I was 18 years old and scared out of my mind to go to college. Sure, I knew some people that would be attending the same university as me, but that didn’t take away the fear of living with a random stranger in a tiny, box-like dorm room, and it didn’t ease my mind about keeping up with my studies. Not to mention the money worries that comes with paying tuition, room, and board.
So yes, I was nervous, yet a little excited about all the adventures that were ahead of me. Unfortunately, upon hearing I was off to college in the fall, the number one thing adults said to me time and time again was “watch out for the freshman 15” or “weight gain is really common when you start college.” I also endured snide remarks about alcohol and drug use, but those comments paled in the comparison to the number of times weight was brought up at this stage in my life.
At 18, I already felt quite negatively toward my body. I did all kinds of exercise regimens and tried different diets to get rid of the muffin top I was so self-conscious about, and I felt frustrated that I still didn’t look like some of my friends or celebrities I admired. Perceiving a bit of “extra” fat on my body made me feel ugly and unlovable, and it changed my relationship with food and exercise for years.
Maybe the adults making the remarks about the freshman 15 thought it was a good-natured joke. It was usually said with a light-hearted tone, and maybe a nudge of the elbow, after all.
It might have been funny for the person saying it, but it was incredibly harmful language for someone who was already struggling to accept her body as it was. Sending the message that I was likely to gain weight, and that weight gain was such a bad thing, was the exact opposite of what I needed to hear.
I get it: everyone needs to be able to handle a joke, to develop a tough skin. That’s all well and good, especially in the real world. But when that joke alludes to the pervasive diet and fat-phobic culture we are already totally immersed in, it doesn’t always come off as a joke. It can drill the idea into young people’s heads that your worth is diminished if you live in a larger body. It doesn’t really matter if it’s phrased like a joke or not.
Leaving for college is an an incredibly difficult, nerve-wracking phase of a person’s life. Students already worry about all kinds of things, like balancing their classes, money woes, making friends, adjusting to life in a new city away from their parents, and dozens of other factors. Throwing worries about body image and weight on top of that is just plain cruel.
Why do people feel it’s their place to joke about weight gain, or weight in general, and why do they target vulnerable young people?
What’s With the Freshman 15 Obsession?
I think one reason that people are obsessed with the notion of the freshman 15 is that many young adults see the start of college as a time to reinvent themselves. They don’t have to be the same person they were in high school, and this can be a refreshing new start.
College is a chance to learn more about yourself, discover a new sense of freedom, and begin to make your mark on the world. Plus, if we are being honest, many young adults hope they will have solid dating prospects in college. And many believe that nobody wants to date a person who has gained 15 pounds in college.
This may seem irrational, but that’s truly how it feels sometimes. Some people really are that shallow, and although it’s true that you wouldn’t want to be with someone who is that shallow, it doesn’t always soften the blow of rejection. Many major emotional scars have been engrained on the hearts of people who have been broken up with due to current weight or weight gain. It’s disgusting and wrong, but that’s humanity sometimes. Disgusting and wrong.
Diet culture has told us for decades that smaller bodies are better. It used to whisper that those with curves were more attractive, at least when finding adequate food was difficult. Diet culture tells us that what is most difficult to achieve is the most attractive. I suppose this tangent is for another post, but it’s true nevertheless.
Everyone wants to “improve” when they leave for college, they want to seem more put together than ever before. It’s like they want to level up and date better people, make better friends, and do cooler things so that people from high school will think, “wow, they’re really living.”
We desperately don’t want to be the one they whisper about when it comes to weight gain instead of achievements and wellbeing, like “did you see Erin? She definitely got the freshman 15 and let herself go in school.” Diet culture makes this a normal thing to talk about and gossip about. We don’t want to undergo the treatment fat people always have, so we do our damndest to avoid being the subject of everyone’s gossip by eating as little as possible and exercising as much as we can. I truly believe this is a major root of freshman 15 worries.
I also recognize that lots of adults think it’s funny to tease young people about it because they automatically assume the person going off to college will party every night of the week. Or that they will go hard in the dining hall because of their meal plans. Many young people miss home and their childhood friends, and they may use both food and partying to deal with it. These are also ways to connect with other people when they may feel vulnerable and alone.
I don’t see the humor in teasing kids going off to college about the freshman 15 or weight changes at all. I think it’s damaging because it further instills the ideas that smaller, lighter bodies are better, that you need constant restraint when it comes to eating at the dining hall, and that it’s okay to shame people if they do gain weight during their freshman year of college.
The whole idea of the “freshman 15” is clearly on students’ mind every fall, and it’s easy to see from a quick Google search. Upon hitting the search button, your screen will be flooded by tons of articles, including one by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, about how to avoid the freshman 15 and maintain or lose weight in college. Other fitness magazines may recommend counting calories, specific meal plans, or even meal replacement shakes that can be shipped right to their dorm.
I See What You Mean, But Don’t People Actually Gain Weight in College?
In short, yes. Many young men and women do see an uptick in their weight upon starting college. Could it be because of constant alcohol intake, eating with reckless abandon in the dining hall, not exercising as much, or the munchies while getting high? Sure.
Could it also be because 18 is about the age where most people’s metabolisms naturally begin to slow down? Yes, it could be this too. Some young adults transition to college and don’t do anything differently, maybe even continuing to live with their parents, yet they still start to see their weight increase slowly but surely.
Interestingly, one academic paper entitled The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or a Media Myth discusses how freshman in college, on average, only actually gain about 2.5-3.5 pounds. This is only about 1/2 pound more than their peers that don’t go to college. This paper was written in 2011, but it still sheds light on a myth that has been around for decades. The first mention of the freshman 15 was actually in a Seventeen Magazine article from 1989.1
So yes, according to this paper (the only one of its kind I could find), there is a minuscule association between college and weight gain.
Even if the freshman 15 was real for all college students, why would that be such a problem in the eyes of many? Maybe because weight gain is generally associated with “bad” habits, like “letting yourself go”, “laziness”, and “overindulging”. Maybe it’s because people automatically view larger bodies as bad, and we do our best to prevent ourselves from one day having one of those “bad” bodies. Whatever the reason, seeing changes in weight when your life is completely uprooted is totally normal.
Just a reminder, we can’t even begin to say that going to college causes people to gain weight. That would be bad science! There are plenty of factors that go along with going to college that can be associated with weight gain. However, one thing I can say for certain is that demonizing certain body sizes and weight gain in college (or any time) causes me to want to punch a hole in the wall like Andy from The Office. I know this even without a study.
Why? Because these fat-phobic, weight-stigmatizing comments and behaviors are likely increasing the number of eating disorders seen on college campuses. And these comments are so prevalent, yet there is no evidence that the freshman 15, or significant weight gain even occurs. There is evidence, however, that disordered eating and clinically-significant eating disorders are all over college campuses.
Everyone associates college kids with eating pizza, drinking beer, and sleeping in until noon. But do you associate college kids with eating disorders? Interestingly, and sadly, a very high percentage of both male and female college students display disordered eating behavior severe enough to be considered a formal eating disorder.
Think of all the people in your life that are dieting or have dieted in the past. That’s bound to be a high amount of people, and it may include yourself. Dieting is incredibly common, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.
A study from 1995 estimates that 20-25% of people who go on diets will develop disordered eating habits. From that group, about 1/4 of them will develop clinical eating disorders.2 Going on a diet might seem like an innocent endeavor, especially if the intention is for health, but it can turn into a slippery slope quickly.
Although this is a problem for people of all ages, many people begin their first diets when they graduate high school or go off to college. This could also account for the high number of college students struggling with disordered eating.
It is estimated that about 14% of women and 4% of men in college have an clinical eating disorder, at least as of 2007.3 It’s difficult to predict the number of college students that suffer from disordered eating instead of clinically-diagnosable eating disorders, but I think it’s safe to say that number is pretty darn high.
Among college athletes disordered eating is also problem. One study found that about 3% of female college athletes displayed severe enough disordered eating symptoms to be considered a clinical eating disorder. However, about 25% of the female college athletes surveyed display subclinical disordered eating.4
Although it makes intuitive sense to me now, I also find it interesting that anxiety and depression are often precursors to disordered eating and eating disorders. As is a need for control.
As discussed earlier, the transition to college can be a time full of anxiety, loneliness, and fear. Perhaps these mental health issues begin to manifest even more upon leaving for college, facilitating an increase in disordered eating behaviors as well. This is speculation on my part, so I’m not claiming it as an ultimate truth, but it is an interesting speculation nonetheless.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, so this problem is much more serious that it may seem on the surface.
I have been speaking specifically about the phenomenon known as the freshman 15 for this post; however, it’s just a tiny leaf on the branches, trunk, and roots of the larger, overarching problem of weight stigma and diet culture.
Diet culture and weight stigma don’t just harm people who are in larger bodies. It harms people that feel fear about someday having a larger body. Our society deems being in a larger body as so shameful and disgusting, that we feel our self worth descend as soon as the number on the scale begins ascending or our clothes begin to feel tighter.
What can we do about eating disorders and disordered eating among college students?
Well for starters, stop talking about the freshman 15. In fact, stop using fat phobic language, stop “warning people” about how terrible weight gain is, and stop commenting on other people’s lifestyles and bodies. You can’t determine someone’s health based on their body size, and even if you could, assigning worth to someone based on their health is crappy too.
In order to phase out eating disorders and disordered eating among our young adults, we have to change the culture as a whole. We have to teach our young people to have neutral or positive relationships with food and their bodies, and we have to make it know that all bodies are good bodies.
That takes work from everyone. In the mean time, the National Eating Disorder Association released a handy survey in 2013 about eating disorders on college campuses. It discusses the importance of screening for eating disorders, which can be done quickly and inexpensively using a screening tool like the one on NEDA’s own website.
Early screening and interventions are incredibly important in preventing disordered eating behaviors from spiraling completely out of control. Unfortunately, many students with disordered eating slip through the cracks and go unnoticed. I think it should be a requirement that people take this screening tool once per academic year, or even once per semester, and the people who are flagged could be sent resources.
Heck, even those who aren’t flagged should get that list too in case they ever feel themselves sliding down that slippery slope, or if they know someone who is struggling. Many college campuses also offer counseling and health services that can help with disordered eating and eating disorders, but students often aren’t aware of these services, they feel too anxious about booking an appointment, or they don’t feel they have time.
This screening tool could also screen for anxiety and depression, which are also incredibly common for college students, and provide resources for those issues as well.
Until that happens, if it ever does, I think we as a society need to talk about the dangers of diet culture and fatphobia more and more to raise awareness of the issue. I was truly a diet culture zombie when I was in college, and it wasn’t until I read Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size (affiliates) that I began to question my reality and ask myself why I put “being skinny” up so high on my list of goals.
This is a big problem, and comments that are seemingly innocent like “watch out for the freshman 15” can send people down a dark path. In the end, the best time to make comments about weight and other people’s bodies is never.
As Always, A Book Recommendation
I don’t know if there are lots of college students that read this blog, but I believe this book would be especially helpful for them, and literally everyone else in the world. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former sugeon general, has been studying and speaking and writing about loneliness for quite some time now, and he has created an awesome book on the topic most of us try to avoid thinking or talking about every day.
Together (affiliate) takes a deep dive into why many of us feel lonely and what we can do about it. It can be hard to make connections, especially as an adult, but he offers practical advice and real world examples that make it feel much more possible.
Let’s face it- the vast majority of us feel lonely from time to time. Even those of us who consider themselves extreme introverts aren’t always happy to be alone, even though we need our space a good chunk of the time. Covid-19 has clearly not helped the loneliness problem that has been gradually manifesting itself over the past few decades, so I can’t think of a better time to give it a read.
You can also get this audiobook for FREE when you sign up for a free trial of Audible using the button below. And if you don’t yet have Amazon Prime, you can get a free trial of that wonderful 2-day shipping goodness below too!
As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small percent off qualifying purchases from products linked on my website. It costs you nothing, but it helps keep my website running. I only recommend things I genuinely love.
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- The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or a Media Myth
- The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances
- Eating Disorder Symptoms Among College Students: Prevalence, Persistence, Correlates, and Treatment-Seeking
- Collegiate Athletes: Prevalence of Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Behaviors (full paper in Journal of American College of Health 2009)