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Gaining and Surviving the Freshman Fifteen

Is the title sarcastic? Of course it is. Of course gaining some weight at the beginning of college is no big deal. But we as a society demonize this extra weight, shaming teens (particularly girls) for the way that their bodies change, for their health and their altered appearances. If you haven’t heard, the “freshman fifteen” refers to extra weight college students put on during their first year. It sits on the assumption that this weight is visible and noticeable - and, well, a problem. The pounds are credited to students eating junk food and partying - basically, surrendering to the college lifestyle. In reality, the new emotions and anxiety that come with the territory of an enormous life change creates a new routine - which includes changes in diet and exercise. But to young college students who have suffered from food-restrictive eating disorders and/or body dysmorphia, the idea of gaining weight is incredibly scary, and one that can take over their mindset during freshman year.

As someone who fought disordered eating in high school (baggage for another time), I was terrified to gain the freshman fifteen in college. Home was where I had control - specifically, control of what I ate and when I worked out. I promised myself profusely that I would continue my routine in college and not succumb to gaining weight. I always made it a priority to find out where the gyms were and where to find healthy food on each campus I visited. Upon committing to a school that is notoriously cold, I immediately researched workout video subscriptions so that I wouldn’t have to go to the gym in the snow. This is not to say that my care for health and wellness was bad - but fearing physical differences in a time when I should have been excited for a life change certainly was! 

Since I was about fourteen I’ve been fascinated by the idea of “body positivity,” and have tried to practice it. Over the years, I’ve tried to improve my body positivity through feminism - but still I found difficulty extending it to myself. I would say “all bodies are beautiful” but at the end of the day I would hate my own if I saw a little dimple of cellulite. I’d know that the standards I aimed for were unattainable a lot of the time, but I wanted them anyway. I said I wanted to be the best version of myself, but I really meant the conventional hottest. 

Countless health and wellness organizations advertise ways to “beat” the freshman fifteen, as I discovered throughout high school. I’ve heard countless parents talk about who gained the fifteen and who “got fat” while they were away. And as I finished my senior year, the talk of gaining weight came around to me, almost always unsolicited. An older boy who was in college at the time warned me not to “get fat, because so many of the girls I know who go to your school did”. A family member told me to keep up my routine because he knows “what happens in college” and tapped his stomach. Given my previous relationship with food, this made me a bit anxious. I felt like an outsider because I thought no one else had this fear. I didn’t want to be a downer by talking to anyone about it, especially because I am not overweight. 

Going away to school was a liberating experience, as I think it is for most people. And, yes, I gained some weight. It was enough to lose in a few months, but also enough to make me feel as though I looked completely different. At first, it was terrifying. I know I’m dramatic, but I would get extremely anxious before going out, and I tried to only wear baggy clothes (not an irregular thing for me, but still). I’d compare the attention I got from boys to the attention from boys I got before - did they even notice? Did they care? Was I fat now? This is toxic, of course, but I couldn’t help it - especially with boys who knew me before I gained the weight. I became sad and tired all the time, and felt ashamed of anyone even seeing my face. 

I started to sit with my body without working out or dieting. I sat with it during Mayfest, when I wore a crop top and was convinced that everyone around me was thinking about my chubby stomach. I sat with it in the beginning of the summer, when I saw my friends from high school and didn’t know if they noticed or not. I had lost control of my obsession with working out and dieting, and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go from there. I didn’t really know who I was without my old habits. But then I started to think about it less and less...until I started to feel more like myself and not just an embodiment of the freshman fifteen. There I was, looking the way I had been afraid to look for all of high school, but after a few months, it felt... alright. It allowed me to look into myself beyond health and fitness. I had to look within myself for what I was truly proud of - my creativity, my kindness, my sense of humor. That’s not to say that my body was not worth being proud of, but I couldn’t find it in myself to feel that way. I came to realize how my interest in health was partially rooted in the same ideals that led me to my eating problems. I started to practice body acceptance, which, to me, meant that even if I didn’t love the way I looked, it was the way I looked and that’s okay. The more I celebrated the aspects of myself that weren’t related to my body, the more I could accept and celebrate my body for allowing me to be me. 

Realizing how fragile my confidence was changed my approach to health. I understand it as a hobby of mine, and I understand it makes me feel good. But if the only thing keeping me confident is having abs and a muscular butt, is it really confidence at all? I try harder now not to only be proud of the physical outcomes of working out, but also of my determination and my drive. I also try not to define myself by the food I eat and the amount of times I work out in a week. I’d be lying if I said I’m an expert at this, but I try every day to improve my mindset. 

Nevertheless, I have to admit that I was too nervous to write this before I began to lose weight. I told myself that it was only temporary and that once I got fit again I could just pretend it never happened. But as I returned to working out, I found myself wondering if anyone else felt the same way I did. I wish I could have told myself before my freshman year that I’d be okay if I gained weight. That there’s so much more to me than my body. That I’d still be me on the inside. 

That I could still love myself if I tried. 

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