It’s that time again! The end of August is approaching, which means school will be starting again very soon! Students, from preschoolers to college aged- are gearing up for the new year. (A quick stroll into your nearest Target will confirm this if you don’t believe me- notebooks on the floor, trapper keepers strewn across the shelves, emptied out highlighter cases-it’s back-to-school chaos in there! *Enter at your own risk*)
But if you are a rising college freshman, society is actively giving you the message that you have more to worry that than just grades this coming year. Grades-pshhh. Grades are nothing compared to the work that you will have to do to avoid…the freshman 15 (dun dun dun).
The chatter about the dreaded freshman 15 is absolutely unavoidable. We have all heard the cautionary tale- the absolutely terrifying story-of the student who goes off to college for the first time and *gasp*gains 15 pounds?? Oh the horror. The horror!
Where did this story come from? Why the number 15? Who started this fear-inducing rumor? And most importantly…why do we care?
I don’t have answers to those first three questions- but I do know a thing or two about why we fear the freshman 15 so much. Put simply-fatphobia. We are living in a culture that demonizes fatness. Weight gain is viewed as something to avoid at all costs. Diet culture has saturated our subconscious with false ideas (plucked from weak, shaky research) about weight being the most important factor when it comes to health.
Our fear of fatness manifests in a multitude of messed up arenas. The freshman 15 chatter is just one of these ways in which our cultural demonization of larger bodies rears it’s ugly head.
The thing is- this over-the-top caution about gaining some arbitrary amount of weight? It’s not harmless. College is one of the most common times of life for eating disorders to present. In fact, eating disorders are the third most common diagnoses seen at college counseling centers across the nation. And I have personally worked with several individuals who felt that their fear of the freshman 15 ultimately led to the development of their eating disorder. Like I said-not harmless.
And so, being that I am both an eating disorder specialist, AND a college counseling center psychologist- I feel compelled to put this in writing:
F%*K THE FRESHMAN 15 FEAR MONGERING!!!
College is a time to spread your wings. It is a time when many of us first take those steps away from our childhood homes. It is a time to test our independence. A time to make epic mistakes, and learn the valuable life lesson (over and over) that it is ok to be imperfect!
College is a time to make memories. Many people meet their best friends during these years. College is a time to form connections-it is a time to create life long bonds. Food is important when it comes to creating bonds. It just is. Food is about more than fuel. Your life-long bonds will be made laughing in the check-out line at Wawa with your bestie after a long night out. Sitting on the floor with your dorm-mates eating cheesy pizza and complaining about the upcoming bio exam. Grabbing froyo with your roomie while mulling over the important questions (was he flirting with you last Saturday night?) Eating steaming egg-and-biscuit sandwiches with your lab partner at the local bagel joint.
College is also a time to learn. A time to absorb lessons like a damn sponge. It is a time to figure our what you truly want to do in life- a time to think deeply about the next steps- is is law school? Med school? An entry-level job? College is a time to begin carving out your life path.
You know what college should not be? A time to obsess about your weight. This period of life can be so invigorating- so juicy- so colorful- it is an absolute disgrace that we, as a society, pressure students to turn it into four years of attempted weight suppression. What’s really sad? Spending the nights alone in the university gym while your friends are out. Anxiously logging calories into apps and trackers. “Saving” up calories for alcohol later on and then becoming dangerously intoxicated. These are the memories that the future can hold for those unlucky students who become preoccupied and hung up on the freshman 15.
If you are a rising college freshman-lean in close because this part is important: you DO NOT have to engage in the freshman 15 fear-mongering! I don’t know if there is research about average amounts of weight gain during freshman year. But frankly, if there is, who cares? Remind yourself that by engaging with the freshman 15 fear-mongering, you are submitting to and contributing to fat-phobia. Adopt the mantra that your body knows what to do-and that there is nothing inherently wrong with gaining weight, or existing in a larger body. Understand that your weight will ebb and flow over time- and that’s ok! Be aware of the fact that we aren’t meant to stay at the same weight that we were in high school for the rest of our lives!
Tell yourself over and over that these next four years are all about freedom. Trying to control your weight is not a step towards freedom. An actual step towards freedom? Telling yourself and everyone around you “f%*k the freshman 15. I’ve got a life-in-color to live and obsessing about my weight isn’t part of it.”
Now go forth and experience your first year of college in color. You got this freshmen.
-Dr. Colleen Reichmann