Why I Told My Students That the “Freshman Fifteen” is Bullshit

I should emphasize something: I rarely swear in my classes. Sure, I often teach Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” during the first week of my composition courses, and plenty of the readings I assign have their share of “bad words.” As a lecturer, though, I rarely utter anything worse than crap, hell, or piss. I teach at a Christian university; swearing in the classroom isn’t forbidden or anything, but it’s not the norm.

Last week, though, I gave in.

Some background information: My courses right now are made up entirely of freshmen. I teach three sections of composition and one section of what is essentially a year-long freshman orientation course. Last week during our orientation class, we were supposed to talk about the results of our Strengthsfinder tests, and eventually we got to that…but first the subject of weight loss came up. Suddenly my students were talking about working out to lose weight, insinuating that all weight loss is good no matter what, and even going so far as to start pointing out specific bodily features that they wanted to change about themselves.

I had to say something. And that something ended up being this: “Listen. Please, I’m telling you, do NOT give into the Freshman Fifteen bullshit. And that’s what it is, by the way. It’s absolute bullshit.”

The idea of the “Freshman Fifteen” has been heavy on my mind for a few weeks. In a large-format orientation session last week, a student advertised our wellness center with a statement along the lines of, “No one wants to gain the Freshman Fifteen!” Unfortunately, the pitch for the wellness center conflated weight gain with something terrible and weight loss with getting healthy. I hear the phrase thrown around without second thought by students. Ads have started showing up in the university’s bathroom stall bulletins advertising fitness classes to help you “Avoid the Freshman 15!” The ads use the stupid tagline, “Sweat is fat crying,” but that’s not nearly as problematic to me as the fact that they are marketing weight loss to eighteen-year-olds. Not health, not strength building, not healthy eating habits, not the benefits of exercise. This is advertising weight loss, or at the very least, the avoidance of weight gain.

Well, then, why shouldn’t we market weight loss to eighteen-year-olds? Aside from the fact that the “Freshman Fifteen” is itself a myth, here are the reasons we shouldn’t be telling freshmen that they need to lose weight or avoid gaining it.

First of all, some studies are finding that significant weight loss is not exactly a reasonable goal for the vast majority of people, and some people have compellingly argued that the sale of weight loss is inherently unethical.

Second, eighteen-year-olds are still growing. It’s perfectly normal for them to gain weight because, you know, BODIES GROW. Trying to convince teenagers that they are always supposed to keep the same body shape is absurd. Even the thinnest, most fit adult woman isn’t going to have the same body she did when she was fifteen or sixteen. That’s just not how human development works.

Third, college freshman are extremely susceptible to developing eating disorders. Why would we want to encourage the idea that weight loss? Some depressing statistics for you:

  • 15% of women 17 to 24 have eating disorders
  • 40% of female college students have eating disorders
  • 91% of female college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting

I asked a friend to share with me her story of how the Freshman 15 mentality caused her damage as a college student. This is what she offered to share with my readers, and I really appreciate her vulnerability:

I’ve struggled with body image my whole life – even now, in my thirties. I recently came to the conclusion that I’ll never fully shake these issues, though they’re mostly under control for the time being.

 However, the first time this physically manifested was freshman year of college. I went from a small farm town to a university in a major city – in fact, out of my 33 senior classmates, I was going the furthest away. I was excited about the transition, but had been warned by what seemed like everyone – friends, other adults, my mother – about the telltale “freshman fifteen.”

I’m a worrier at heart and this did me no good at all. I loved school: my roommate and I quickly became close friends (and still are to this day), my classes were interesting and challenging, and my boyfriend attended another college in the city so we saw each other every weekend. But still, I worried about gaining that weight, and so much was new to me, I strove for things I could control. Like my grades. And my eating.

I began consuming very little on the weekdays: no breakfast, a cup of soup at lunch and Cheerios for dinner. People commented on how they never saw me eat much, and I’ve always been self-conscious about eating in front of others anyway. On weekends, I ate more normally (usually junk food but hey, I was a college freshman and my boyfriend lived with three other guys. That’s what we could afford and what was available).

I dropped weight. A lot of weight. I look very small in pictures from that first semester. My mom praised how good I looked at first (she’s also struggled with food issues her whole life), but then became worried when I mistakenly told her that I’d only had orange juice for dinner. At the holidays, my aunt, a former nurse, told my mom, “She needs to gain weight. She’s lost too much.” It’s the first and only time someone’s told me to gain weight.

Thanks to the encouragement of my boyfriend (“Can you eat more, please? You always look so hungry. I’m worried.”), I ate more normally my second semester. However, I gained weight junior year and was shamed by my mother until I lost it. I struggled with bulimia in my early twenties (only stopped when my best friend threatened to tell my parents) and as an adult, have had my share of weight anxiety. I still prefer to eat alone. Right now, I’m agonizing over whether to eat an egg sandwich from Starbucks or go carbless yet another day.

The sad thing is, I grew an inch freshman year of college – my body was still changing. I’m sure I damaged my metabolism, and I probably continue to do so. I just wish I hadn’t heard so many freshman fifteen horror stories. Until many years later, I didn’t realize how damaging it was.

This is why the Freshman Fifteen idea is damaging. Those of us in positions of authority at universities should do what we can to challenge this idea for as long as it remains the cultural norm at American universities.

This post originally appeared on my blog, Liz Boltz Ranfeld, where I write about living and parenting as a liberal feminist Christian. 


3 replies on “Why I Told My Students That the “Freshman Fifteen” is Bullshit”

Thanks for this. I can also relate. My weight issues started as early as middle school and over a boy, of all reasons. I used unhealthy methods to drop the weight and of course was complimented by all around me when I dropped it, but then tut-tutted by my mom whenever I gained the weight back. Its been years of fluctuating weight (even while going to the gym as I was not practicing healthy eating habits) up until recently where now I’ve got the exercise stuff down but am only now getting the hang of eating healthy and trying (really trying) not to berate myself for not looking like the women on TV who probably have nutritionists and personal trainers standing behind them with whips and tape measures.

I just wanted to say I love this article. I too teach/work at a university and the students in first and second year are just dealing with SO much: being away from home for the first time, financial responsibility, living with people who aren’t their family. The late teens and early twenties are also a very very common time for mental illnesses to either manifest or for people to be diagnosed. Amid this upheaval, we still have to teach students and prepare them for their next stages of life. With all that in mind, WHY do organizations at universities promote this garbage about the Freshmen 15?! In my mind, my students have enough on their plate (sorry for the pun) as is.

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