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On Thin Ice: A Tale of Figure Skating and Forced Dieting

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) after landing the triple axel in I, TONYA. Photo courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.

By Izzi Sneider

This past Olympic series is the first one I’ve decided to watch since I quit Figure Skating five years ago. I’m nineteen now, the same age as some of the athletes on the 2018 Figure Skating Team. This means that a lot of the people I watched on television this February were my old competitors. They were the skaters who would always beat me out by just a few places at competitions, the young girls who were definitely skinnier than I was.

I stepped on the ice for the first time when I was six. After moving us from Michigan to Delaware, my mom had signed me up for group lessons to try to help me meet kids. By the end of my first year, I was a seriously dedicated skater. Sure, I had more friends, but mostly I was focused on my new dream of skating at the Olympics. I started online schooling so I would have a flexible schedule to train with the top coaches. I woke up at 6am every morning to get to the rink and didn’t get home until the evening. I stopped eating hummus, a staple in my Jewish household. Figure skating took over my entire life. Not even the insanity of forced dieting could get me to quit.

I wasn’t a big child by any means; instead, I was short and chubby, only 5 foot 1 inch and 100 pounds. By the time puberty hit at age thirteen, I had thick thighs and a squishier tummy than my coaches felt acceptable. I had to lose weight if I wanted to get anywhere. Trainers would call me Tonya Harding, a figure skater who, as depicted in the Oscar-winning movie I, Tonya, was commonly referred to as too fat, too short, and too ugly to be successful. We were both talented and promising for our age, but needed “refining.” I had to start writing down everything I put into my mouth.

Each morning my coach looked over my meticulous list of meals: 1 ounce of brown rice, 3 cups of broccoli, 1 pear, and tell me what I needed to eliminate from my diet and how much cardio I needed to do that day in order to lose weight. I’d been a vegetarian for years, and when my coach found out, he looked at me and said, “Vegetarians are supposed to be skinny.”

A recurring food on the list was hummus. I wasn’t sure how or why, but eventually the conclusion was made that chickpeas were what was making me fat. I was told I was banned from eating pita bread and hummus, the very food my mom made me for a snack every day as a child.

After that, every time I fell or messed up, my coach would chase after me screaming “HUMMUS! YOU MUST HAVE EATEN HUMMUS!” Looking back, I’m sure this scene was a pretty hilarious spectacle to watch, but experiencing it as a child was completely and utterly mortifying.

Once at a competition I was sitting with that very coach, watching the older skaters. A girl I didn’t know at all completely choked. She fell or forfeited every jump, and as the look of defeat on her face grew, so did the volume of my coach’s voice as he yelled, “You should have eaten less!” at her — because of course, every fat girl trying to ice skate would be better if they ate less and got skinny. He turned to me and my mom, saying, “You can really tell she’s been eating way too much hummus” and snickered. It was a reminder of the traditions in which I was forbidden to participate.

Now the thing is, I loved this coach. His behavior was normal, even tame, for most people involved in figure skating. At least he didn’t publicly weigh me like most trainers did. At the time it didn’t seem too crazy that I wasn’t allowed to dip my cucumbers in dressing. Forgetting what sweets tasted like was an insignificant price to pay to eventually become a world-class athlete — that was my dream after all. I was very young when I started weighing myself daily, excited to tell my coach that I had lost a pound or two.

This routine continued for years. I switched ice rinks as I got older in order to skate at an Olympic training center with some prestige coaches an hour and a half away from my house in Aston, Pennsylvania. The first week of training there I weighed in at 104 pounds and was told to lose ten more. Instead of cutting out anything extra from my diet, like the hummus fiasco of my youth, I was instructed to just cut every meal in half. “If you eat a salad, just eat half of that salad.” No croutons or dressing, of course. Even when I lost those ten pounds, I was met with “Lose five more.”

I don’t remember ever being told that I looked good or skinny, but I do remember the joy I felt when I was eventually told that I only had to lose two more pounds to be an acceptable weight for a figure skater. My sophomore year, I asked my parents to enroll me in a regular high school. I started noticing that non-skaters didn’t worry about their teachers telling them that they looked “chunky” or “flabby.” I woke up one day and decided I the way I was conditioned to be treated by adults wasn’t healthy. I never went back to the ice rink, and I never lost those last two pounds.

I eat hummus now. Sometimes I even eat the whole tub in one go just to spite everyone that barred me from my favorite food. I still weigh myself immediately after, just to make sure that my caloric intake isn’t showing. On the hard mornings, the ones where I catch myself poking and prodding at my belly like my coaches used to, I question when I’ll win back the self-confidence I lost trying to fulfill dreams meant for skinnier girls. Watching my old competitors battle for the big win was difficult, but for the first time it didn’t send me into a frenzy of regret. I’m glad I watched the games from my couch in Manhattan rather than on the Korean ice.

Izzi Sneider is a 19-year-old born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and currently resides in Manhattan while studying Journalism and Design at the New School. Izzi spends her free time traveling and playing music. 

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