When I left my last final my first semester freshmen year, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Then, I stepped on a scale and realized, to my horror, that the weight apparently had been transferred from my shoulders to my stomach. Without even realizing it, I had been hit by the dreaded “Freshman 15,” the extra weight that around 70 percent of students gain their first year at college.
I’ve been relatively thin my whole life, and never thought about my weight – until college. Now, it was all I thought about. I wasn’t the only one – just searching for “Freshman 15” on Google yields over 12 million results. The front page alone presents articles warning freshmen about, as the Obesity Action Coalition puts it, the “grave danger” surrounding weight gain and tips on how to lead a healthy lifestyle. Often accompanying the articles are pictures of unhappy teens straining in exaggerated fashion to button their pants or collapsed on beds strewn with chip bags and donut boxes.
Finding kinship with those miserable college students bemoaning their shameful weight gain, I followed the websites’ advice and eagerly dove headfirst into a total health overhaul. Reduce caloric intake? Easy: I restricted myself to 500 calories each day. Exercise? Can do: I spent hours in the gym each day, running on a treadmill until my vision blurred and I was wheezing with every step. Have a cheat day? Oh, absolutely: I camped out in the dining hall practically all day, binging on everything I deprived myself of the rest of the week and stuffing my pockets with bagels and cookies to hoard for later.
I had swapped one unhealthy eating habit for several others, but how? I was just following the instructions given to me by popular articles emblazoned with the word “healthy.” How could articles promoting a healthy lifestyle lead me so astray?
The problem is that the obsession with the “Freshman 15” equates thinness with health, a concept that is ingrained in society despite the fact that thin people are also at risk of developing health problems assumed to be directly related to weight gain. We don’t question the health of thin people – it is just automatically assumed. Meanwhile, the health of a person who doesn’t fit society’s standards of body size is immediately called into question, scrutinized, and used as reason to shame them. I was in a public spiral of self-destructive behaviors that my peers either didn’t notice or actively encouraged. Every single thing I was doing to my body was unhealthy, but because I was still thin nobody – including me –recognized it for what it actually was.
If I could’ve gone back in time and talked to my freshman self, I would’ve told them not to waste their time worrying about the “Freshman 15” and that their weight is nothing to be ashamed of. More importantly, it had nothing to do with my academic performance. I did just as well academically at my heaviest than I did at my lightest. In fact, I’d argue that I’m doing better, since I’m no longer wasting so much of my time punishing and obsessing over my body and depriving it of the energy and nutrients it needs. Sure, I’m twenty pounds heavier now than I was when I started college, but I also have job prospects and experience and perspective; I have hope for my future. Once I realized my body didn’t hinder me the way I was once so afraid it would, it was just another weight off my shoulders.