerging negative “soccer mom” mentality in climbing, by which parents pressure kids to perform at the expense of their psychological well-being. Some forum users clearly display nostalgia for a time when climbing was more of an “anarchic” activity and top climbers did not care about competitions, sponsorship deals, and diets—it is, however, unclear exactly when this pristine era took place, since there is simultaneous ridicule of the “Lycra crowd” of decades past.
In any case, climbing is undoubtedly becoming more and more popular and has arguably evolved from somewhat of an adventure-focused outdoor subculture into a “regular” sport so that nowadays, many climbers only ever train indoors on plastic grips in a climbing gym. This could imply that some of the potentially helpful elements of climbing as a wholesome close-to-nature activity are diluted and that problems associated with the highly individualized gym and fitness culture at large , such as disordered eating, excessive exercise, and illicit substances, will become more prevalent in the climbing community. On the other hand, as many forum users point out, the establishment of climbing as a contemporary athletic discipline may promote modern evidence-based approaches to training and nutrition, reducing the reliance on outmoded ideas about dietary restriction as a key to success.
Strengths and limitations
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first qualitative research study that explores the ideas, attitudes, and rationales behind disordered eating behaviors in the climbing community. By employing a digital ethnographic methodology, rich data have been collected and analyzed on a potentially sensitive topic where it could have been difficult to negotiate access or recruit informants for a traditional ‘offline’ qualitative study. Even so, the findings presented here should be interpreted in light of a number of limitations. As always, the question of transferability—i.e., whether or not the findings presented here can be transferred to other settings—arises in qualitative studies. For example, only English-language online discussion forums were included in the study, which may affect transferability to other language spheres; however, it was obvious that English was not always the first language of forum users, even if they use English as a lingua franca of online communication. Also, members of the climbing community that are active in online discussion forums may potentially differ from those that are not in significant aspects, such as age. Furthermore, since this was a strictly observational study, it was not possible to ask follow-up questions or clarify the meaning of posted statements. For instance, it cannot be determined if the focus on “healthy living” described in a large number of posts was indeed healthy or if, in actuality, it represented disordered eating habits—it has indeed been noticed that ‘healthism’ may serve as a socially accepted platform for eating pathology .
The search strategy outlined in the Methods section most probably resulted in missed forum posts that could have been relevant to the study (e.g., posts in which bulimia was misspelled as ‘bulemia’). However, it should be noted that the aim of a qualitative study such as this is not necessarily to identify and record every single utterance on a topic, but to collect enough data to ensure data saturation—i.e., that no new topical categories emerge when new data are added. The fact that posts with various misspelled terms were indeed identified during data collection suggests that the strategy of locating entire forum threads that could then be subjected to closer scrutiny worked well. Moreover, data saturation was achieved around halfway through the analysis, indicating that there were no important themes or subthemes that would have been discovered through expansion of the data set.
In sum, this netnographic thematic analysis of online rock climbing discussion forums demonstrates that the topic of disordered eating and negative body image is far from a blind spot or a “dark secret” within the rock climbing community, as is sometimes claimed. The data presented here reflect rich ongoing conversations among climbers on topics related to eating habits, where most forum users acknowledge that eating disorders are indeed a problem relevant to the climbing community. Forum users are divided regarding the impact of weight loss on climbing performance. While the assumed benefits of a low weight are clearly a dominant idea in the field, there are indications that weight may have become less important over time due to a shift in focus towards powerful dynamic moves in route setting and competitive climbing. Forum users also attest to ways in which climbing may in fact be helpful in fostering a positive body image, such as highlighting performance over aesthetics or emphasizing wholesome community values. Within the climbing community, it is vital that an undue focus on low body weight is balanced by proper nutritional advice and healthy role models, not least for young climbers who may feel pressured to lose weight as a quick but short-sighted way to boost performance. For clinicians who see patients that are active rock climbers, knowledge of the prevailing ‘weight talk’ in the climbing community and active attention to negative body image and disordered eating in their patients are instrumental in preventing and/or identifying climbing-related eating pathology.
Availability of data and materials
The dataset used and analyzed during the current study is available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.
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Open access funding provided by Karolinska Institute. No other funding was obtained for the current study.
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Due to its strictly observational nature, sole reliance on publicly available online data, and non-utilization of any personal data, ethical vetting was neither required nor available in accordance with Swedish Ethical Review Authority regulations.
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Strand, M. Attitudes towards disordered eating in the rock climbing community: a digital ethnography. J Eat Disord 10, 96 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-022-00619-5
- Eating disorders
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Body image
- Sports medicine