The Freshman Fifteen

by Talia Weisberg

Few things will terrify a group of women in the Harvard class of 2017 more than the words “freshman fifteen.”

Although this term has led people to believe that the average amount of weight undergrads gain in their first year of college is 15 pounds, recent studies suggest that the actual number is around to one to four. Despite the inaccuracy of the phrase, the phobia of gaining 15 pounds (or more) within the span of a year is nearly ubiquitous among freshman women.

Women interviewed for this article confirmed that this fear was sowed in them before they even entered the hallowed halls of Harvard: They heard girls in calculus gossip about their older friends’ weight gain when they came home from college for winter break. They sat through a lecture about the importance of portion control and calorie consumption when they went to the doctor to get their medical forms filled out. While surfing the internet for advice on how to survive freshman year, they read articles in publications like Seventeen and Her Campus that gave them tips on how to avoid gaining membership to the freshman 15 club.

If freshmen thought the pressure to stay at a static weight was bad before they started college, it really amped up after move-in day: Their parents have been not-so-subtly asking them to recount everything on our breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates, then giving unsolicited advice on how to make healthier food choices. Their roommates brag about how many times they made it to the gym last week and how long they were on the elliptical. They overhear girls in their classes comparing their diets, checking the calorie counters on their iPhones for reference.

Judging from the plethora of personal blogs and magazine advice columns on the subject, fear of the freshman 15 is certainly not unique to first-year students at Harvard.

It is also not a gender-specific phenomenon, as weight gain also worries many undergraduate men. “I’ve noticed a lot of guys in my year who are concerned about the freshman 15,” Dean Sanchez, a freshman at the University of Connecticut, said. Frankie Salzman, a freshman at Indiana University at Bloomington, shared that his “roommate has been working out for hours every day [to avoid weight gain].”

Although many women and men worry about gaining weight at the beginning of their collegiate careers, fear of the freshman 15 is often just a manifestation of preexisting concerns. “I don’t think the freshman 15 is the real issue…for many of us, anxieties surrounding our weight are already there,” said Danielle Burch, a sophomore at the University of Washington at Tacoma. “Just because I didn’t put a harrowing name to the anxiety I felt about my body doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there, much to the chagrin of my feminist self.”

Whether they call it freshman 15 or don’t name their weight-related fears, there is no doubt that this concern weighs particularly heavily on many Harvard women’s minds. As deeply unsettling as it is, this state of affairs isn’t surprising. It’s simply symptomatic of the fact that Western culture values women’s appearances more than their abilities. Society certainly has expectations of the physical appearances of men as well, but it tends to enforce body policing and fat shaming more rigidly toward women. Perhaps this is why two-thirds of those who suffer from disordered eating are women (20 million women as compared to 10 million men).

Society begins indoctrinating girls with the idea that beauty is defined by a slim figure from the moment that they can begin to comprehend their surroundings. Women and girls are bombarded by ads so Photoshopped that the model’s waist is narrower than her head and magazines that urge their (predominantly female) readership to lose 10 pounds before bikini season. Girls absorb the message that they are not worthy if they are not thin throughout early childhood, and it shows: 81 percent of 10-year-old girls report fear of being fat and 42 percent of girls from the first through third grades testify a desire to be thinner. So much for childhood being innocent and carefree.

Women’s concerns about the acceptability of their bodies certainly don’t disappear after grade school. They continue to evaluate their appearances based on the arbitrary beauty standards they see idealized in pop culture media outlets, and trim themselves to fit. College women are particularly vulnerable to these expectations: In a survey of women on one college campus, 91 percent reported dieting; at a different college where 83 percent of women reported dieting, 58 percent felt pressure to be a certain weight; and 25 percent of college-aged women routinely binge and purge for weight control purposes. The actual percentage of undergrad women who suffer from eating disorders is disputed, but most statistics agree that it’s higher than that of the general population.

Eating disorders are about more than food. One of the myriad factors that contribute to an eating disorder is control. In basically every culture, this is something that many women and girls lack over their lives. Women and girls are largely controlled by forces they have no power over−parents, partners, government agencies, society at large. One of the few things that a woman has sole control over is what she puts into her body. Women who feel particularly powerless may exercise control over one of the few things they can by strictly policing their food intake.

Women in their first year of college often feel like their lives are particularly out of control. Many freshmen struggle academically, finding it difficult to adjust to the demands of college classes. Making friends and maintaining relationships, both old and new, also poses a challenge for first-year students.

These social difficulties can complicate mealtimes. Eating at Annenberg or other dining halls is very different from eating at home: There is a different menu, very rigid meal hours, and the need to find other people to sit with. All of these factors can prove anxiety-provoking and stressful, especially for freshmen who are already unhealthily concerned with eating. The transition can prove to be a struggle.

When all of these factors combine with a small, natural weight gain, pressure to avoid the freshman 15, and preexisting insecurities about weight and body image, it can lead to the feeling of losing control and disastrous eating-related consequences.

The only thing that can curtail the prevalence of negative body image among undergraduate women is a culture change. Although this may seem like an impossible goal, activists who champion women’s wellbeing have begun to raise consciousness about these issues on campus and beyond. Body image is becoming more accepted as a subject of conversation. Things have already begun to improve, so it’s an uphill battle from here. Although members of the class of 2017 are suffering from the fear of the freshman 15, hopefully the class of 2027 will not have to deal with the same issue.

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