Fara Williams has revealed her time as a professional player was surrounded by a culture of disordered eating and a fear of being put into a “fat club” if someone’s body fat percentage was deemed too high.
The first study to explore mental health issues among women footballers in the top two tiers of the English game reported that 36 per cent of the 115 players who completed the confidential survey displayed symptoms of an eating disorder.
While mental health has often been spoken about in relation to professional sport – the survey also found that 11 per cent were showing moderate to severe anxiety symptoms and a further 11 per cent suffering moderate to severe depression symptoms – the research into disordered eating remains underdeveloped.
Williams remains England’s record-appearance maker with 172 caps over the course of her career, and the former Lioness was not surprised by the study’s findings.
“It was something that I was concerned about as a player and having been an experienced player in the international set up – I was there for 20-odd years,” Williams disclosed at the launch of the BBC’s Women’s Euro 2022 coverage.
“It was very uncomfortable for me at times because I like food, I like to eat, but you felt as though you couldn’t eat certain foods because you were being watched or whatever else.
“I always thought there’s an issue with women’s football. We’re not educated about the foods we’re supposed to have.
“We talk about ‘it’s great now wearing your own fitted kit’, but you’ve got to look a certain way to fit into that kit.
“So when you had bigger, baggier kits you could hide a lot underneath it. Now when they’re fitted, you see a lot. For me I worry, when you see a lot of these players you can see that they’re struggling with their diet.”
Williams played for a number of WSL clubs during her career which spanned between 2001 and 2021, including stints at Arsenal, Everton and Reading.
Making her debut as a 17-year-old, Williams has seen the shift towards semi-professional and then a fully professional women’s domestic league, but insisted she was always concerned as a player over the culture surrounding weight.
“I’ve always thought that. I spoke about it quite regularly with some of my club coaches, about it’s not right that we just talk about being a certain body-fat percentage, that’s not educating people,” she said.
“You get a fat test every time you go into camp and if you’re not under a certain body percentage you go into ‘fat club’. For me, to label something as ‘fat club’ as a professional is crazy.
“I was always worried as a player. I was never in ‘fat club’, I would never go, I would just not play the game.
“It was a term openly used at big clubs in the WSL. An openly used term – you go into ‘fat club’. That’s something I’ve spoken to managers about for years at club level because I’ve always disagreed with how the body-fat percentages and everything has been used, especially with women.”
Williams has been battling her own health issues recently with a flare-up of Nephrotic syndrome, and is unlikely to be able to take part in this weekend’s Socceraid fundraising match.
“I’ve actually been ill the last two weeks so potentially could be relapsing in my condition,” the 38-year-old said.
“I’ve started to leak protein again from the kidneys which is the syndrome and that’s what happened.
“Since coming off the steroids about 18 months ago now I’ve been fine health-wise, but the last couple of weeks I swelled back up and there’s a bit of protein leaking, so fingers crossed – I’ve got some tests on Tuesday – that I’ll be alright.
“I’m meant to be playing Socceraid this weekend but I haven’t been able to train so we’ll see.”
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