I would love to meet a college-aged woman (or any woman for that matter) who has never felt anything but completely confident in and satisfied with her body.
I would immediately venerate at her feet since the idea of making it through a couple decades in a society that bombards women with unattainable images of beauty, socializes us to believe our worth as women are intimately tied to our physical appearance, and associates being a “good” person generally (and a good woman specifically) with our “health” (weight) suggests an otherworldly knowledge I can only hope to acquire.
I am no stranger to this struggle: I’ve battled with negative body image for years (damn you, puberty, and your ability to make my eternal love of desserts fraught with neurosis) and I am certain my experience has been the norm rather than the exception. Our relationships with our bodies have a great power over us, and I don’t think even we understand the full extent of it.
We use our bodies to project an image of who we want to be into the world and the way that people react to our bodies hugely defines how we in turn feel about ourselves. So when the older friends and adults in my life started warning me about the “Freshman 15”, I was of course thrilled at the prospect of dealing with another source of body-related stress – especially during a time in which my entire self-conception was in flux.
While there are a lot of crazy, scare-mongering myths floating around about the Freshman 15, there’s just one thing you need to know: it’s actually complete and utter bullshit.
I’ll level with you: There is truth to the idea that your body may very well change your freshman year.In fact, a 2011 study revealed that while the average woman does gain about 3.1 pounds her freshman year, 25% of freshmen actually lose weight and plenty won’t notice a change in their weight at all. In actuality, just under 10% of college freshmen actually do gain 15 pounds or more.
But beyond being factually inaccurate, the “Freshman 15” is also damaging in that it encourages women to compare their bodies to overarching norms and expectations. Instead of trying to avoid weight gain or achieve a certain body type, it’s far healthier to focus on maintaining a general feeling about your body that’s right for you as an individual.
Of course, that’s far easier said than done. In reality, freshman year is a time of serious life changes that undoubtedly extend to your body. For example, food can seem like an obvious way to gain comfort and/or control over an otherwise uncomfortable, seemingly uncontrollable transition. Plenty of young women navigate the dining hall from an emotional perspective rather than from one of hunger or health. Others forgo the dining hall altogether in an attempt to feel in control of an otherwise hectic existence. But the truth is that at the end of the day, neither is an effective way to deal with your feelings.
This is the problem with “conversations” about the Freshman 15 and body image in college generally: they essentially amount to women being unilaterally bombarded with strategies about how to eat to produce the “best” (i.e. thinnest) bodies instead of acknowledging that there are emotional, psychological, social, biological, etc. causes behind the way in which women inhabit their bodies at any point in their lives, but especially during a particularly challenging transition like freshman year.
So screw tips about how to simply avoid gaining weight and consider these (feminist-friendly) tips instead:
1. Be gentle with yourself: Accept that your body may very well change during your freshman year – and if it does, the world as you know it won’t implode. Focus on eating in a way that makes you feel healthy and whole, beyond any kind of number on a scale.
2. Everything in moderation: It’s really (more than) okay to enjoy your life, and that can often mean indulging in things that aren’t necessarily “healthy” for you. Have that late night piece of pizza with your friends. Have cake on your roommate’s birthday. Try to live your life free from a model of deprivation or over-indulgence and know that if you feel compelled to err towards either there may be deeper emotional issues at the root of those impulses. Addressing those issues so that you feel like the best possible version of yourself – one that can embrace the education you’re at college to receive in the first place – should be the priority, not obsessing about your weight.
3. Pass it on: We undoubtedly live in a culture that pits women against each other and encourages us to compete for supposedly limited resources for success. But, in actuality, some of the best community service college women can do is to admit to struggling – whether with their body image or any challenge they’re facing. Doing so makes it safe for others to do the same. At the end of the day, we’ll all feel better about the challenges we face if we know we’re not in it alone and that we have people we can call on for support.
At the end of the day, remember that we’re all human and we’re all doing the best we can. All (human) women struggle with these issues. But we can make it a little easier on ourselves by remembering not to hold ourselves or other women to these standards and to offer support instead.