Vanetza Cine was “always the biggest compared to all my friends,” but when she moved from Haiti to the United States, she really started to struggle with her weight.
“I barely spoke the language and a lot of people would make fun of me because of my accent,” Cine, 29, tells PEOPLE. “I was a sophomore in high school, and my reading level was that of a third grader. I felt embarrassed, and it was hard for me to make friends because of that.”
“I’ve always had low self-esteem because I’ve been overweight, and I was always made fun of,” she continues. “I resorted to food because moving around to new places and not knowing anyone, food was the only comfort I had.”
Cine had reached 200 lbs. by the time she graduated from military school and became an officer.
“I felt like I was living a double standard,” she says. “I was supposed to be a leader of soldiers, and I could barely pass the Army physical test. I was embarrassed. My soldiers looked up to me and I had to counsel them when they couldn’t meet the standards, and yet I myself couldn’t meet the standards. I just felt like a hypocrite and a fake.”
The Indianapolis, Indiana-based Army officer had tried to lose weight in the past, but nothing seemed to work.
“I would start a program and then resort back to my old ways, which would leave me even more depressed,” she says. “I always worked out and went to the gym, but I had no idea what I was doing. I would go on the elliptical for 30 minutes, go to the sauna for 30 minutes, and then go home and eat junk food that I knew I shouldn’t be eating.”
Cine had reached a low point in December 2015, when she read about a Bodybuilding.com challenge and decided to take part in it.
“I was so unhappy about the way I felt, and the challenge came along,” says Cine. “What really helped me were the exercise guides that showed me how to do everything.”
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Motivated by her troops, Cine began working out three times a day.
“This was something I had to do not only for myself, but for the soldiers that looked up to me,” she says. “I would go to the gym early in the morning to do cardio, and I would also work out during lunch when I could. In the evening was when I would do heavy lifting. I was pretty much working out twice to three times every single day.”
“I wanted to prove to everybody and myself that [getting in shape is possible] with hard work, dedication and effort,” she says. “You don’t need money to do this.”
She also began following a carb-cycling diet plan, which means she restricts her carb intake to every other day. Since completing the challenge, Cine has lost 26 lbs. and is currently training for her first bodybuilding competition.
“A lot of people think getting in shape is getting a six-pack, but that’s not what it’s about,” she says. “The best part of getting in shape is the self-confidence and my overall outlook on life. I’m more positive now, I speak more than I used to. I used to barely look people in the eye because I felt like they were judging me. I was always shy. My fitness journey gave me confidence in the way I walk and talk, and it’s made me happy with life.”