Incoming university students are susceptible to gain weight, due to the change in lifestyle that university precipitates, such as diet modification, lack of exercise, stress, and alcohol consumption. But, the infamous ‘Freshman 15’ are more of a playful alliteration than a representation of reality. According to National Center for Biotechnology Information, only 50 per cent of students gain weight during their first years, and even then, they only gain about 2.7 lbs on average. Nevertheless, the myth persists within contemporary culture and has many tangible consequences on first-year students.
The idea of the Freshman 15 is so entrenched in popular culture that most students have heard of the phenomenon far before they’ve even begun to think about university. In movies and TV shows, first-year weight gain is a recurring gag. For example, on the hit television show Gilmore Girls, as the protagonist Rory Gilmore prepares to leave for university at Yale, her family jokes about her possible weight gain.
Catherine Dillman, U1 Arts, notes that the idea of weight gain isn’t always threatening until students begin to receive personal warnings about it. When friends and family offered her advice about life at university, many cautioned her to be wary of weight gain, and others even deemed it unavoidable.
“[I was told to] beware of the Freshman 15,” Dillman said. “‘Make sure you exercise, make sure you eat well’, but I would also [hear] that it’s inevitable, there’s nothing you can do about it. The food the [cafeteria] offers isn’t very healthy, but because we’re aware of it, you always want to try to eat healthier, [especially with] the […] pressure of everyone talking about the Freshman 15.”
While trying to stay healthy is wise, weight is an unreliable indicator of overall health. Research suggests that half of ‘overweight’ people are actually metabolically healthy, while a quarter of those considered ‘slim’ have two or more cardiovascular risk factors. However, for many students like Dillman, weight is often the only quantifiable measure of health that they have access to, and its importance, in turn, is overstated. Consequently, weight gain is concerning for many students because so much of self-esteem can come from body image.
Fortunately for some, the Freshman 15 puts a healthy amount of pressure on them to pay attention to their nutrition. Adin Chan, U0 Arts, explained that, while his family did express concerns for him to eat healthily, he was not worried about weight gain. He views gaining weight as inconsequential, rather than shameful.
“My family was just worried that I wouldn’t eat vegetables, not so much gaining weight, [and personally] I would not be concerned.” Chan said.
The opposite is true for many femme-identifying first-years, who express far more concern for their weight. For them, ‘getting fat’ is emblematic of straying from an ideal body type. Lena Kozarov, U0 Science, and her friends discussed their fears of gaining weight before leaving for university, a fear which she attributes to social media. Kozarov views the constant digital onslaught of perfectly-edited images as partially responsible for female insecurities because they set standards that are impossible for university-aged students to attain.
“Me and my friends from high school would […] be like, ‘Oh, Freshman 15, you gotta be careful, you gotta watch out,’” Kozarov said. “No matter how healthy you eat, no matter how much you work out, that comparison [to those on social media] is always in the back of your head, like, ‘I could be doing better.’”
First year is hard for everyone, and the constant fear of weight gain, whether placed upon students by well-meaning family members or gleaned from popular culture, only makes the transition to university harder. The Freshman 15, though grossly overstated, is not in itself a bad thing—it is reflective of the problematic stigma of weight gain. Though it can help to encourage healthier eating habits, more often than not it leads to feelings of inadequacy and shame and could even push students to develop unhealthy relationships with their bodies. The most stressful thing about first year should be midterms and exams, not worrying about a number on a scale.