This article is written in response to Alexandra Baff’s op-ed, “The very real consequence of student life – ‘fat fresher’ syndrome”. Although I agree that we should encourage students to nourish themselves, as such choices can have hugely positive impacts on mental health, student performance, and general life activities, the encouragement to eat well should never be tied to a condemnation of sudden weight gain.
My issue with Ms Baff’s article is not her inherent message – healthy eating is a worthy goal and one that should certainly be encouraged – but I struggle with the implication that the only aim of such nourishment is weight-loss. She mentions a “number of pitfalls which can have long-lasting consequences for your health”, but the only consequence mentioned is weight-gain. Surely the benefits of healthy eating; improved mental health, avoiding disease, physical energy, boosted immune system, and general self-care, are far more important than fulfilling some warped concept of appropriate weight gain/loss? For example, the Bioactive Botanical Research laboratory have found that, for disease prevention, “berries of all colours” are “champions” of damage repair in cells. A review in Nutritional Neuroscience suggests that a plant-based diet could present “a non-invasive, natural and inexpensive therapeutic means to support a healthy brain”, even cutting the odds of developing depression. Ginger has a measurable impact on menstrual health, and can be used in conjunction with traditional medicine to ease headaches. Eating well on a budget is something that can be incorporated, too. I would highly recommend Miguel Barclay’s ‘One Pound Meal’ series, particularly the ‘Fast and Fresh’ edition. He cooks creative meals on a careful budget using fresh ingredients, and the meals aren’t difficult or labour intensive. Fresh food has healing properties, and should be accessible to all – shouldn’t that be the true focus of any conversation about a healthy diet?
Slenderness is not an obvious indicator of health. Some individuals can, through the iniquities of metabolism, remain the same weight throughout university even if they are ‘grabbing kebabs’ on the way home. As John Mulaney quips, in college, he lived like “a goddamn Ninja Turtle. I didn’t drink water the entire time”. Friends of mine consider Magic Stars and a bacon roll from the South Street vending machine to be a well-rounded breakfast, and somehow still seem to get most of their vitamins. Are they dehydrated? Absolutely. But a low weight is not a clear measure of a good diet. Budget, too, is an enormous consideration. Fresh food is on average, much more expensive, and although eating well on a budget is absolutely a possibility, it takes a lot of thinking ahead, and an individual’s diet should never be used as a moral diagnosis.
Most seriously, a percentage of freshman and university students face the obsessive agonies of an eating disorder, of body dysmorphia and restrictive eating, and the insinuation that students are “unwilling” to eat healthily due to a perceived lack of discipline or knowledge is simply untrue. An eating disorder is an unimaginably difficult reality, and sensationalised phrases such as the ‘Fresher’s 15’, ‘Fat Fresher Syndrome’, ‘Fresher’s Spread’ etc, especially in congruence with the complications of dining hall eating, the responsibilities of cooking your own food, and fast-food options, can unearth awful trauma. I am deeply discomfited by the language used to describe weight gain in freshman year – it is not a “plague”, we do not need to talk about “prevention” and “cure”. Gaining a stone is not a nightmarish failure. Weight gain is not a pernicious evil. Ms Baff’s language is indeed “derogatory and cruel” – healthy eating should not be used as a tool to shame weight-gain under a veiled ‘concern for health’. The anonymous writer, ‘Your Fat Friend’, points out that weight gain is not necessarily “a sign of neglect”, or “some evaded moral duty to shrink ourselves endlessly”. Eating is indeed “something that we all have to do”, and it is utterly paramount that we stop moralising it.
To the freshman of this university, please do not equate your weight with your worth. The transition to university is a difficult one. Give yourself grace when you look in the mirror. Your value is not subject to your appearance. You are always worthy of nourishment; intellectual, emotional, nutritional. Eat well because your body deserves care, not because you need to fit into an idea of appropriate living, or to remain a certain size. Eat well because it’s fun, a skill for life, something to bond over, to share with your friends and family. You do not exist to decorate the worlds of other people. Healthy eating is a fantastic habit, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Get cooking, but do it kindly.