I was 19 years old when I first heard the term “freshman 15.” My physician tossed the words at me over her clipboard as part of a well-worn speech about “making healthy choices,” “watching how much you drink,” and “exercising often” as a shiny new college student. I remember rising from the examination table and thinking that my body—the one that was apparently the wrong size—had made the paper lining it crinkle too much. I remember discovering a newfound anxiety around food. But mostly, I remember an unrelenting shame that clouded a time otherwise characterized by freedom, new beginnings, and self-discovery.
We’re living in a time when body acceptance dominates advertisements splattered across billboards, in subway trains, and even on fashion runways. And yet the idea that an adult woman should remain the size of a teenager endures. Since 2004, Google searches for “freshman 15” have reliably spiked each August through November—and it’s high-time this harmful narrative got canceled.
“It’s important to keep in mind that weight is a characteristic, not a behavior.” —Judith Matz, LCSW
The idea of the freshman 15 relies upon the outdated belief that weight is the best indicator of well-being, says Judith Matz, LCSW, therapist, and co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook. The word “skinny” isn’t synonymous with “healthy”—and we need to stop treating it like it is. “It’s important to keep in mind that weight is a characteristic, not a behavior,” she says. Wellness doesn’t mean the same thing for every person. “If a student feels comfortable in their adjustment to college life—and their weight happens to change—there’s no issue. If a student is struggling in their adjustment to college life, and as a result is engaging in behaviors that don’t support them physically or emotionally regardless of whether there’s a change in weight, then those are the issues that need to be addressed.”
In order to create a college culture that does not measure worthiness by weight, Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), says that we first must understand the psychological impact of treating a characteristic (weight) as a means of diminishing someone’s worth.
The language around the “freshman 15” does all harm and no good
For many, heading off to college is part of the transition to adulthood. You may leave home for the first time, far from your high school friends. You have to learn how to balance rigorous course loads with an active social life. Kronengold says it’s also the most common time for people to develop eating disorders. Research shows that the onset of an eating disorder typically happens between the ages of 18 and 21 years old.
“College is a period of development in which disordered eating is likely to arise, resurface, or worsen for many young people,” says Kronengold. “In addition to the fear of the ‘freshman 15,’ cultural factors, peer focus on the appearance ideal, being away from home and their support system, weight stigma in ‘obesity’ prevention, and the high pressure of athletics and academics are all potential risk factors for disordered eating and other maladaptive coping mechanisms for college students.” It’s the perfect storm.
“College is a period of development in which disordered eating is likely to arise, resurface, or worsen for many young people.” —Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager at the National Eating Disorders Association
While there’s no single known risk factor for eating disorders, a 2015 study tied the development of eating disorders to the society’s idealization of thinness—an issue very much compounded by the freshman 15. “It gives young women the message that they should be overly preoccupied with their body size, that they are being monitored, and that if they gain weight during college they’ve failed in some way,” says Matz. The message fills teenagers with fear instead of hope.
The freshman 15 is also flawed on the most basic, biological level, says Matz. At age 18, our bodies are still changing and growing. The freshman 15 suggests that natural, unstoppable maturation is “wrong,” feeding body shame that often leads to disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders as a college student tries to avoid weight gain.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) says that metabolism naturally slows down over time, particularly once people reach the age of 20. So expecting someone to maintain the same weight as they did in high school isn’t just cruel, it’s often a biological impossibility.
How to redefine “healthy” for young adults
Research indicates that spending time with those who are not focused on their own body image may help maintain more positive feelings toward your own body. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t confide in your friends about how you’re feeling about yourself. It just means honing the criteria for your own health.
Kronengold believes that all of us need to take five steps to let more people—and many, many types of bodies—in on the wellness conversation:
- Discourage dieting and focus on healthy habits rather than weight.
- Educate yourself about eating disorders.
- Increase your awareness around comments that enable disordered behavior (like, “You look so great, did you lose weight?”).
- Seek out stories of hope from people who are in recovery.
- Get involved with eating disorder advocacy and activism.
The questions we should be asking friends and family that come home from college for the holidays are, “How are you feeling mentally?”, “How has your transition to campus life been going?”, and “How can I support you?”
Parents in particular need to let their children come up with their own ideas about what a healthy lifestyle will mean for them throughout the course of their lives. “The seeds of acceptance planted in formative years give young women the greatest possibility of befriending their own body and making peace with food,” says Matz. “If your college student does gain weight, think about the difference in how she’ll feel returning home if she knows you’re already upset about the freshman 15. Now, think about how she’ll feel coming home if the message you’ve given her is that you unconditionally accept her and her body.”
I’m still in the process of defining “healthy” for myself. A few weeks ago, a friend and I grabbed a tea and decided to split a croissant. I tore off a piece and said something like: “I just can’t wait until me and my body are cool—you know?” Even as the words left my mouth, I caught myself calculating the nutritional value of the French pastry in my head. Still every so often—during yoga class or when I cook a meal from scratch with friends—I feel myself getting closer to my own healthy ideals. For now, they’re glimmers of how my relationship with my body could be. But my hope is that over the course of a lifetime these moments become habits.
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