Top on the list of concerns for many students isn’t just the typical challenges of college—filled with entering a new environment, getting good grades, making friends and dealing with roommates—it’s the feared Freshman 15. While students might know that gaining 15 pounds their freshman year (according to research, the average is actually eight pounds) is by no means fact or foreshadowing, many still worry, seeing the added pounds as impending.
Back in 1985, The Chicago Tribune was one of the first to refer to the Freshman 15, according to the New York Times, though coverage of this “phenomenon” in the mainstream media really flourished in the late 1990’s (Brown, 2008). Since then, the Freshman 15 has become a term ingrained into our vernacular (“Oh I really need to work out more, because I refuse to gain the Freshman 15;” “I have to go on a diet, so I don’t gain those 15 pounds”).
Type the keyword, “Freshman 15,” into a Google search, and it’ll yield a dizzying array of Web sites—162,000, in fact, a recent study reports (Brown, 2008). It’s also spawned a variety of articles warning freshmen about the grave dangers of packing on the pounds with advice on leading a healthy lifestyle during college. Between 1985 and 2006, 146 newspaper and 141 university articles talked about the Freshman 15, according to the same study.
Many blame (see here and here) the extra pounds on the hectic lifestyle of college students—filled with caffeine and cramming, bingeing on booze and all-you-can-eat buffets and an overall inattention to well-being. As such, it’s no wonder articles offer tips on curbing these bad habits and adopting healthier ones.
So, what’s the problem with publications promoting a healthy lifestyle?
The problem is that oftentimes it’s all about the weight. Yes, honing in on health is important at every age, but not when the discussion fosters a fear of fat—something our culture has normalized, so much so that even pregnant women are now afraid of gaining weight.
And this fear can cause people to worry intensely about their weight, develop a poor body image and engage in harmful behaviors like dangerously restricting calories.
Recently, research showed that about two thirds of the study’s female college students reported at least a moderate concern about the Freshman 15 (Delinsky & Wilson, 2008), which was connected to concern about their shape and weight.
In addition, other research has shown that women who worried about the Freshman 15 had a more negative body image and higher scores on the Eating Attitudes Test, a measure of eating disorder symptoms (Graham & Jones, 2002).
Focusing on the Freshman 15 also automatically equates thinness with health, which is another concept ingrained in our culture. Interestingly, a woman who’s considered the ideal size by society could have harmful habits, including smoking, eating a highly restricted diet (or regularly feasting on fast food) and leading a sedentary lifestyle, but on the outside, we’d see her as the paragon of health, whereas a woman who doesn’t fit today’s standards who eats a wholesome diet, exercises regularly and has never picked up a cigarette—is anything but.
Similarly, whether a college student gained or lost weight in college isn’t automatically a terrible or terrific thing. There might be more to the numbers on the scale.
Maybe some students shed pounds, because they were sick the entire semester, went on a dangerously low-cal diet or were too stressed out with school to eat. Maybe other students gained weight, because they started eating healthfully again, began working out and put on muscle or recovered from an illness.
Certainly some college students gain weight, because they lead a hectic, unhealthy lifestyle. But, why does the Freshman 15 have to be a catalyst in teaching college students about healthy habits?
Instead of terrifying students into leading a healthier lifestyle because there’s a chance of weight gain, wouldn’t it be better to discuss health in general, separate from weight? The message is: Get healthy, but only because of weight, so if you’re a thin student or haven’t gained weight, you’re excused from today’s health lesson.
Let’s take the Freshman 15 out of our vernacular, and instead of sending prospective college students into a panic about possible weight gain, put the emphasis on where it belongs: on overall health and well-being.
Brown, C. (2008). The information trail of the ‘Freshman 15’—a systematic review of a health myth within the research and popular literature. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 25, 1–12.
Delinksky, S.S., & Wilson, G.T. (2008). Weight gain, dietary restraint, and disordered eating in the freshman year of college. Eating Behaviors 9, 82–90.
Graham, M.A., & Jones A.L. (2002). Freshman 15: Valid theory or harmful myth? Journal of American College Health, 50, 171-173.