Fearing the freshman 15: Confronting body image issues and eating disorders in college

eating disorders
Samantha Patten/Staff

Content warning: anorexia, eating disorders.

T
he freshman 15. We throw the term around casually, as a motivation to hit the gym or as a resigned excuse for late-night indulgences at Yogurt Park. In meme pages, casual conversation, pop culture and the like — it seems the pesky term is an undying characterization of the college experience.

But is it harmful that this term is so thoughtlessly inserted in our vocabulary?

The first time I heard about the “freshman 15,” I was a freshman myself — in high school. My classmate, a senior, was detailing her friends’ plans to adhere strictly to clean eating before even entering college as a preventative measure.

At that time, I myself was in the midst of an intensive diet campaign, so even though the phenomenon would not be relevant to me for another four years, I grew concerned about the idea of dining halls and the freedom of the college experience.

With it being many students’ first time away from home, eating different food, enjoying late-night snacks in the residence halls with new friends, it’s normal for maturing bodies to change and for body weight to naturally fluctuate. Despite the term’s lasting relevance, however, studies show that college freshmen, on average, gain only about 2 ½ to 3 ½ pounds in their first academic year.

In fact, it’s certainly possible to not gain any weight at all during the first year of college. The myth of the “freshman 15” can assign fear — fear that’s largely irrational — to what should be considered an exciting period of personal growth and transition.

Although it seems like an eternity away from the present, not too long ago, a significant part of my excitement for college stemmed from my disordered mindset. Outweighing the opportunities to meet friends, experience quasi-independence and build a new life for myself was the alluring new freedom I would have regarding my dietary behavior.

I dreamed about how I would be free to eat however much — or rather, little, I wanted to in college. I thought wistfully about how exciting it would be to have a gym on campus, ready for me to overexercise in at any time. These thoughts seem ridiculous to me now, but they came from a disordered frame of logic.

Freshman year of college is one of the most common times for individuals to develop eating disorders or disordered eating behaviors. New students are thrown into a completely different environment, one that presents unfamiliar academic and social challenges. Especially amid such a high-performing student body here at UC Berkeley, it’s easy to begin to feel lost and out of control.

Faced with so many overwhelming and dramatic changes, individuals may turn to eating habits and weight management as a method to acquire a sense of control.

For those already at risk, this can be the perfect catalyst for disordered eating to appear and persist. Faced with so many overwhelming and dramatic changes, individuals may turn to eating habits and weight management as a method to acquire a sense of control. And when living in residence halls, parental attention diminishes, so warning signs of disorders can go unnoticed until conditions become more serious.

While it is important to be cognizant of health and nutrition, the prevalence of eating disorders among college students suggests that the conversation around weight needs to extend beyond the aesthetic concern of increasing a dress size or two. Weight gain should be considered in the context of one’s comprehensive mental and physical well-being, as shifts in weight can carry broader implications beyond simply a change to external appearance. We can also shift our mindset to be more aware of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors.

But eating disorders can be tricky from the view of a bystander, especially because eating disorders look different for each person. Just because a person does not exhibit all of the signs of anorexia or bulimia does not mean they are in a healthy mindset regarding food. People who look physically normal can be hiding a wealth of disordered behaviors.

Even if conditions do not reach a point of critical concern, this diet culture and fear of weight gain can lead to a degradation of body image. The environment at UC Berkeley often fosters a mindset of perfectionism, and these unattainable ideals can easily extend from academics and extracurriculars to the way we see ourselves.

Fortunately for me, the disordered expectations I held for my freshman year could not be any more different from my current reality.

A week before move-in day, I deleted my calorie-counting app. I have not stepped on a scale in almost two months. I know that last detail might not seem like much, but this is the longest time frame in which I have not weighed myself in more than four years.

The environment at UC Berkeley often fosters a mindset of perfectionism, and these unattainable ideals can easily extend from academics and extracurriculars to the way we see ourselves.

Of course, this development could not happen overnight. My relationship with food and how I see myself has been a long and dynamic journey that is ongoing. While my experience with restoring healthy eating behavior is not universal —everyone is different — I can say with full confidence that recovery is the route to freedom.

There are the major benefits, of course, such as the ability to enjoy meals with loved ones, to not be perpetually hungry, to not spend all hours of the day shivering and lethargic. But there are also little gems that come with recovery, like accepting a chocolate bar from my friend after math lecture last week without a second thought.

So, while I don’t believe the “freshman 15” is a term we need to completely eradicate from our vocabulary, I do encourage freshman and anyone else who struggles with body image issues to shift their perspective to one that prioritizes health and nourishment.

Take note of the way you see and treat your body. Be a listener and supporter to friends who struggle with body image and disordered eating behavior. Above all else, seek help if you find yourself in a dangerous state of mind.

Your body works to give you energy, to transport you through your day, to fight your illnesses and to power you through those midterms. Show your body some love in return.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected]