If you’re anything like me, your freshman year consisted of trying (and failing) to be an adult, solely relying on your meal plan for food and worrying about the infamous “Freshman 15.” You know, that nasty idea that you’ll gain fifteen pounds in your first year of college. Urban Dictionary’s top definition for it is particularly lovely: “When a first-year college student (usually a female) eats a ton and precedes to sit on her ass and gain 15 lbs.” By the way, thinking of weight gain as solely a woman’s concern isn’t only sexist, but it’s not supported by data. A 2019 study by Brock University found that weight gain was actually greater for their male participants.
Let’s just say it: the “Freshman 15” is a shallow way to make young adults feel bad about their bodies that is totally reliant on the fatphobia running rampant in our society. Graham and Jones (2010) found that while there was no significant weight gain in their sample to support the Freshman 15, the myth itself did “play an important role in perpetuating negative attitudes toward weight.” Specifically, the participants in this study who worried about the freshman 15 were “more likely to score higher on the EAT scale,” a self-report measure used in the psychology field to screen for eating disorders.
A score that is high on the Eating Attitudes Test is deemed to be concerning and that a myth might be pushing college students closer to disordered eating is something to be taken very seriously. The reality is that studies have found differing results when it comes to measuring weight gain and loss in first-year college students. A meta-analysis conducted by Vadeboncoeur, Townsend & Foster in 2015 found that “first-year university students on average gained 1.36 kg (3lbs)… over a period of 6 weeks to eight months.” Undoubtedly, this is a statistically significant gain that we should take into account when we talk about student life. Yet, it’s also worth emphasizing that it isn’t the legendary 15 pounds the myth tries to scare you with.
During my first year at college, I gained visible weight. I’ve always been on the slimmer side, and I’d be lying if I said that seeing those extra pounds didn’t push me into disordered eating. But the truth is my freshman weight gain wasn’t a result of unhealthy habits. Contrary to what pop culture might have you believe about weight gain, I was eating well-rounded meals and prioritizing exercise in a way I never had in high school. A check-up with my doctor and some bloodwork confirmed I was definitely healthy.
I know what you’re thinking: but you gained weight! And my response is that just like how your GPA isn’t always a good measure of your learning, your weight isn’t the perfect measure of your health, it has never been. We confuse our internalized fatphobia with a concern for health too often, and it’s worth it to check-in with ourselves about how we talk about weight. If you’re jumping to call a stranger unhealthy because of their weight, even when you know nothing about their lifestyle, examine why it is you feel that compulsion. If you’re agonizing over how you look with an extra few pounds on you, think critically about why that is. Do you really care about your waist being a little less slim, or have you been conditioned to associate fatter bodies with ugliness and slimmer ones with beauty?
We need to stop talking about the Freshman 15 myth because, in doing so, we are continuing a long, ugly tradition of equating weight with worth and that has real-life risks associated with it. Any changes in your weight during your first year of college is more reflective of the fact you’re going through a transitional time in your life than your worth as a person or your level of attractiveness. If you gain some weight, it won’t be the end of the world, and if you notice the numbers on the scale going up, you should practice empathy for yourself first and go in for a check-up instead of restricting what you eat.