September 22, 2019 | 69° F

COUTO: ‘Freshman 15’ myth is outdated concept

Opinions Column: Through the Looking Glass


Even though today’s social media platforms are filled with content that promotes body positivity, the same cannot be said for college campuses across the nation. For example: the idea of the "freshman 15." As a graduating senior in high school, I was both excited and anxious at the prospect of starting college and preparing for this next phase in my life. I spent hours researching all of my academic options, reading about different professors and devising lists of residence hall essentials. But there is one thing that repeatedly kept coming up in my research: the dreaded "freshman 15" and how to avoid it. YouTubers that I admired and looked up to at the time who dedicated entire digital series to college-related advice would have at least one video in which they detailed their “weight-loss journey” after packing on the pounds their first year at university. 

Interestingly, the first article to reference the "freshman 15” appeared in an issue of Seventeen magazine as early as 1989. “Before that, the only medical research to mention first-year weight-gain was a 1985 Addictive Behavior study in which the subjects gained an average of just 8.8 pounds. From there, references to the phenomenon bounced around in articles in 'Shape' and 'American Cheerleader,' few of which consulted experts. As more and more magazines and newspapers covered the trend, they neglected to mention that it was scientifically unsubstantiated, as University of Oklahoma Library Sciences professor Cecelia Brown found in a 2008 review."

Even though this is not the case for all first-year students by any means, I know that personally the "freshman 15" is something that had a very negative impact on my first semester at college. I got sucked down the rabbit hole that is the internet the summer after graduating high school, and with that I stumbled upon several articles and watched an arguably unhealthy amount of YouTube videos on how to avoid gaining weight in college. This led me to restricting my calories and visiting the gym obsessively during my first semester, opting to exclude myself from certain social activities for fear that I would not be able to resist the extra-cheesy pizza and fudge-laden brownies offered at almost every event on a college campus. I quickly became depressed and socially isolated all because our culture promotes this idea that weight gain is shameful and indicates a lack of self-control. I wish someone had told me at the time that, while “it’s of course good to exercise and use portion control,” most “students will probably not gain 15 pounds. They will gain, research shows, just 2.5 to 6.” Moreover, according to a study conducted in 2011, “the most significant factor that actually contributes to college weight-gain” is the consumption of alcohol. This study “found that having six or more drinks on at least four days per month was the only thing that made a significant difference when it came to keeping one’s high-school figure.” In other words, a young adult’s typical aversion to vegetables has little to do with college weight-gain, contrary to what I believed as I stuffed my face with salads that first semester. And if that is not enough, it has been found that this increase in weight is in fact “a natural part of adulthood, not something unique to dorms and dining halls. College freshmen gain just half a pound more than people their age who don’t attend college.” 

I sincerely hope that with the recent surge in the body positivity movement, the concept of the "freshman 15" will eventually cease to exist. So what if you gain a few pounds in college? If those love handles and expanded waistlines are the result of memorable nights shared with new friends over greasy french fries and gooey chocolate chip cookies, why does that have to be such a terrible thing? I propose that we, as current college students and future leaders, take a stand to end the stigma around weight-gain and fat shaming. The "freshman 15" is an outdated and unhealthy concept looming over the heads of many college students, all of which would be better off without the added and unnecessary pressure to keep the number on the scale below a specific amount.  We as a society need to accept that weight fluctuations are a perfectly normal part of the human experience, particularly when going through major transitions, such as moving out of your parents’ house for the first time and learning to navigate the world as an independent adult — one who eventually learns to make sensible food choices. But in the meantime, let us enjoy the few years we have left as students and all the calorie-dense, occasional free food that comes along with it. 

Ana Couto is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English and journalism and media studies. Her column, "Through the Looking Glass," runs on alternate Mondays.


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Ana Couto

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