Dieting Blazers experiment with unhealthy eating habits in pursuit of the 'ideal' figure
Editor's Note: Article Updated on February 8, 2013, 5:42 p.m. Changes: Due to the sensitive nature of the article, one source will now be referred to by only her first name.
She lives two lives. Sometimes she is a well-adjusted, attractive teen who can look in a mirror and grin. In her other life, she is too repulsive to ever win someone's affection—worse, she's fat.
For senior Elysia S., month-long fasts are the typical response to a fluctuating self-image.
Millions of Americans experience variations of Elysia's plight as they attempt to reduce their expanding waistlines. With a rising number of overweight people living in a society that worships thin bodies, America has become a nation on a diet. Twenty-five percent of men and 45 percent of women are on a diet on any given day, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). The approaching holidays are a red flag for heavy eating and the subsequent weight-loss attempts that come in the form of New Year's resolutions. While Blazers who diet say that losing weight is worth it, straying into the unhealthy habit of not eating enough can be all too easy.
Dieting Blazers unanimously say that changing their appearance plays a large role in their decision to lose weight. Low self-images and high physical standards are both factors that have made the quest to shed pounds more difficult.
Elysia lost 15 pounds on the South Beach diet last summer, which limits the types of carbohydrates and sugars she can consume. Despite her progress, she says she "hates” dieting because of the mental stress involved. "I keep telling myself that I'm so fat, even if I've lost, like, 20 pounds,” she says. "It's hard because you have to go through psychological abuses. You have to talk down to yourself in order to stay focused on the goal of losing weight.”
Some Blazers begin dieting to avoid ridicule. Sophomore Maggie Sullivan used to "come home from school crying” in middle school because students would make fun of her for being overweight. "They called me ‘Marshmallow' and would always groan when I had to be picked for a team in gym,” she says. "The summer going into freshman year, I would get upset every time I looked in the mirror.”
During that summer, Sullivan decided to lose weight. Experimenting with weight-loss pills and struggling with her plummeting self-image, Sullivan spent the summer battling the scale. "I didn't even tell my best friend about it,” she says. "No one knew what I went through.”
Once the soccer season began, Sullivan exercised every day, ate less and abstained from fatty and greasy meals. By the end of the season, she had lost 33 pounds.
Senior Ivy Winston eats two meals a day and restricts herself from foods like chocolate, chips or bagels. She is a model—tall and slender, with long limbs that seem to lack even the suggestion of body fat. Her diet has been going on for a year. "I didn't hate the way I looked, but I knew I could look better,” she says with a laugh.
Though Winston says she is happy with her appearance, she openly admits to subjecting herself to physical scrutiny daily. She can rattle off her dimensions with the familiarity of someone reciting their phone number (25-inch waist and 36-inch hips that she's trying to narrow to 35) and talks about body parts she wants to improve as though she were sculpting a statue. "My legs are okay until you get here,” she says, tapping her thigh. "Here, it gets thick, and I don't know how to get rid of that yet, and it really upsets me.”
The pursuit of physical perfection is not uncommon among teens. However, in chasing this ideal, dieters should cut back on carbs and strive to develop a manageable calorie intake that they can live by, says Bonnie Liebman, Director of Nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Health often comes second to immediate results. For girls, dieting is often followed by a routine of not eating enough. The very act of starting a diet increases the risk of eating disorders in adolescent females, according to The Southern Medical Journal.
This has become a reality for Elysia. Despite her weight loss on the South Beach diet, she cycles through phases in which she hates the way she looks. "I'll feel so unhappy with the way I look [that] I just can't eat; food becomes gross to me,” she says with a shrug. "I go through periods when I don't eat at all.”
During these times, which typically last three to four weeks, Elysia will have a couple of crackers or a handful of vegetables each day—at most. In the end, she will have lost "anywhere from ten to 15 pounds.”
Such behavior could cause gallstones in adults, and if extended over a long period of time, could cause heart problems due to imbalanced nutrients, according to Liebman. "The goal should be to lose fat, not muscle, and if you don't keep up your protein, you're going to lose both,” she says.
Winston identifies with having fluctuating eating habits, though her definition of a healthy lifestyle contradicts Liebman's in terms of a healthy calorie intake. "One week, I'll be really good—working out every single day, eating one meal a day and drinking a lot of water. The next week, I'll be eating lunch and dinner, working out less,” she says. "It's a real struggle to keep that up, and sometimes you need a break. I know I do.”
The perpetual temptation of eating forbidden foods makes strict, unreasonable diets an ineffective way to lose weight and keep it off, says Liebman. "People need a healthy diet they can stick to in the long haul,” she says. "With crash diets, [dieters] generally lose pounds over a short period and then go back to a junk food diet.”
Liebman recommends a diet that includes fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and chicken or fish that has not been fried. Cutting down on carbohydrates is healthy, she says, but people should retain "good” carbs like fruits and vegetables.
Staying on track
For dieters who develop unhealthy habits, the scale can tip both ways: Some resort to temporary starvation, while others binge on forbidden foods during lapses of willpower. Ninety-five percent of all dieters will regain their weight within one to five years, according to the NEDA.
People are confronted with food in many social situations, and for dieters, this can mean a constant mental battle concerning types and amounts of foods to eat—or whether to eat at all. "If I go out with my family to dinner, I feel really guilty if I eat something big. It's so hard to be in that frame of mind,” says Elysia.
Winston agrees. "Sometimes I see my friends eating chips and chocolate, and I think, ‘Why can't I just be normal?'” she says.
The war against willpower can go hand in hand with the war against social embarrassment. This is particularly true for teen boys, according to a male sophomore who went on a diet of cereal and fruits at the end of last year and began exercising every day; he lost 40 pounds in four months. "You get a lot more crap for being a guy on a diet, whereas no one really cares if a girl is [on a diet],” he says. "When you go out to eat with your friends, you don't want to be different.”
Regardless of the struggle that accompanies strict dieting, Blazers say that losing the weight makes the challenge worthwhile. "I'm more confident,” Sullivan says. "I have the ability to walk down the hallway and not be worried about people making fun of me.”
Olivia Bevacqua. More »