Photo by The U.S. Army.
Photo by The U.S. Army.

Like many sports that rely on brute force, taekwondo sometimes requires athletes to cut weight. We just call it cutting, which to outsiders might evoke associations with another kind of unhealthy behavior. My 5’2” frame is small enough that many are surprised I need to cut at all, but not quite small enough to fit into weight classes created for tiny-boned Korean women. I occasionally need to stop eating and drinking for about twelve hours before regional tournaments to weigh in as a lightweight at 117 pounds. This is not a particularly severe form of cutting; I get cranky and cotton-mouthed before a weigh-in, but a Gatorade and whole-wheat bagel later I’m ready to compete.

But two years in a row I’ve had the fortune and the misfortune of being picked to go to Collegiate Nationals, where the weight class cutoffs are lower by one Olympic weight class, 4 kilograms. Two years in a row I’ve chosen cutting to flyweight (under 108 pounds) over sticking to featherweight (under 125 pounds) and fighting my way through a bracket of twenty-five 5’7” girls who would have a significant advantage over me when it came to trading kicks in the face.

And so it began again this year. To lose eight pounds in six weeks, I’ve had to adopt a living hygiene that makes me feel Spartan and disciplined and truly athletic, but also made my friend Scott tell me things like “you’re miserable to eat around” and “you make me feel bad about eating.” I go to the gym once a day, twice if I also have practice: nothing impressive, it’s just a question of chugging away on the elliptical and the exercise bike until I’ve burned 300 or 400 calories. I don’t have the energy for much else because I eat less than 1000 calories a day. At any point in any day the last six weeks I could have told you how many calories in I was. Through the stresses of midterms and spring break and the week-to-week routine I’ve kept this running tally, and as I reduced my calorie intake I’ve cut out meat, alcohol, sugar, and carbs.

Excising these college staples out of my life makes me feel cleaner and fitter, but having not a crumb of leeway, and so much riding on my ability to silence my hunger pangs in the middle of late meal, has done nothing for my general serenity. Cutting weight has also cut me off from many forms of fun. Much of social life revolves around friends consuming food or alcohol together. Not being able to drink because a shot of vodka contains 100 calories has seriously affected how I spend my nights. A sober TI-Ivy-Terrace circuit is not much fun. Neither are theme nights at Terrace with delicious food that I can’t consume, not to mention Terrace Fourth Course, or late meal, a time for socializing built into my day that has lately been marred by pretty much everything but the bitter coffee being off-limits.
But of course just because I can’t eat late meal cookies doesn’t mean I can’t have friends. The problem is that as my daily calorie count has decreased and my collarbone has become more defined, my personality has changed. It seems shocking even to me how much hatred I can muster for people who have mildly irritating voices or happen to obstruct my path when I am walking somewhere and how prone I’ve grown to yelling obscenities in French at inanimate objects. Generally, I’m slower to get out of bed, more sluggish, and my legs feel heavy when I’m walking up stairs. I feel that my mind wanders more; keeping it focused seems to draw on reserves of strength that I find lacking. It’s a wonder I get any of my schoolwork done.

When I think about it, what I’m doing is extreme, especially given that it’s just for an extracurricular. Then again, people heavily involved in dance, theater or competitive sports routinely take on extremely stressful commitments as well; I just had never thought of myself as the kind of person to go to these lengths for an activity. But after all, I’m cutting for a national competition that I have some chance of winning, which to me at least makes it less idiotic of an effort than pulling all-nighters for a frivolous student organization nobody cares about. No, what I find most troubling is that instead of training harder at taekwondo to compensate for the size disadvantage I’d suffer as a featherweight, I threw my ability to go to extremes into cutting, which doesn’t inherently have anything to do with the sport and just so happens to coincide with the socially desirable goal of being skinny. Maybe I like the fact that this is extreme because it gives me an excuse to openly control my weight almost obsessively. Under other circumstances, such behavior would make my friends concerned, while acquaintances would probably roll their eyes at my clear case of trying way too fucking hard. Some girls are as strict with themselves year after year as a weight-cutting athlete is during competition season, but have to pretend they keep their figures so thin without trying. So I raise a half-glass of skim milk to their neurotic struggles and savor the guilt. I don’t mean the guilt they’re talking about on the packaging of “guilt-free” chocolate cookies, but the guilt I draw from being in the extremely rare situation of having a free pass to complain about how fucking hard I’m trying.