The Freshman 15, sometimes put under the ominous-sounding umbrella of the Fat Fresher Syndrome, is a concept that’s been thrown about across generations. It rests on the premise that first-year students gain weight – 15 pounds, to be specific.
Although the 15-pound figure is much contested, changes in physique at university are likely and, of course, entirely understandable. Upon arriving at their respective destinations, fledgling students have to cope with a major influx of change, be that in the form of a new city, new friends or even a new sense of personal identity. In most cases, the inevitable by-products of this novelty are eating less healthily, doing less exercise and drinking more alcohol.
Unfortunately, it’s for this natural reaction that freshers are met by a wave of judgement and unwarranted advice. Tabloids, like Concrete Online, give impromptu rundowns on weight loss methods and the calorific values of various beverages; student newspapers, like Her Campus Newcastle, recommend swapping snacks for glasses of water; and even information-focused blogs, like Accommodation for Students, encourage students to ‘fight the bulge’ and mock them for ‘carrying more pounds than [they’re] spending’.
With eating disorders becoming more and more prevalent, such widespread and fatphobic discussion of young people’s bodies has great potential for harm.
A quick scroll through The Student Room is all you need to find an endless stream of freshers fretting about ‘ballooning’ at university. In one thread, a first-year worries about ‘turning into a whale’ and asks for the easiest way to lose weight. In another, a veteran student brags about how, to avoid gaining weight and over-spending, they stuck to a diet of ‘Diet Coke and Hobnobs’. The words ‘fatally’, ‘suffer’, ‘self-control’ and even ‘porker’ pop up a lot, as do the bizarrely battle-esque verbs ‘beating’, ‘avoiding’ and ‘dodging’.
It is easy to see how such seemingly light-hearted dialogue can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as skipping meals, compulsively exercising and fad dieting.
Of course, eating balanced, nutritious meals and staying hydrated has the potential to enhance both physical and emotional wellbeing. However, with medical organization Healthline placing stress as one of the top reasons for changes in body size and eating disorders having a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness, launching a mass media campaign about the size of young people’s bodies is, at best, ineffectual and, at worst, life-threatening.
And so, although it seems superfluous to ask that people treat others’ and, indeed, their own bodies with compassion, change in the social commentary surrounding weight fluctuation at university is clearly both dauntingly necessary and bafflingly overdue. The demonization of freshers’ weight gain, as a ‘syndrome’ that needs ‘escaping’, has and will cause more harm than good.