Alongside the phrases “comp,” “final club,” “lit,” “consulting,” “Quadded,” “Goldman Sachs,” and “Mankiw,” you won’t make it through Opening Days without mention of the “freshman 15.” The fear-instilling, joke-inspiring “freshman 15” is a buzz word in the common language we speak as college students. It echoes around campus, serving as a witty, self-deprecating remark to break ice in “the Berg” or as students haul themselves to the Malkin Athletic Center. But the legend seeps through hallowed halls as hollowed cheeks grow deeper.
The “freshman 15” has a dark flipside.
For all the talk of first-year students gaining 15 pounds, we forget about the countless freshman who are losing 15 pounds — or more — at the ignorant hands of this harmful myth.
Before arriving on campus, first-years are bombarded with news articles warning of the “freshman 15” and offering concrete tips about how to “beat weight gain.” But to what extent is this fear justified?
Apparently, not at all. The idea that first-years even gain 15 pounds once they arrive at college is completely unfounded. The preponderance of research indicates that if college students do gain weight, it is usually within the range of two and a half to six pounds. Furthermore, college students self-report weight gain that is not verified by their doctors or by researchers. They perceive weight gain where it hasn’t occurred; reported numbers are inflated by fear and the use of inconsistent scales. The freshman 15 doesn’t make us heavy — it makes us feel heavy. It weighs on us, not around us.
Fifty percent of teenage girls and 33 percent of teenage boys engage in “unhealthy weight control behaviors.” The freshman 15 dialogue then exploits these pre-existing behaviors once adolescents get to college. Anorexia and bulimia onset among women between ages 16 and 19, coinciding with young women’s college transition. When taken to the extreme, the “healthy habits” encouraged by the media can easily turn into obsessions. Of course exercise is good: It makes you feel strong! It helps you focus! It releases stress! But it can quickly become an unhealthy addiction when promoted in the sole context of losing weight. Perhaps the most harmful thing freshman are consuming is not dining hall food but instead is the false information that we and the media promulgate on a daily basis.
Yet we continue to talk about something fake as if it were real. The “freshman 15” has become such an integral part of our vocabulary as first-years that we don’t even think twice about how degrading it is. The “freshman 15” is most often cushioned as a joke — but for many of us, it isn’t so funny. This joke in passing ends up sticking to something deep inside of us. It attaches itself to the fears we internalized as children, that are constantly reinforced with every hypersexualized magazine cover, every “before and after” Instagram post, and every unhelpful comment we make to our roommate as we fret under a mirror’s watchful eye.
I never used to consider myself an angry person. In high school, it was actually a bit of a joke amongst my friends that they could never rile me up. However, a few nights ago, when one of my closest friends here at the college broke down and told me that she thinks she has an eating disorder, I realized that I am infuriated — and I have been infuriated for a long time.
I am enraged at systems. I am sick of a culture that allows body-shaming dialogue to be mainstream. I am tired of a culture where women wince when their significant other touches their side because it reminds them of the body that they don’t want. This culture needs to change and we each need be held accountable for the damaging messaging we promote everytime we talk about weight gain in this manner.
College is hard enough. We are constantly trying to “fit in:” fit in with a new group of peers; fit in enough hours of sleep so that we can reasonably function the next day; fit in social time with class time; fit our old selves into new, ever-changing versions of who we are. We shouldn’t have to constantly be worrying about fitting into our jeans as well, but the “freshman 15” serves as a constant reminder of this fear.
As someone who was affected by an eating disorder at a very young age but has since recovered, I am painfully aware of the suffering around me. There are so many students, especially women, who are struggling. The lunchline at Annenberg is already chaotic. Combined with a fear of food, it is an absolute nightmare. It is our job to take care of one another. Next time you want to make a comment about the freshman 15, I beg you to think twice. The punchline feels a lot more like a punch and it is time we take the weight of our words seriously.
Last week was National Eating Disorder Awareness week. How aware are you?
Aysha L. J. Emmerson ’22, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Straus Hall.