PhD in Nursing Science Program

Karen Elizabeth Caines

Girls Who Swim: An Ethnographic Exploration of Sociocultural Protective Factors Buffering Excessive Weight Concerns in Early Adolescent Girls


Dissertation under the direction of Professor Mary Jo Gilmer


Girls Who Swim is an ethnography exploring a micro-culture of organized swimming to understand the interplay of social and cultural factors potentially buffering excessive weight concerns in early adolescent girls. With the onset of pubertal body changes, early adolescent girls are vulnerable for becoming excessively concerned about their increasing weight and developing disordered eating behaviors. Empiric literature substantiates disordered eating as predominantly a female-specific issue no longer delimited by a few demographic boundaries such as white race and middle-to-high socioeconomic status. Our current knowledge about disordered eating behaviors is largely based on research adhering to problem-oriented models predicated on identifying risk factors. There are, however, vulnerable girls who do not endorse unfounded dieting behaviors.

What protects some early adolescent girls from becoming excessively concerned about their weight? The dual purpose of this ethnographic exploration was to identify cultural themes evidencing healthy youth development and to render a descriptive interpretation of sociocultural protective factors buffering excessive weight concerns. At the outset, a micro-culture of organized swimming was considered a potentially protective culture. Girls in this contemporary swimming culture participate on a non-elite sports team, interact with mix-gendered peers outside of school, and their comfort with their developing bodies is observable. To understand the complexities and fluctuations of this swimming culture, data was collected over the 2005-2006 academic year through extensive participant observation and semi-structured interviews.

A developmentalist framework was initially utilized to interpret development in situ. Then, to render theoretically 'thick descriptions', a postdevelopmentalist framework was utilized to afford a point of departure for looking beyond development to consider the role of gender organization in fostering positive outcomes in early adolescent girls. In locating gender, it became possible to recognize the significance of how girls are performing gender in this contemporary swimming culture. Therein, Girls Who Swim elucidates how 'playing sports' in this contemporary swimming culture offers early adolescent girls a secondary peer culture in which to do unbounded developmental and gender work, rather than simply a sport in which to participate.