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How Dieting Took Me Off Track
Jhanae Shine
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I was bad at P.E. right up through 6th grade, so I assumed my chances of becoming a successful athlete were non-existent. But I’d always liked to run—partly because there were no balls, no nets, and no bats involved. Running came naturally to me, and it felt liberating. So, in 7th grade, when I heard about a meeting for students interested in track, it felt like an opportunity I could seize. With support from my parents, friends, and teachers, I joined the track team.

The first day of practice arrived and I was excited to start something new that I thought I could be good at. I wore my shiny new black sneakers and my favorite sweatsuit. When I entered the gym to meet up with the team, several toned athletes greeted me. I admired their tall physiques; their thin, muscular legs; and their assorted Soffe shorts, which they hiked up to show off their thighs.

Then I glanced downward at my less-impressive legs, hidden inside my oversized sweats. All of my insecurities surfaced and suddenly I felt like flab. As the first practice continued, I unenthusiastically participated in warm-ups. While jogging I was distracted by a flood of thoughts, comparing myself to my new teammates.

The next day I walked slowly to practice, my excitement replaced with anxiety. The running goals I’d hoped to accomplish—like qualifying for states and beating my school’s 400-meter record—were tossed to the back of my mind. Feelings of inadequacy about both my running capabilities and, even more so, my looks were now front and center. Track was no longer about how fast I could run, but about how fast I could lose weight.

Race to the Skinniest

My desire to lose weight wasn’t about health, it was about trying to feel more self-assured. I wasn’t overweight, but then I didn’t simply want to be thin: I wanted to be the thinnest girl on the track team, and I wanted all the bragging rights that came with it.

At the all-girls school I attended, it wasn’t uncommon to hear, “OMG she’s so skinny, I’m jealous.” I had talked about girls with the same envy, and I had also been the subject of these conversations. My friends had sometimes said they envied my thinness, but now I wanted to be even skinnier.

On the track team these conversations were more frequent and intense. For many of the other runners, the pressure to be and remain thin went beyond physical appearance. It was also about speed and control, and many of the girls took pride in their ability to manipulate their bodies this way. I found myself caught up in it all.

Fighting the Hunger

I became obsessed with my weight: skipping breakfast, researching the amount of calories in my lunch, and doing crunches just before bed. I found myself frustrated and depressed after eating. At first, losing the weight was difficult, but gradually it got easier. I figured out ways to fight my hunger pains, and the feeling of an empty stomach no longer disgruntled me; instead, it served as a reminder that I was one step closer to being the thinnest.

I didn’t have a scale at home, so I would weigh myself at a friend’s house. I was more than delighted whenever the number on the scale decreased. In a matter of weeks, I dropped 15 pounds. I would spend hours in front of the mirror, examining the gap between my thighs, the angles of my hipbones and collarbone, and even the slenderness of my fingers, which were all things that I had not previously paid attention to.

My train of thought began to shift and I found myself engaging in conversations about weight and body image whenever an opportunity presented itself. My friends would make small comments about food and I would ramble on about how much weight I needed to lose and all the things I could not eat. I could sense my friends and family becoming overwhelmed and annoyed. Meanwhile, during practices I would do all that I could to get the full workout and push myself until I could hardly breathe. My coach was impressed with my effort, but he didn’t know that burning calories was my motivation.

Running on Empty

After weeks of practicing, the first track meet finally arrived. On the morning of the meet I slipped into my uniform. Although it had once fit me perfectly it was now loose, and I felt a wave of joy come over me. Looser clothing meant progress toward the perfect weight.

At lunch, nerves and light-headedness overtook me. My teammates were stunned to find me sipping just a cup of water while they shoved down large subs and gulped numerous cups of Gatorade. By the end of the school day I was drained.

I had gotten so caught up with my desire to lose weight that running to win had seemed secondary—until we arrived at Icahn Stadium. It began to pour, and as I waited for my race and watched the rain coming down, I started to think like a runner. I felt an extreme urge to win and told myself to go at a smart pace.

The call for the 400 meter was happening now; there was no more time to think. I made my way to lane six and stood in position. I quickly glanced over my shoulder to scope out the competition. An old man stepped out on the track with an object in his hand. He yelled, “On your marks, get set,” and pulled the trigger.

A loud bang reverberated as the other runners and I took off. The first 200 meters were a blur. I had just made the final sharp turn and now I could see the last 100-meter mark. The fierce wind blew against my skin. I could feel every hair on my body stand up and my muscles begin to tighten.

I quickly looked back, something my coach had told me never to do. I was ahead, ahead by a lot. It was my first race and it looked like I was actually going to win! I jerked my head forward and continued to take big strides. I could hear my teammates from the sidelines yelling “Go Jhanae!” “Almost there, you got this,” “Sprint with everything you got left!” I could practically feel my brain telling my body to go faster. The only thing on my mind was winning. I pumped my arms trying to propel myself forward.

And then it started to happen.

Collapse

I could see the finish line, but my legs wouldn’t go anymore; it felt like bricks had been tied around my ankles and thighs. My eyes rolled towards the back of my head; the crowd went blurry; all I could see was the track nearing my face. My arm jerked up and I felt my body hit the rough, wet track. Everything went black.

I woke up to find my coach standing over me. He was dripping wet and wore an expression that I couldn’t read. As he carried me across the track toward the stands, all eyes were on me. I realized that I had collapsed and I was mortified, but I could barely keep my eyes open to see what was happening around me.

image by Elijah Hickson

A trainer came sprinting toward me from the opposite end of the stands. She opened up her medicine bag filled with damp supplies. She checked my vitals and came to the conclusion that I was dehydrated and undernourished. My mouth was dry, my fingers and toes were numb, my muscles ached, my teeth chattered, and I felt the urge to puke and cry all at the same time.

As the trainer asked me questions I found myself unable to formulate responses. I struggled to keep my eyes open; I could feel myself checking in and out. In between questions she shoved water and bits of food into my mouth.

I could literally feel the food make its way through my digestive system. I gained full consciousness about 20 minutes later. I remember having a headache from all the chattering and crying I was doing. I received supervised care in the stands, and eventually my mother and uncle arrived at the stadium to pick me up. As they talked with the coach and trainer, trying to gather all the details, I could hear the dismay and concern in their voices. By the time we left, I was feeling a lot better, but little did I know things were going to get worse.

Off the Team

The next day after a lot of contemplation, I decided to go to school. I suspected a few students would ask about the incident, but for the most part I imagined everyone would assume I had simply fainted without wondering why.

It was my 13th birthday, so I brought in cupcakes. It never crossed my mind how many calories were in the cupcakes, because I had no intention of eating one myself. Even after my scary collapse, I still wanted to lose weight.

During lunch I briskly answered the hundreds of questions that came my way. Everyone wanted to know what had happened and if I felt OK. “I’m fine, the weather really got to me,” I told them as I passed out cupcakes.

Then my coach called me to the side. “I’m glad to see you’re doing OK,” Coach said, staring at me. “About yesterday, what happened out there? I have people telling me you didn’t eat…at all.”

I nodded lightly and answered, “Yeah, Coach, it’s true: I’m on a diet.”

He looked puzzled and asked, “What kind of diet requires you not to eat?”

Hesitantly I answered, “I’m trying to lose weight, Coach.”

After a small pause he said, “Losing weight is one thing, but starving yourself to do it is not OK. You can keep not eating, but I’m telling you straight up: You’re going to have to leave the team.”

I remained silent; I couldn’t look him in the eyes. Being kicked off the team was unimaginable. He continued: “Let’s be honest with ourselves—you don’t need to lose any weight. I think you’re a good asset to the team, but I only need smart and healthy runners. Do you understand me?” I nodded lightly once again; I had no words to express my embarrassment.

The Food Hurdle

My coach was asking me to choose between losing weight and staying on the team. Deep down I knew I didn’t need to lose weight; I had somehow let my insecurity take over. I felt foolish getting asked to choose between something I loved doing and harming my body. After that conversation I continued to pass out cupcakes, and I indulged in the clumps of frosting left behind in the tray.

Over the next few months, my parents, friends, and teachers watched my eating habits. Out of concern, my coach let me off the team; he urged me to return the following year stronger. When he broke the news to me I was disappointed: I hadn’t accomplished any of my goals, and now my coach saw that I had issues with food. He promised that he would keep the reason for my dismissal vague, but the healthy eating habits speech that followed my departure was enough to fill the other runners in.

Even though I knew I needed to eat, I realized that I had enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that I could resist hunger. With every meal I skipped I had the joy of feeling in control of my weight and that food was no hurdle. So it wasn’t easy to change my habits, despite my embarrassment.

But my friends helped. Whenever I rejected a meal or neglected to clean my plate, they would urge me to eat, even if I claimed to be full. It took some time, but after a while I started eating regularly again, eager to get them off my back.

My insecurities didn’t disappear overnight. My obsession to lose weight got less intense, but it was still there. The thinner I was, the better I felt about my appearance. Gradually I gained back a couple of pounds, and as the number on the scale increased, my confidence decreased. I had worked so hard to lose the weight, only to gain it back a few months later. I continued to eat, but worked out quite frequently.

Weighing My Options

Eventually, realizing that I could be both healthy and thin motivated me to take care of my body and embrace it for teaching me a valuable lesson during a time when I refused to listen to it. It’s been more than five years now and I currently don’t run track, but I do jog in my spare time. Running for me is both rewarding and relaxing. I eat a lot more now. I continue to count calories, but not nearly as obsessively as I did in the past. I struggle with the urge to be thinner, but I am at a healthy weight.

Occasionally I find myself returning to unhealthy eating habits, like skipping meals and working out for hours at a time, but my friends and family reassure me and do their best to keep me on a healthy path. When contemplating skipping meals or exercising obsessively, I weigh my options, so to speak. Sometimes being thin seems like a necessity, but then I remember that my only real necessity in life is to live.

For those who feel inadequate and want to crash diet, keep in mind that when taking drastic measures to achieve a certain image, you become blind to everything else. Although I still aspire to be like the image of a thin runner that I had in my head back in the 7th grade, the image of me hitting the cold, wet track proves much more powerful.

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(NYC-2012-05-16)

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